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American Arts Journalism

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In an article in La Scena Musicale, the British critic Norman Lebrecht takes aim at American arts journalism.

Every serious British newspaper carries two, three or more pages of arts commentary and criticism which report, reflect and review a razzle of activity in a style which may be ponderous, or provocative, or purely piss-taking.

No American newspaper dares venture past the first of these ps. The tone in US arts coverage is uniformly respectful, uninquiring, inherently supportive. When the boss of Covent Garden takes an early bath, British papers roll out weeks of investigation, gossip and analysis. When the head of the Met decides (or is obliged) to step down, as Joseph Volpe did some weeks ago, he does so in a friendly interview with the New York Times which does not once inquire whether Volpe quit because he's pushing 65 or because his box-office has gone dead since 9/11.

The failure to challenge is a fundamental flaw in US arts journalism. The appointment of a visibly ailing James Levine to 'revitalise' the Boston's Symphony Orchestra was reported uncritically in the Globe. The shenanigans at Lincoln Center, where heads roll periodically and reconstruction plans flounder, are immune to the scrutiny that attends any public project of comparable prominence. As an arts place, Lincoln is off-limits to investigative journalism. Critics are free to diss Philadelphia's new concert hall and the New York Philharmonic's performance under Lorin Maazel, but any inquiry into the workings of these organisations is ruled out by unstated convention.

Lebrecht attributes this timidity to the fact that most American cities have only one newspaper, or only one that covers the arts. In London, by contrast, half a dozen newspapers provide forums for a wide array of opinions. The dance critic of one major paper can trash a new ballet without having to worry that his review might destroy the company's box office for the rest of the season, because he can count on his colleagues at other papers to weigh in with differing viewpoints.

This one-newspaper situation is a fact of life here, and isn't going to change. With that in mind, is there some way around the very real problem that Lebrecht identifies?

One answer could be to have that one dominant newspaper in each town present not one, but several critical voices. (This may not be very realistic, given that it's tough to get these papers to dedicate even one critic to the high arts, but let's leave that aside for the moment.) Or perhaps the whole notion of relying on newspapers is out of date. Is this the time to explore a website devoted to serious original arts news and criticism (written by professionals -- not a Ballet Talk kind of site :wink: ). Any other ideas?

It's interesting that Lebrecht says that this article had originally been commissioned by the New York Times, which refused to print it because it would have been "odd" to criticize itself in its own pages!

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Norman Lebrecht is a first rate critic of the arts scene in general in the UK, but his particular field is music and not dance.

If US criticism is bland, then it has to be said that so is dance criticism on this side of the pond. There is no critic here who dares to go for the jugular where our national company is concerned and this has created a culture of cosy mediocrity. Look for challenging journalism and you will find none.

The only UK critic who appears to write in a more confrontational way has such eccentric and frequently biased views that his seemingly cutting critiques are actually meaningless.

If American arts journalism is insipid too, then it's simply part of an international trend.

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I think a lot of the timidity in the US is because the arts are, or are perceived to be, more fragile here. With enough companies worrying about closing their doors (the Metropolitan Opera is certainly an exception) I think many journalists worry about doing as much damage as good.

Now, most journalists are in the business of selling papers, and muckraking sells papers. This accounts for the tone of Bob Gottlieb's reviews; they may be controversial, but they're interesting reads because of it (look at how long the discussion threads are when one of his articles gets published). But how many Americans read arts coverage? You can react to declining readership by doing more controversial coverage, or by retrenching. It would be interesting to ask the Observer editors how well Gottlieb's articles do, and how much of their readership checks them out.

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As to the Times rejecting his article for its self-critical content, I think the timing is unfortunate. Had this not followed in the turbulent wake of the Jayson Blair scandal :D , which the Times responded to with conspicuous self-flagellation, the editors may have been more willing to air their dirty laundry.

I do agree that many critics, particularly of the not-for-profit institutions, may mute their less favorable reactions out of a protective instinct. Who wants to take the blame for writing the review that finally sinks the struggling Metropolis Ballet Co? :mondieu: Being known as a sell-out is probably much preferable. :ermm:

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I think that "diss" and the other "-iss" phrase are slightly embarrassing attempts at an edgy demotic style.

The Times has its problems, goodness knows, but I don't see that the arts coverage of The Washington Post is such a shining example in comparison. And the Post's monopoly is even more pervasive than that of the Times, which at least competes with a couple of energetic tabloids and The Wall Street Journal, although it is certainly true that none of those publications fills the role that the Times does.

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If anyone is really interested in the New York Times, there is a very, I think, revealing article in the new (May) Atlantic byHowell Raines, the former executive editor of the NYT who was fired over the Jayson Blair mess. I must say, he Raines sounds like a truly awful person to work for--he goes on and on about how much he loves the NYTimes, but I have never seen the word "Whine" used so many times when talking about employees! The creepiest bit was him bragging about the "sheer visual beauty of our front pages" for the 9/11 coverage--he made it seem like the most important aspect of 9/11 was that the NYTimes won a lot of Pulitzers.

About the staff at the NYTimes, he writes that "like the French, New Englanders, Southerns, Idaho survivalists, or Mormon polygamists they [the reporters] take a perverse pride in their idiosyncrasies and tend to make iconic characters of those who embody the tribal pathology in its purest form." A somewhat sweeping generalization, I would say, not backed up by many facts. And later he writes "Like many newcomers, I was at first taken aback by the awkwardness, timidity, insecurity, and social envy of many Times people."

He does talk about arts coverage, which to me was the most interesting. "I posited a NYT audience with a Renaissance-like breadth of interests. Serious journalism did not have to be restricted to traditional somber subject. A reader who hungered for every last detail about the New York Philharmonic would be willing to cross the genre divide to read a story about the role of the downtown nightclub CBGC in the evolution of popular music." Of course, I don't remember any articles going into every last detail about the New York Philharmonic! Nor does he mention that his son plays (or played) in a rock band.

About popular culture, he writes "It does mean that the serial ups and downs of a Britney Spears are a sociological and economic phenomenon that is, as a reflection of contemporary American culture, worthy of serious reporting." It also means, I suspect, that big pictures of Britney Spears might sell more copies of anything, making her an even more important cultural phenomenon.

Later, he writes "Nothing was more pressing than culture. When I asked Arthur Gelb for an assessement of what the section needed, he was scathing. Coverage of high culture was invariably late...Sunday Arts & Leisure, our showcase section, had been turned over to a mid-level editor who had been licensed to ignore suggestions from anyone. He was a former rock critic who had undergone a highbrow conversion that left him interested only in the most arcane corners of classical music. The rest of the section was catch as catch can. The timing of its lead profiles made embarrassingly clear week after week that the Times was acquiescing to the schedule demands of actors, directors, and producers with new movies, stage play, or TV shows to plug."

His solution? Hire "Jodi Kantor, a young media editor from Slate, and put her in charge of Arts $ Leisure...Leisure readers definitely knew there was a new sheriff in town when Jodi beat New York's hip publications to the punch with a lead story on the rock group White Stripes."

"Culture offered another illustration of the interconnectedness of quality [sic!] journalism and financial success. The advertising department was overjoyed."

Anyway, I thought it was quite enlightening. Raines is gone, but of course the people he hired are still there.

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Another quote from the Lebrecht piece is,

The Washington Post, almost alone among major metros, has held its nerve and maintained a flow of confident criticism.

On the music side, that's much to the credit of Tim Page, but on the dance side, Alexandra is one of the critics whom this describes.

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The comments from Raines are revolting, but thank you, Cargill, for bringing them to our attention because I think Raines's dicta, via Kantor, are very much dominating Arts and Leisure, which has shrunk its dance coverage. These are dismal, dismal times for American mainstream media.

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Amen, Thalictum! And Raines is not alone, I'm afraid, but his view of what once would have been considered the life of the mind as "arcane" says it all.

The Post is a different animal. Their Style section is geared to politics, and so they're very open to any article about the arts that involves politics, and Sarah Kaufman has written quite a few of these as Sunday pieces. They Post editors wouldn't be so interested in Britney Spears, but any Hill or White House scandal would get prime space.

Thank you, Mary, for posting in such detail from the Atlantic piece. i would have missed it otherwise.

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