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July 24, 2008

The Artist As Critic/Critic As Artist? [updated]

Has everybody seen this post by Geoff Edgers, one of the best arts reporters in the country (he writes for the Boston Globe)?

So should a music critic allow an institution he covers to set his poems to music - and pay his expenses? I say not, as does the Boston Globe's ethics policy. The Boston Phoenix disagrees.

I raise this after reading these blog entries from Lloyd Schwartz, the alternative weekly's music critic. In them, he mentions the "delightful invitation from the Boston Symphony Orchestra" to have his poems set to music by the Tanglewood Music Center's composition fellows. Schwartz signed a contract with the BSO-run TMC, according to his blog ("The Tanglewood Music Center was actually paying me for my services"), and, in anticipation of his visit, noted that he would be staying for free at the Tanglewood guest house Seranak, the former home of legendary BSO music director Serge Koussevitzky. "I was even going to be reimbursed for my gas mileage!" Schwartz wrote.

Am I being too harsh in calling out Schwartz, who won a Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1994 and is also an accomplished poet?

Peter Kadzis, The Phoenix's editor doesn't see anything wrong with it, as he told Edgers:

Schwartz "works in the now waning tradition of artist/critic, not unlike Virgil Thomson. That the Tanglewood fellows would choose to set his poetry to music is a mark of distinction, not a compromise.
Journalistic ethics and all, yes. But it's more complicated than that. There is a long tradition of artist/critics, but not today. In fact, some papers like the New York Times as a matter of policy don't publish pieces by artists who also might be critics. Critics like Peter Plagens who was/is a working artist while a critic at Newsweek are rare.

I suppose the thinking is that artists who are trying to work are compromised because they might promote their own work.

But it seems to me there's something valuable lost by the artist ban. It's a missing perspective in the American press. In the UK it's not. There, artists are regularly invited onto the pages of leading newspapers to express opinions about issues or write about work. Nicholas Serota runs the Tate, and we all know he'll give the Tate point of view, but he is also an important voice who should be heard, and not just about issues that affect the Tate.

Dominic Dromgoole runs the Globe Theatre but has also been a prominent critic. Nicholas Kenyon ran the Proms but is also an engaging writer about music. Okay, so all three primarily make their livings in their art, but banishing them from the pages of newspapers would be a loss. And does anyone think that readers of their work will be tricked by some self-interest? Authors write about books all the time. John Updike is arguably a better essayist than novelist, but should he be disqualified from writing about novels? Outside the arts, Bill Kristol is a columnist for the New York Times while he reportedly continues to consult for members of the Bush administration. Is that a conflict?

If the Phoenix casts Lloyd Schwartz, who is a graceful and interesting writer about music (and he did win a Pulitzer), as an artist/critic, I think they're offering something different and potentially interesting. Do they need to make Schwartz's afilliations transparent? Absolutely. Should he be writing about the Boston Symphony? No, but Geoff's post didn't make clear whether he would be.

One thing is clear. As arts journalism becomes more and more a freelance profession, the lines of ethical conflict are going to get more and more tangled. Should the rules for critics, who, unlike reporters, are in the opinion business after all, be the same as for reporters who are not?

UPDATE: Schwartz has responded to Edgers' post here. And check out the comments to the original post here.
July 24, 2008 2:43 PM | | Comments (2)

2 Comments

Along similar lines, I've heard art critic Jerry Saltz several times quite sharply state that critics should never, ever, ever buy artwork for themselves (or, I imagine, have any sort of collection at all). This may satisfy the demands of his wife's employer (Roberta Smith works for the NYTimes), but contextually, I think it eliminates one of the best reasons for wanting to write about art in the first place--to develop a wide and interesting circle of creative acquaintances (and even good friends), a la Baudelaire, Mallarmee, et al.

If a friend spontaneously offers the gift of a painting, must you (as an art critic) necessarily turn it down? If the artist is already a friend, then the gift will have little if anything to do with any commentary you might write down the line...and if not (an unusual case), the critic's opinion of the work shouldn't be troubled anyway--if it's good, it's good, and if not, you just say thanks but no thanks.

The line is crossed when the critic demands work as a quid pro quo--but these instances are, I think rather few and far between, by far the exception rather than the rule. So why should someone who dedicates him/herself to studying and writing about the visual arts live in an environment bereft of them?

Hi Beth.

Opinions differ but agreement emerges in time. Everybody thinks critics can't ask artists for work. That might have been acceptable in the 1950s but even then, some artists resented it and so did critics who didn't ask, such as Fairfield Porter, who traded art with other artists, not being just a critic.

In the 1970s and even 1980s, many critics accepted gifts. The best didn't ask or imply they should get them, but accepted them. By the late 1980s, that was really out for any critic at a newspaper. Critics at magazines, such as Art in America, continued to accept gifts, mostly really little ones.

Now, in 2008, gifts are frowned on at newspapers and magazines. Even if the artist is a good friend, it's a bad idea. (Some say critics can't have artist friends, but screw them.)

Critics buying a little art here or there was fine in the 1990s as long as they paid full price. Now, there has been another shift. Many say it's not acceptable to buy art at all. Although a few years ago I would have said that's going too far, it now makes sense to me not to buy anything from an artist I might possibly review, which basically includes everybody.

I don't think it's corrupt to buy art and pay full price, but it has built-in problems. Is it worth it? All these changes are an attempt to be clean as possible. What seems fetistically clean in one era becomes the bare minimum in another.

You see the drift.

Regina Hackett, art critic, Seattle PI

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