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August 9, 2009

An Ill-Considered "Suicide"?

I've been meaning to respond to John's thoughtful post in response to my ruminations on the failures of the old models supporting arts journalism and what lies ahead. Short response: I agree with everything John wrote, especially this:

The best critics are complicit with their readers, not snobbishly superior to them. The principal form of blogging on the arts is still the proffering of opinion, sometimes informed, sometimes irresponsible, but opinion (a review or review-ish commentary) nonetheless. People like to write their opinions and other people, depending on the writer, like to read them. Mostly, if you are any kind of informed reader, this has to do with seeking out a countervailing opinion to one you already hold. It's a conversation, even if the reader traditionally could not engage the critic in an electronic conversation, and the critic would not have had the time to respond to all those readers, anyhow.

I sometimes (okay, more than sometimes) forget in all this discussion about the future of arts journalism and the difficulties of the present that I need to keep reiterating my baseline beliefs. I grew up a news junkie. I have sought out and eagerly consumed arts journalism since I was a kid. I believe that a well-articulated critical response to a work of art is art itself and can be intensely inspirational. As a writer of reviews myself I know the rush of that moment when you feel you've cracked the code of understanding and believe you've figured out how to express it. I love reviews. And, like John, I've tended to be hostile to know-nothing editors who fail to appreciate that reviews are the bedrock of good cultural coverage.

Also, let me stipulate now and for evermore that I believe that the knowledgeable, well considered expert critic is a gift. We need to seek out and find those who have a talent for critical thought and the expression of it and elevate them in discussions of art. Double stipulate.


When, in writing about the failures of journalism (and specifically arts journalism) to evolve, I wrote that one of the reasons for this was that "the traditional emphasis on the review as the primary form is suicide,"I should have qualified the statement. What I meant is that far too many newspapers have thrown up rote "reviewing" of the basic local arts institutions rather than thoughtful "criticism" of local culture, and called it a day. The failure to put the arts in larger context or explore beyond the obvious (a basic lack of curiosity?) does a disservice to the arts and to readers.

And where has there been experimentation in evolving the generic review to the next level? The written response can be magnificent, but is it truly perfection of the form? Maybe it is; I'd concede it might be. But shouldn't we be experimenting anyway, given that everything seems to be in flux right now?

As to the point about community arts and the failures of traditional arts journalism to cover some things well, if at all: I do think the resources devoted to dance criticism in this country have been woefully inadequate. Craft and architecture have been given short shrift in the traditional press. Book clubs, choruses, multi-cultural arts and festivals... we never did figure out how to cover them in interesting ways. Perhaps it's not surprising; many of these things don't lend themselves to the kinds of critical coverage we've practiced. But now that tyrannies of space and distribution have been largely rendered irrelevant, there may be opportunities to broaden the kinds of attention we pay. These things don't replace the expert critic, they're additive.

The bottom line is that I believe that there are many good things about traditional arts journalism. I happen to believe that we're not witnessing the death of arts journalism, but are in the middle of the reinvention of it into something that has the potential to be even better. For years many of us have been complaining that the arts haven't been accorded their proper place in American culture. As that culture is being turned on its head and reinvented, I think there's opportunity to reassert the place of art. Arts journalism ought to have a role in it.

August 9, 2009 4:43 PM | | Comments (0)

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