7.07.2008

Arts Criticism Goes the Way of the Typewriter

Yes, BookGirl is again thinking about arts criticism (or the lack thereof). BookGirl knows she'd be better off (or at least keep her blood pressure lowered) if she just stopped reading those darn articles about the importance of thoughtful professional criticism, but she just can't seem to stop herself. She's been hyp-no-tised.
So for those of you who care about such things, here's an article from the UK's Financial Times, whose writer opines about the state of arts criticism in the U.S., and the value of good critics. A sampling:

"Essentially, our civilisation is tilting towards anti-authoritarian contests. Audiences, not judges, select winners. Call it the American Idolisation of culture. On TV, contestants get voted off without explanation. Quality is measured by thumbs, up or down. Scholarly analyses have turned into irrelevant extravagances for snobs.

"Many US papers have abandoned thoughtful, detailed reviews altogether. Publishers, editors and, presumably, readers want instant evaluations and newsbites, preferably with flashy pictures. It is Zagat-think, simplicity for the simple-minded.

"Of the thousand journalism jobs reportedly lost during the past year, 121 belonged to specialists covering music and dance, film, books and television. The music critic at the Kansas City Star was told to walk after eight years of heavy duty. The Miami Herald’s critic was granted eight weeks’ severance pay. The Los Angeles Times no longer employs a dance critic. The Village Voice in New York and the Los Angeles Weekly have ceased coverage of “classical” music. The Seattle Times no longer employs a music critic. Even the relatively secure New York Times has found two of its venerable critics – one in music, one in dance – to be expendable. Time and Newsweek gave up earnest arts coverage long ago.

"The departure of a staff writer does not invariably mean the end of criticism. Sometimes the gap is filled by “stringers”, often inexperienced freelancers paid by the piece, and not paid well. Some papers rely on recycled wire service reports. Exclusive viewpoints are low priority, if any priority at all. When Rupert Murdoch took over the Wall Street Journal, he proclaimed his intention to compete with the New York Times by expanding arts coverage. The evidence of that remains slim and dim.

"...Historically, the best critics have guarded standards, stimulated debate and, in the complex process, reinforced the importance of art in society. They have been tastemakers, taskmasters and possibly ticket-sellers. Some have even written well. Despite automatic controversy, they played a role in aesthetic checks and balances. If their opinions were important, the reasons behind them were more important."

In short, while we all are entitled to an opinion, rarely does an opinion informed criticism make (more on that here). BookGirl thinks we need both.

10 comments:

DerekL said...

I'm thinking that more than anything else, this reflects the increasing disconnect between the ivory tower worlds of art and literature (etc.) and the common man.

There's fault on both sides of the aisle however.

BookGirl said...

Thanks for your comment, DerekL. You make a point well worth discussing. I think that whether art of is the ivory-tower persuasion or not (and that's a whole other conversation), it can benefit from thoughtful consideration.

The premise here -- of the value of informed commentary -- applies to areas other than art, of course. If I were a racing enthusiast, for example, and wanted to buy the best racing car I could afford, I'd be more likely to look to people who'd seriously studied the cars and who could intelligently explain to me the reasons why Car A was a good buy and Car B wasn't. My next-door neighbor, on the other hand, might think Car B was "really pretty," and so give it a thumbs up, but I wouldn't give that opinion equal weight.

metaphorical said...

This is as sad an ongoing story as the slow death of book reviews. I blogged about that last year, taking as my starting point this great quote from a writer at one of the ravaged papers:

“I don’t understand why newspapers, when they want to cut space, they immediately think of depriving people who like to read.” — Frank Wilson, book-review editor, Philadelphia Inquirer

BookGirl said...

Metaphorical, the firing of book critics by dailies was what first drew my attention to the overall loss of arts critics. I share your concerns.

Eero said...

I consider the format of art show reviews in publications like Art News and Art in America. These are usually a token description of a show with a little background on the artist. Where is the discernment, however? Where is the critical thinking? I don't want just a description---I would love an actual, educated, viewer response on the part of the writer.

Such a good subject to address.

E.

BookGirl said...

Hi, Eero! I agree that even within the group of "professional" critics, there's wide disparity. Like you, when I read criticism, I want analysis and (I like your choice of words)discernment. Whether you end up agreeing with the critic or not, if she's done a good job, you've learned something along the way. I agree that there's not much value to criticism -- if you can call it that -- when all the critic does is provide a description. I find a lot of that in book and film reviews.

MadSilence said...

The decline in informed criticism is well-documented in the media and reflects worldwide cultural change. Does art exist solely in the eye of the beholder, or are there objective standards? A recent visit to NYC's New Museum (contemporary art) left me terribly confused.

I've been reading various sources to explore this theme. Recent reads:

Culture counts: faith and feeling in a world besieged by Roger Scruton, and The painted word by Tom Wolfe.

No answers yet, but I love Tom Wolfe's book!

MadSilence

MadSilence said...

The decline in informed criticism is well-documented in the media and reflects worldwide cultural change. Does art exist solely in the eye of the beholder, or are there objective standards? A recent visit to NYC's New Museum (contemporary art) left me terribly confused.

I've been reading various sources to explore this theme. Recent reads:

Culture counts: faith and feeling in a world besieged by Roger Scruton, and The painted word by Tom Wolfe.

No answers yet, but I love Tom Wolfe's book!

MadSilence

MadSilence said...

The decline in informed criticism is well-documented in the media and reflects worldwide cultural change. Does art exist solely in the eye of the beholder, or are there objective standards? A recent visit to NYC's New Museum (contemporary art) left me terribly confused.

I've been reading various sources to explore this theme. Recent reads:

Culture counts: faith and feeling in a world besieged by Roger Scruton, and The painted word by Tom Wolfe.

No answers yet, but I love Tom Wolfe's book!

MadSilence

John Mutford said...

I think newspapers were the first ones to confuse "critique" with "review." While I believe the world is big enough for both (even if it's much noisier that way), a distinction should still be made.