Why Should I Care What You Think?

Arts criticism has been a topic of conversation in the media recently. Richard Schickel, film critic for Time, wrote in the Los Angeles Times that expressing an opinion does not rate as criticism. Schickel was reacting to a New York Times article that intimated that shrinking book review coverage at major newspapers might not be such a terrible thing. The Times article noted that bloggers were filling the void; that one blogger, in fact, had written 95 book reviews last year on his blog; and envisioned a "more democratic literary landscape where anyone can comment on books." This made Schickel nearly apopletic. "Criticism [you can hear him trying to contain himself]...is not a democratic activity." Everyone's entitled to an opinion about a book or a movie, but that doesn't make you a certified book or film critic. Check.

BookDaddy's Jerome Weeks (former book and theater critic, etc., etc.), agrees with Schickel that opinion does not criticism make, and thinks that "much of what passes for literary criticism on the web is simply opinion, often not very enlightening opinion, unsubstantiated and poorly argued." He's more interested, 'though, on how critics derive their authority and credibility (and he believes that good criticism needn't exclude bloggers).

"...the critic earns his authority by using his knowledge, his rhetorical skills, his humor, his personal insights, maturity, modesty, bravura cleverness -- whatever it takes, in this particular instance, to convince us not only that he's right but that he's worth listening to. These are the only things that matter with a critic. Just as with a teacher, it's all about the classroom (and how he handles the homework), with a critic, it's all about what's on the page. If he can't do that, all the rest is meaningless.

"What does one need to be a critic? A critic worth listening to? He needs to have experienced a lot of the art form -- read a lot of books, seen a lot of plays. He needs to have thought about them a lot. And he needs to be able to express those thoughts vividly, lucidly, persuasively. And if he works for a newspaper, quickly, briefly and repeatedly.

"Of course, a critic may gain a cumulative authority. We're won over by one review, he turned out to be right about that sitcom. So we pick up his next review to find out what he says now. This is why it's important for newspapers and magazines to have regular critics [my emphasis]: They gain authority over time, and we get to know their sensibilities, just as we know our friends'. This, I believe, is essentially what people mean when they tell critics the other line we so often hear: I don't agree with everything you say, but .... and what they leave unsaid (although sometimes, they do say it) is that I always read your work/always enjoy reading your work/always learn something from reading your work.

"This also why the rise of the "five star" or "thumbs up/thumbs down" review mechanism, the Entertainment Weekly blurb review, the blogger's bitchy dismissal have all been pernicious developments in reviewing. In these instances, the reduce the process, they crudify it. It is just an opinion, so much amusing confetti, less than a book jacket blurb or those excited movie ad exclamations from some radio or TV (or increasingly, internet) hack you've never heard of. One can learn nothing from these so-called reviews except, perhaps at best, the cleverness of the writer in feeding the worst aspects of the corporate marketing machinery, the Zippy-the-Pinhead attention span of the web."

Major Check.

If any of this inspires you to get involved in saving book reviews, you can get the scoop at the National Book Critics Circle Campaign-to-Save-Book-Reviewing blog.

But it's not just book reviewers (and their audiences) who are getting the shaft. At the Atlanta Journal Constitution, a reorganization of staff has eliminated most positions for arts critics and editors. AJC is eliminating, among others, and in addition to that of its book editor, the posts now held by its classical music critic and its visual arts critic. Approximately 40 senior staffers, including its 30-year film critic veteran, have accepted buyout offers from the paper. And in Florida, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel will no longer be running in-house movie reviews and has thus re-assigned its film critic.


Secret Belgian Binding Books (Say That Really Fast Five Times In a Row)

A quick post to accompany the photo of the books we finished in the Secret Belgian Binding class at BookWorks (I wrote about it earlier here). It's a lovely binding with real flair. It's not a difficult binding, but it's awkward for a first-timer, mainly because you need to manage the entire text block as you're sewing through the threads in the text block while keeping the covers and spine in the correct position (the spine is held in place only by the threads passing above and below it). It's a bit of a juggling act that makes you wish you had a third hand, but it's worth the effort.

In planning to make this book, it's useful to remember that the sewing process is in two stages, since you first have to sew your text block (we did that in week two of the three-week class), then sew the text block into the covers. This binding lets you play with paper, too, since you can use up to three different coordinating or complementary papers: one paper for the outer covers, another for the inside of the covers, and a third for the spine. And the thread, which plays a fairly major role in the binding, can complement or contrast with the spine and cover papers. One of our students used a combination of papers with red, white and black for covers and spine, then sewed with yellow thread, which gave her book a particularly vibrant, modern look.


Creative Journaling

I'm coming to the end of a class I've been taking at BookWorks: Creative Journaling. It's less a class about keeping a journal than it is about being aware of the types of information that are important to you and making sure that the information stays accesssible so that you can find it when you need it. That usually means creating a variety of journals, each with a specific purpose. And it means thinking hard about what you'll house in the journal, so that the journal serves its content well.

The students are encouraged to address our "relationship to the journal," as our instructor (textile artist Heather Allen-Swarttouw) puts it, and deal with issues we've had with journals over time [The photo is of Heather (right) and Laura, one of our students, in class]. For me, a long-time, albeit intermittent, keeper of journals (I admit that I still cringe at bit at using the word journal as a verb, but I'm getting over it), it's not about getting myself to write, it's about using more images and fewer words. Heather, for example, is almost exclusively a visual journaler. Her journals are filled with sketches; some -- her "flip books," usually -- hold only images that she's particularly drawn to or that resonate for her.

So I've been working on preparing my journal pages in various ways before I write on them: painting with watercolor washes, making images with rubber stamps, applying inks, and otherwise allowing myself to "mess up" the pages. It's really a treat to write on color pages. The trick is to stay ahead of yourself by setting aside time to prepare surfaces in advance. The next step, I figure, is to doodle and find other means to create obstacles on the page so that I'm forced to write around them; anything to keep me from a constant diet of neat, text-filled, symmetrical pages.

I've ended up with a half-dozen or so journals. Initially, I thought I'd make them all myself, but in most cases I found notebooks and journals that I've collected over time that worked well. With those, I've personalized or am in the process of personalizing each cover with collage, paint or, in one case, recovering the journal using paper I'd painted in my class with Traci Bautista at Art & Soul.

Here's the rundown of specialized journals to date:
  • Daily - this is the standard, smaller, carry-around-with-me-everywhere-I-go journal that I've been making for myself for at least a year now.
  • Art Experiments - for trying out techniques, making mistakes and generally allowing myself to make marks on a page without judgment.
  • Art Ideas - one-half of a larger journal (the other is for ideas on books I'd like to make). It's for jotting down my thoughts on projects I'd like to work on, techniques I'd like to try, etc.
  • Book Ideas - takes up one-half of a larger journal shared with 'Art Ideas.' It's for random thoughts on books to make and for more specific plans and details as they emerge.
  • Relationship with the Book - What is this journey into book arts taking me? How are my views, thoughts and process evolving? This journal isn't mean to be technique driven; rather, I'd like to focus on where the road leads and what I'm learning along the way.
  • Flip Book - It's called a "flip" book because you flip through it for inspiration -- or at least that's how I'm going to use it. One side will house images I'm taken with, the other will include articles and other stories about women in (successful) transition.
  • Techniques - details of techniques I've used and liked so that I don't forget them!
  • Digital Art - more prosaically titled my Photoshop Elements notebook. I'm slowly, very s..l..o..w..l..y working my way through this program.
This is a good class to take in a group. I'm learning from other's styles and approaches to journaling and their issues with the process. Perhaps most important among these is that there ARE other styles, and that you're not doomed to walk in the same rut through eternity, by which time the rut is carved deep enough to be your grave.


Secret Belgian Binding

I'm learning a new binding in a workshop at BookWorks: Secret Belgian binding. Book artist Hedi Kyle is credited with rediscoveing this historic binding, attributed to the Belgians. It uses an exposed sewing to bind the text block to cover boards and a separate spine, with the spine held in place only by the threads passing over and under it. In addition to its beauty, it's considered a very sturdy binding. Laurie Corral, who's teaching the class (she's also BookWorks' founder and director) has paced the class well -- three evenings over three weeks -- so that the students are not rushed and can both learn and enjoy the experience. (In my photo of Laurie, she's cutting paper on BookWorks' massive guillotine, about which I lust, wishing that I could build a room simply to house such a lovely and functional object.)

This week we sewed our text block using tapes (see photo). It was the first time I'd worked with tapes, and I can see the value. It's a lovely, simple stitch, and relaxing to sew, especially in a group. We were joined by Andy Farkas (writer, printmaker and book artist), who was working in the studio, in talking a bit about the definition of an "artist's book." The $64,000 question. (Here's Wikipedia's attempt).

For me, it's a book wherein the content and the form are so closely intertwined that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Naturally that begs the question of how you define the "book" part of the equation, since an artist's book need not have a traditional book form, so mine is at best a partial description. Andy's definition focused on the work being created in its entirety by the artist. He agreed that content needs to be referenced in a definition, if only to suggest the artist's choice of no content. This started me thinking about whether, in fact, an artist's book can have no content. Or, can a viewer ever look at an artist's book without ascribing content to it? Or to take it further, isn't an artist's intent to omit content itself the content? Better minds than mine are no doubt wrestling -- or ignoring -- questions such as these, so BookGirl will sit it out for now.

The rest of the pix are of a book Laurie made with the SB binding, of the first signature after being sewn onto the tapes (Tyvek strips affixed to the side of the work table with adhesive tape), and of a sewing card with alternate views of the outside and the inside of the binding. I can't wait to hold my finished book in my hands.


Book Cat

My good friend, Vicki, is an adventurous traveler. She travels light, and she takes the scenic route. I've joined her on some less intrepid trips: Venice, Vancouver Island, the Dordogne region of France. Lately, she's been in Croatia and surrounding areas. I enjoyed getting her emails from the road telling me about the nuisances she'd encountered getting from here to there, not because I was glad for her trouble, but because she always finished by saying what a great time she was having and what a great trip it was. It's that quality of taking things in stride that makes a real traveler.

I whine as much as anyone (as those who know me well can attest), but when traveling, I too try to be of the school that makes the best of any situation. We all travel little enough for pleasure as it is, and if nothing else, adversities make for good stories later. The difference between me and Vicki is that I rarely use travel to test the unknown, while Vicki does it all the time, without even realizing she's doing it.

The pix of the trip are still to come, but she sent me an advance photo that, she said, had her thinking of me when she took it. Taking a nap surrounded by books is surely one of life's simple pleasures. I wonder, though: are the 2 Euros for the books or the cat?

Helvetica Turns 50

Who knew? Helvetica is a baby boomer, too, and turning 50. According to the UK's Guardian, celebrations are sprouting for the "elegant uber-font." Do your part, America, by writing all your emails tomorrow in Helvetica, then treat yourself to a chocolate cupcake. Unfortunately, I'm not offered a Helvetica option on this blog, or I'd celebrate here along with you.

The Guardian, by the way, does an excellent job covering books, all the more noticeable in light of diminishing coverage by major metropolitan US newspapers (see the latest on this issue and learn how you can get involved in saving book reviews).


Slow Reading

There's no way I could come across an article on "slow reading" and not write about it, so for those of you who still care about such things (and I hope, hope, hope that there are many), Lindsay Waters, in an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, writes about how current society, particularly teachers of reading, conspires to get us to read more quickly. I guess my use of the word "conspires" tells a bit about my take on this, eh? Here's a bit (well, maybe more than a bit) of what Waters has to say, albeit a little pedantically :
"In departments of education, professors talk about the "fluency" that those who are learning to read need to achieve to become good readers. Unless one can digest the letters on the page fast enough, one cannot comprehend what one is reading. But once one learns how to read, there is a speed beyond which one stops reading in a truly effective way. I am convinced that most speed-reading is impaired reading, just like the sort you do when you have a fever or are tired or engaged in other tasks at the same time you are supposed to be reading. Unless you are very smart, speed-reading forces you to ignore al but one dimension of a literary work, the simplest information. What we lose is the enjoyment that made people turn to literature in the first place....

"I want to ask what reading would look life if we were to reintroduce, forcefully, the matter of time...The mighty imperative is to speed eveything up, but there might be some advantage in slowing things down. People are trying slow eating. Why not slow reading?...

"The role of literature is to mess with time, to establish its own rhythm. A new agenda for literary studies should open up the time of reading, just as it opens up how the writer establishes his or her rhythm. Instead of rushing by works so fast that we don't even muss up our hair, we should tarry, attend to the sensuousness of reading, allow ourselves to enter the experience of words."
We English majors (once an English major, always an English major, says Garrison Keillor) were taught to read this way in college. It was called close reading (it is still called that, isn't it?), and although not equivalent to slow reading, close reading requires that you read slowly, and the end result is much the same: a much richer reading experience. Wine lovers sip each glass slowly to give the wine time to reveal itself, and to give themselves time to savor the full range of its flavors. So with reading. Reading quickly doesn't lend itself to the pleasures of seeing layers of meaning in a sentence or understanding why the writer chose to use those specific words, or any of the other discoveries and joys of reading good writing. And, then, once you've found a book you truly love...well, there's always rereading.


Creative Advertising

Other than the current Apple television ads, which are funny and charming, and reinforce Apple's brand brilliantly, I don't see much creative advertising on the tube these days. American t.v. advertising doesn't seem to do "art" well -- that is, ads that work effectively from a business and marketing standpoint (since sales are, after all, the goal), AND are artistically interesting or exciting. Europe seems to do this combination better, and here's a terrific example from VW for the company's new VW Phaeton. How cool is that?!


Art & Soul

Back from Art & Soul, an arts retreat in Hampton, Virginia at which I spent four days painting, collaging, making books, and generally having a good time with art and artists. My favorites were full-day workshops in paint and collage, one each with Ann Baldwin and Traci Bautista (see pix of them in action, along with some inside pages from one of Traci's journals). Ann's and Traci's approaches and styles are very different, but each class was a terrific learning experience. Ann, in particular, is an excellent teacher, and for someone like me, who has very little experience with painting and acrylics, her class was a revelation. Although each student emerged with two "completed" pieces at the end of the day, for me, the class was all about technique and advice and an opportunity to use both. I left the workshop eager to practice Ann's process at home. I suppose that I've known it subsconsciously all along, but I love layers and texture. For me, texture in paint is the visual equivalent of touch, and it's tremendously satisfying to create it.

As to Traci's work, while her results (and process) are very spontaneous and playful, in fact she has degrees and solid experience in graphic design and typography (and high-tech marketing to boot). We painted some wild papers -- including paper towels -- to use for backgrounds and to tear up for collage, and I'll want to use her techniques again too.

The book I made, in a class with Doris Arndt (see last pix), looks to have metal covers, but in fact, it's book board covered with (silver) metallic duct tape (who knew there was such a thing?), and splashed with alcohol inks. It was the first time I'd used these, and I liked the effects. The stitch itself wasn't difficult, but needle and thread have to go through each piece of copper tubing on the spine twice -- one on the way up and once on the way down -- and that was a little thorny. I'd like to make a second book with this type of spine, substituting some other material for the copper tubing.

In a setting such as this one, the instructors make all the difference, and I was fortunate to have three whose lessons I'll take to heart and experiment with. Three out of four's not bad. I'm less focused on the social aspect of these events, which I appreciate is very important to many of the participants (and puts me in the minority), which makes doing advance homework about the instructors all the more important.

Throughout the days, I kept focusing on Ann's comment that she always does her worst work in workshops and just forged ahead. And I tried -- with limited success, but at least I was consciously aware of this when I was doing it -- to avoid the "comparison thing." It wasn't easy. There was some wonderful work being done, not just in my classes, but everywhere, and it was hard to go straight to my classroom when there was so much enticement on the way there.

So now I've gotten the "newbie" thing out of the way, and I expect I'll go back, if not to this specific event, then to the ones on the west coast, or to the several other retreats that have cropped up in the past five years or so. These programs are, at their core, craft-oriented, and I'm convinced that the main reason for their rise is -- isn't it always these days? -- baby boomers. BBs are finding themselves with more time to play: either they're retired or their kids have gone off (to college or altogether) or both. The amount of money being spent on art supplies, in comparison to, say, 10 years ago, must be astronomical, if the cases being wheeled around the convention center were any indication. And the Internet has made it possible for aspiring crafters and artists in even the most remote locations to get their fix, not to mention that it's opened up a whole world for those former full-time workers and former full-time moms who want to sell to them from the comfort of their homes.

Got back from Virginia-- a 7 1/2-hour not unplesant drive -- just in time to head off to the first of my three sessions on the Secret Belgian Binding at BookWorks. News at 11.


Who Will Run Our Arts Organizations?

Lee Rosenbaum is a cultural journalist (i.e., a journalist who writes about the arts and culture). In addition to her mainstream-media writing, she maintains a blog, CultureGrrl, which I dip into from time to time. Recently, she wrote about what she calls "the coming arts leadership brain drain." She cites a recently-published report by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Involving Youth in NonProfit Arts Organizations: A Call to Action (67 pages), that reminds nonprofit arts organizations that they need to be aggressive in finding ways to attract and retain new leaders to take the place of the baby boomer arts administrators who are nearing the end of their careers.

Rosenbaum cites a "glaring omission" in the report: that a major reason that smart and ambitious young people don't look to arts administration as a career is that they can make much more money elsewhere. As someone with experience as both a young and not-so-young arts administrator, I think she's right on the money (pun intended). There is a fascinating but dangerous assumption in the nonprofit community (and those who fund it) that money for programming is legitimate and money for administration, including salaries, is less so. And often, Board members and staff are apologetic when speaking about compensation. Why?

Corporate society assumes that good products and programs are the result of smart people who envision, plan, execute and manage them effectively. It recognizes that if its best people are not compensated appropriately they will leave or become disaffected (and thus less effective) or both. Why should these assumptions be different in a nonprofit environment? Sadly, there's likely something else at work: we value the contributions of nonprofit managers less than those of for-profit workers. Perhaps we think that arts administrators should be motivated by their love for the arts. Of course, many are and should be, but can Board leaders of arts organizations -- individuals who often have been asked to serve in part for their business skills -- truly believe that this is enough?

I've often been puzzled why it is that smart, market-savvy business executives and community leaders who go on nonprofit Boards set aside so many of the tried-and-true principles that serve them so well in the for-profit world. Board members should fight for budgets that pay the arts organization's best managers fairly, and expect the expertise and accountability that they demand of their own companies' employees. And arts staff should stop apologizing for the (miniscule) increases they factor into their budgets for administration each year.

Unfortunately, I think that Rosenbaum is right. I don't think today's young people will be as accepting of the inevitability of being underpaid to work in nonprofit arts organizations. They simply won't take these jobs; or they'll say 'yes,' with stars in their eyes, and exit early. The loss will be ours.