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The role of arts critics today


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Have cultural critics lost the respect of the public? “Besides the Internet and its rash of blogs,” writes Scott Timberg in yesterday’s L.A. Times (Critical condition), “suspected culprits include the culture of celebrity, anti-intellectual populism, stingy newspaper owners and what some critics say is a loss of vitality or visibility in their art forms.” Among other possible factors in the supposed weakening of the critic’s role in cultural taste making supposed (Timberg notes that newspapers are offering critics less space, but doesn’t actually substantiate his implied claim that fewer people are paying attention), Timberg points to the tarnishing of the press’s reputation in general, and to sites like Amazon.com with their searchable databases.

Is this phenomenon real? Are there other causes as well? Did the falling off begin before the advent of blogs, with the proliferation of niche print publications?

Relatively speaking, do today’s critics lack the clarity and style that conveys authority? Relatively speaking do they lack actual authoritative judgment – exceptional taste?

Is less high new quality work being produced? Fewer masterpieces? Is the work by and large simple and/or shallower or less groundbreaking, so that the average fan has less need of astute, penetrating analysis to either make sense of it or plumb its depth? Are any of these developments or, rather, lack of developments, exacerbated by the cultural fragmentation that’s one side effect of celebrating cultural diversity?

Or is this trend an outgrowth of the larger cultural trend in which supposedly took off in the 1960’s in which Authority itself became unfashionable and politically forbidden? I like a Petipa/Ivanov-style Swan Lakes, you like Matthew Bourne’s version, and it’s gauche and elitist to insist on quality distinctions?

I feel like I’m probably channeling forgotten past BA discussions and Alexandra’s thoughts in particular with my thinking our loud here, but I won’t go hunt for prior threads. There are many new posters here. If anyone is interested, we might discuss the subject in regards to ballet alone, or we could branch out into other arts, at which point an administrator could move the thread to a more appropriate forum.

As for me, I'm always eager to read and learn from and compare notes with critics.

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All of the above!

I think there's definitely a decline in criticism (at least in dance), both qualitatively and quantitatively. But did anyone ever pay attention to critics? People who are very interested in an art form would read criticism because we're addicts and will read anythinga bout what we're interested in and if the writing is good and the ideas interesting, then people will read. When it's not, they won't.

Decline in space: In DC that dates from the late-1980s and was absolutely related to advertising. The Post, I was told, lost ad revenue and the Style section lost 4 pages. Something had to be cut. Why dance? Because in this city, politics is much more interesting to the editors than art. (And I really think it has as much to do with the editors as with the readers. If art does not touch someone's life, it's hard to convince him that it's important, and easy for him (or her, but only in theory :clapping: ) to think that no one is interested in it.

Emphasis on popular culture. The big paradigm shift is that newspapers cover what they think, or their statistics/ratings show, that readers want to read about. What used to happen is that you had people with a broad general knowledge who were interested in a variety of things who would go out there and see as much as was humanly possible and write about what s/he thought was interesting and worth writing about. Do you go to a gourmet food store and bring back peanut butter and jelly sandwiches? No. You bring back tete de veau and a nice tripe stew, and delght in how the family gobbles it up -- then you tell them what it is. That's gone.

Will it come back? Perhaps when there's something really worth writing about, worth beating the drums about. Not "not as bad as much of his work." Not, "a bit better." Not, "I don't think that one's too bad," but the kind of dance that one can do backflips about.

A related question is will people ever distinguish, again, between what is popular, in the sense of appealing to millions of people, and what is popular among the small subset of people who enjoy the fine arts. This number hasn't changed, despite the propaganda to the contrary. I remember reading in the early 1970s that only 2 percent of the records sold were of classical music. It's not that interest in classical music has suddenly tanked, felled by rock and rap. It's that only a few people ever cared.

I do think that it's worth fighting for the notion that if you do like classical music, or literature, or classical ballet, or serious modern dance, you stand up and say, "Yes, I like it and what's wrong with that?" If 98 percent of the world wants to think that Prince has supplanted Mozart (an old analogy, I know) let them. If they want to think that McDonalds architecture is the equal to Chartres Cathedral, let them. When they start to burn Chartres, or turn it into a McDonalds, or wipe out every recording of Mozart, then I think it's worth fighting for.

Does criticism have anything to do with this? I'm not sure it ever did. You have writers who write about what interests them. Whether it's in a newspaper, a magazine, a blog, or an internet message board, if it's worth considering, people will consider it. I've read posts here that I think are far more interesting, well-written and intelligent than I read in newspapers. Tobi Tobias's writing in her blog is no less valuable than it was when she was writing in New York magazine. There's a lot of junk in blogs and internet web sites, too, and the one big difference is that there are few editors -- in print or cyberspace -- who can, or will, sort the wheat from the chaff, and the reader will choose what they like without having any nutritional labels to read.

That's my off the top of my head response -- thanks for posting the question, kfw.

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In her "30 Years Later" afterward (actually, I think it's "afterword") to the "Against Interpretation" collection, Susan Sontag wrote that American society in the twentieth century was lacking seriousness in its approach to art. Though I'm not sure if I've wrapped my head around all of what this means, I do believe she was right.

There is a division between "art" and "entertainment" in contemporary American society (and its journalism) that allows, and encourages, a lot of "non-serious" stuff to get a lot of attention (and a lot of money). The line of division is, I think, up for debate and absolutely not static, but I do believe it is unpleasant that people may say "I don't want to think. I want to be entertained." Why is entertainment perceived as something passive? I suppose I can think of a lot of reasons . . . .

It certainly cannot be good for people's intellectual and emotional well-being to withstand investment in the arts they witness, nor can it help the development of the arts/entertainments to create them knowing that no one is supposed to think about them.

I do also agree with many of your points, Alexandra and kfw. As far as what gets covered in the media, I agree that it is absolutely about what editors think people want to see but also about who has the resources for advertising and PR. With most newspaper dance reviewers doing at least double duty (most also write music or theatre reviews), events are prioritized and coverage is dependent on what the critic has time to see. (Unlike in the old days, as Alexandra said, when people would go see "as much as was humanly possible.") The double duty problem also is a factor in the quality issue in which kfw was interested.

I also agree with the idea that nothing amazing is happening in dance right now (I was beginning to think I was just jaded, so thanks for stating this!), but I think that an ideal recovery would mean a creation that able to bridge the gap between the popular culture and fine art. I'm not saying art should "dumb down"; rather, we need something so important/serious/amazing that it will call the "entertainment" crowd out of their passive hibernation. But this, my friends, is idealism . . . .

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The National Critics Conference, which prompted the article in the LA Times that kfw cited above, is over. And it's stimulated more discussion of the role of critics in today's society:

  • Christopher Reynolds in the LA Times
    Everybody's a critic.
    No, really. About 400 reviewers of art, dance, music and theater have descended upon Los Angeles for the National Critics Conference. This is the first time anybody in this country has tried to unite so many reviewers from so many disciplines, and nobody's exactly sure what will happen.
    Jansen-Brown, who came from San Antonio, writes about theater. Van Vlasselaer, who came from Ottawa, reviews music. Deborah Jowitt, exploring one of the Getty patios with her shawl pulled tight in the evening mist, has been reviewing dance for the Village Voice since the '60s.
    The idea, as with most conventions, is to raise everyone's professional game through speeches by luminaries, provocative panels (is it wrong for critics to moonlight as curators?) and seminars on brass-tacks issues from writing mechanics to job-seeking strategies.
    The added wrinkle is an emphasis on interdisciplinary exploration — ideas the critics will kick around in meeting rooms at the Omni Hotel and elsewhere through Sunday, with side trips day and night to museums, galleries and theaters and concert halls.

  • Dominic P. Papatola in the St. Paul Pioneer Press
    Any parent will tell you that no child follows the rules all the time, and only a fool of a parent — or an idiot of a critic — would expect slavish obedience. Both make mistakes: They're too strict, or they underestimate the maturity or the ability of their charges. Really good parents and really good critics are humble enough to admit those mistakes but don't allow the occasional misstep to obscure their larger responsibility: Kids and audiences must learn the rules before they can learn to break them.
    Does all this smack of paternalism? Well, yes, but where would we be without authority? I'm much more likely to defer to my physician's opinion of my cholesterol level over my own, and I'd hope he'd treat my opinion of the new show at the Jungle Theater the same way. We're free to challenge each other's expertise and seek second opinions, but it's folly to ignore the other's expertise.

  • Chris Jones in the Chicago Tribune
    Excellent criticism involves contextualizing. People don't need only to know if "Desperate Housewives" is worth watching -- they need to know what it means, what the show says about America at this precise moment in time. There's no diminishment in the public appetite for explanation -- the cultural world out there only gets ever more bewildering.
    Actually, the death of the critic is greatly exaggerated -- there still are publications that showcase reviews and readers who seek them out, read them, think about them and even act upon them.

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