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.


One Reason I Heart NPR

In a welcome example of trend-reversal, National Public Radio is expanding book coverage on its web site, and adding six (count 'em, six!) new book reviewers, including a graphic-novel reviewer. Quoted by Publisher's Weekly in a recent article, senior supervising producer Joe Mattazonni said: "we're building up our book coverage because book content really works for our audience." Golly, a customer-driven web site. What a concept!

Mattazoni noted that NPR.org has a mandate to develop original online content and that the new book features are part of that plan. In addition to the work of the new reviewers, NPR.org will expand its Book Tour feature, which takes recordings of readings done at D.C.'s Politics & Prose bookstore (a great bookstore, by the way), edits them, and offers them as podcasts on the site.

BookGirl readers may recall my angst last year over the continuing drop of arts journalists, particularly book critics, from the editorial rosters of newspapers throughout the country (look here and here and here for the sake of nostalgia), so it's a joy to hear that book critics are getting work, and that readers (and visitors to NPR.org's Books page) will be the beneficiaries. Gee, I just may send them a check.