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The "Death" of Professional Criticism

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http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-kaiser/the-death-of-criticism-or_b_1092125.html

This is a link to an article in the Huffington Post, in which the head of the Kennedy Center bemoans the death of professional arts criticism, and derides chat boards and blogs as legitimate sources of arts criticism. I thought this would be an interesting topic.

Personally, I think that some of the reviews and critiques I read on forums like this are often more insightful and detailed than the reviews of the "professional" critics. The style and quality of the writing may be more informal, but the content sometimes equals or exceeds that of the "professionals."

The thing that I do watch out for in evaluating the opinions expressed in such forums is whether the writer is friends with the dancer he is commenting about. That fact calls into question the objectivity of the writer.

Another issue with bloggers is that some obtain their tickets for free from the company, and fear that the company will cut off their privileges. Their reviews tend to paint an overly-rosy picture of a performance in order to ensure continued free ticket privileges.

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...

Another issue with bloggers is that some obtain their tickets for free from the company, and fear that the company will cut off their privileges. Their reviews tend to paint an overly-rosy picture of a performance in order to ensure continued free ticket privileges.

I thought this was the arrangement between presenters and "professional" critics. Their tickets are given to them, maybe in return for the publicity value of what they publish, whether the review is favorable or unfavorable. "There's no such thing as bad publicity." I'm not sure about that, but nobody will show up for your show if nobody knows about it. Did MCB get any notice in The New York Times while Kisselgoff was there? I think their Paris tour - three weeks! and solid repertory! - happened partly as a consequence of Macaulay's reviews.

But I'm gad to see somebody (else) pays some attention to Michael Kaiser's intelligent remarks - I usually find them provocative in the best sense, and often show the benefit of his decades of experience studying and advising arts-organization administration.

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That' s true Jack. Professional critics do get their tickets for free. However, I don't think any company would revoke the privileges of a professional critic, even if they dislike what the critic wrote. I think a blogger may be much more at the mercy of the kindness of the press office. In fact, it's my understanding that even companies that have given tickets to bloggers have more recently scaled back on free ticket privileges because they are losing too much money by giving away orchestra freebies to bloggers.

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There are professional critics such as Deborah Jowitt who have have parted ways with their publishers and are now only available to us through their blogs.

I have different expectations when reading blog posts I usually find posts that express the writer's immediate reactions to whatever they are discussing. When I read something by a professional critic, I expect a thoughtful analysis and background information and a higher quality of writing all the way around.

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Most organizations control who gets press tickets, and I doubt that major organizations would ever give press tickets to someone who writes anonymously. (One of the issues with reviews of goods and services on the internet is the number of sock puppet accounts created as PR for a restaurant, salon, etc. or to denigrate competition.) Presumably bloggers who get press tickets are vetted by the company. Surely critics like Tobi Tobias who currently blog most if not all of their reviews should get tickets because their criticism is valuable, as would Apollinaire Scherr, were she not also a critic for "Financial Times".

If organizations give press tickets to bloggers, the bloggers criticize, and the companies pull tickets, the blogger has a platform to "expose" the organization, and this will make Google alerts.

There's a theory that people appreciate free things less. However, getting press tickets doesn't always mean just getting good seats (or what the company thinks are good seats*) -- it can mean getting access to a critics' space and making connections. On the other hand, I can imagine that this can lead to major "How nice for you" snubs as well.

*I fully concede that sitting close allows critics to make ID's that they normally wouldn't be able to, even if they miss the patterns from above. I was sitting in the First Tier of McCaw Hall this past weekend, and over some patrons being seated, I missed the Second Stage fundraising appeal dancer introduce herself. I knew from the costume she was one of the two demis in "Baiser", which meant Amanda Clark or Carli Samuelson (that performance), but I was distracted for several minutes during the actual ballet trying to figure out which one she was. (This wouldn't have happened from my Row K seats Saturday night.)

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I don't think so-called "professional critics" are necessarily immune from desires to promote one dancer or company over another, or to advance an intellectual agenda (consciously or not), or from bias. I think bloggers promote and exemplify democracy; particularly in the arena of reviewing arts, this wide-spread dissemination of opinion enriches the reader's experience. Of course, paid-for bloggers or "reviewers" create a problem of reliability. Therefore, a healthy dose of skepticism is required.

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There are professional critics such as Deborah Jowitt who have have parted ways with their publishers and are now only available to us through their blogs.

Jowitt's situation is the exception, rather than the rule. I think Kaiser is referring to ordinary people who have never been compensated for or earned a living from writing arts reviews.

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Jowitt's situation is the exception, rather than the rule. I think Kaiser is referring to ordinary people who have never been compensated for or earned a living from writing arts reviews.

Jowitt's situation is becoming less and less of an exception.

I think Kaiser should have been specific, because there's already the perception that being paid to be the arts critic of a respected arts section or journal is the only way to be a critic. Many "critics" are actually reviewers, and they are like the early dance reviewers, critics of another art form enlisted to write about dance. In most city newspapers, especially with consolidation, the dance critic is a music, film, plastic arts, and/or theater critic, and maybe even a design and/or architecture critic who is expected to cover dance as well.

Does a critic in City A, who is neither trained in dance criticism or has a lot of experience watching dance, be taken more seriously than a dance student who has studied dance history or, for example, our own atm711, whose knowledge and experience spans decades? To beat a dead horse, am I going to take her opinion seriously, or the dance critic from the "Arizona Republic" who didn't have much use for "Giselle"? (In fairness, he's been doing his homework since then.)

Also, Mr. Kaiser may be complaining about his audience. For better or worse, he's got donors to subsidize an art form that for much of the audience is entertainment, even if it's high-brow entertainment, and there's a lot more competition for audience attention and $$$, especially in this economy.

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The "everyone's a critic" mentality that Kaiser mentions certainly does exist. A hazard of writing online is that there are so many voices it can be difficult to make oneself heard and also for readers to tell who really knows what he's talking about. The internet has provided opportunities for writers to be read, mostly unpaid, while the print publications that do pay their writers decent sums are slashing their arts coverage trying to compete with.......the internet. (See this old link here for a long discussion on the subject.)

Tobi Tobias has a blog. She has had a long and distinguished career writing about dance, but I don't know if she's still published in print somewhere. Anybody know?

Like Jowitt, Tobias lost her job as a staff critic and is in online exile. I post links to her blog.

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I think Kaiser's position is arrogant and insulting.

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After reading the linked reviews of BB's recent R&J performances, I was struck by two things:

1) The reviewers (despite writing for 3 different papers) appeared to copy each other in what they noticed and didn't notice--each devoted lots of paragraphs to costumes/sets/mise-en-scene, and especially Prokofiev's score and the merits of BB's orchestra's performance, and less to the dancers or choreography.

2) All three reviews also decried the lack of a 'reconciliation scene' as in the play--and were surprised the performance simply ended with the deaths of R&J.

So, all I could conclude was that the Boston papers had hired music critics to review the ballet and none of them had ever seen it performed before--though one had noted previous BB production's choreographers--either live (or extremely sloppy homework) on DVD. A sorry day for Boston to have to rely on critics/reviewers who seemed to be 'born yesterday'. Even if the reviews were all extremely positive.

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I would add a major difference between online criticism and that coming out of traditional newsrooms is that there are no editors and editorial supervision or peer review online.

What if instead of the Journal of American Medicine, it was left to individual online writers to review protcols? Think how much shaping and revision help great editors have given novelists, etc etc

4mrdncrs points about about the sameness of the reviews is right on too.

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I would add a major difference between online criticism and that coming out of traditional newsrooms is that there are no editors and editorial supervision or peer review online.

Not always the case. There's definitely editorial supervision on danceviewtimes, and reviews are assigned. But for blogs, that's definitely the case.

I'd add, too, that danceviewtimes started because there were four critics I knew in San Francisco who did not have enough space, and were finding their reviews cut, or things they had expected to review could not be run. We called it DanceView West (as there wasn't room enough in DanceView, the print publication, for their pieces. The week the first issue went up, I was contacted by several critic friends in New York asking if they could write for it, and it changed. At the beginning, we used only professional critics. We've tried out a few since -- many who "auditioned" here on Ballet Talk, several who had a lot of help when they started to write. As an editor, I have my own idea of professional standard and critical objectivity. There are a lot of good writers who love ballet, but we wanted people with perspective.

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I think the Globe review was written by Karen Campbell. I don't know her background well, but Marcia B. Siegel and Jeffrey Gantz are both experienced dance writers.

Writers for the internet have an advantage in that many of them are preaching to the converted - they write for an audience that has sought them out and can already be expected to know much of what writers for general interest publications feel constrained to explain. This often leads to livelier writing, based on the assumption of shared knowledge on the part of reader and writer. (Very similar to sports pages, where some of the best writing in the paper is to be found.) Often they have more space, as well. And unless they're writing for the Times, they generally don't get to review later performances, which means less time and space to discuss casting and dancers.

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Most of what we read on the Internet from newspaper critics is the same version that appears in print, constrained by print space. I think this is a missed opportunity, since having a longer piece online could drive traffic to the publication's website, thus possibly generating more online advertising revenue through hits and links.

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Many papers already offer additional commentary online in the paper's blog space, and they also post photo galleries, video, etc.

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Sure, if the reader is motivated and wants to dig for it. I haven't seen that many print publications that make a direct link to what's in print and what's online.

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Odd. I have the impression quite a few do, but I could be mistaken.

Another nice thing is that many link to older articles on the same topic that the reader might have missed the last time around.

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As a newbie to ballet, I find all the critiques and comments I read here very helpful as opposed to a NY Times review of a performance. What happens is that you read so many opinions, and you compare with what you felt when you saw the ballet or video or YouTube clip, and I find it very educational. I don't think criticism will ever die. Whenever you get die hard fans of a particular art form, there will be criticism.

I am a 20 year veteran opera attendee and the same thing applies. Parterre Box, to give one example, has quite critical people on it and I am sure the opera singers who read the site have to have very thick skin. There is no holding back. You also can't post your thoughts on an opera performance without backing up your view or you as an audience member and amateur reviewer will be torn to shreds on the site as well. But you learn by comparing your views with those of many others. I think the blogs are wonderful! They have made it normal to read many people's differing views on a production or performance.

I find that professional reviews of operas often seem like puff pieces, b/c usually the critic hobnobs with the singers, General Directors, etc. I can read an opera review sometimes and read between the lines and tell that a reviewer thought it was horrendous, even though his review is quite polite. There must be a reason for being polite, and I think that is because the professional reviewers face all the people involved in a performance literally face to face often, and it is harder to be critical of artists when you know them and like them as people and know your words will hurt their feelings. So I believe professional critics are forced into being more polite and less harsh and less honest as they would actually like to be.

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By online content, I was being overly broad and meant blogs rather than publications like danceviewtimes...And dirac seems to have had more luck than I have. Quora is an interesting model in that it does seem to have strict ongoing peer editorship.

The London Revew of Books, New York Review and New Yorker have blogs on the front page, but the material is shorter and more topical - and doesn't have the depth and shape of the texts in the journal proper, which the writer has had considerable time to live with and mull over.

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The London Revew of Books, New York Review and New Yorker have blogs on the front page, but the material is shorter and more topical - and doesn't have the depth and shape of the texts in the journal proper, which the writer has had considerable time to live with and mull over.

My hunch is that may well be intentional. The blogs are there to try to keep current and satisfy online readers' constant appetite for new material, and the longer pieces, many of which remain under subscription bar, are for paying readers. Online readers often seem to have a lack of patience with long articles, at least judging by what bloggers say and these rather sad exhortations to "read the whole thing."

Some of the best dance criticism was written by Denby while he was subbing for Robert Lawrence and Walter Terry.

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Critics and criticism have changed hugely in the past years and the changes began long before the advent of blogging. It's a year or two since I was able to go to the theatre regularly but it had become unusual to see a critic at anything other than an official press night, which was not the case twenty years ago. At that time serious critics would try to catch most or all casts and would often see a visiting company more than once. And that applied (in some cases) even if they had to pay for a ticket. In London, at least, there tend not to be special areas for critics, although the press is sometimes offered a glass of wine in the interval.

One other thing to bear in mind about professional critics is that they have to cover everything, regardless of whether it appeals or not, and write about it objectively. Bloggers, on the other hand, seem mainly to choose companies, programmes or casts they like or are particularly interested in which narrows their range of experience. Obviously, the fact that they have to pay good money for a ticket is a big factor in this. Why would you spend money to have a bad time?

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Critics and criticism have changed hugely in the past years and the changes began long before the advent of blogging. It's a year or two since I was able to go to the theatre regularly but it had become unusual to see a critic at anything other than an official press night, which was not the case twenty years ago. At that time serious critics would try to catch most or all casts and would often see a visiting company more than once. And that applied (in some cases) even if they had to pay for a ticket. In London, at least, there tend not to be special areas for critics, although the press is sometimes offered a glass of wine in the interval.

One other thing to bear in mind about professional critics is that they have to cover everything, regardless of whether it appeals or not, and write about it objectively. Bloggers, on the other hand, seem mainly to choose companies, programmes or casts they like or are particularly interested in which narrows their range of experience. Obviously, the fact that they have to pay good money for a ticket is a big factor in this. Why would you spend money to have a bad time?

Or time. A professional critic attends performances, conducts research, and writes for his job. People with other types of jobs that require heavy time commitments do not have the luxury of spending considerable amounts of time leisure activities, such as attending theatre.

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