Tag Archives: arts criticism

CJR article explores shakiness of arts criticism



These days it seems as though I’m doing nothing but write, and not often enough for this blog.

But there was another piece I wanted to talk about in addition to The Atlantic article referenced in my last post. That piece is an article by David Hajdu in this month’s Columbia Journalism Review, and it’s headlined Condition Critical: Can arts critics survive the poison pill of consumerism?

I can’t find a free copy of this on the Web, but in essence, Hajdu takes the reader skillfully through the different challenges faced by today’s arts critics, among which are loss of venue, a cultural dumb-down that turns critcism into consumer advice rather than intellectual engagement, and the demise of the arts as a beat for critics even if you have a venue.

Hajdu is pretty objective in this piece, and quotes interested parties on all sides. But the main thrust of the article is basically that arts criticism is in trouble, and there’s no telling how much of a place it will hold in the future cultural landscape.

Some fascinating quotes in this piece, such as this one from Leon Wieseltier, who’s the literary editor of The New Republic. Hajdu quotes him saying this after Wieselteir says criticism has always been a mix of opinion and learned judgment:

But beginning with Amazon, which made anybody who could type into a book reviewer, and now as the Web sites and the blogs have proliferated, we have entered a nightmare of opinion-making. This culture of outbursts, and the weird and totally unwarranted authority that it has been granted, has been responsible for a collapse of the distinction between opinion and judgment. It’s one of the baleful consequences of the democratization of expression by the Web.

This is an illuminating, and confrontational, thing to say. There’s no question that there are all kinds of different opinions from an astounding number of sources out there any day on the Web. And to a certain extent, many more opinion-makers will be followed than at any time during the dominance of the older style of media, if only to very small segments of the population.

But as wild and woolly as it is out there, I think at most what will happen on the Web is that there will be a few more names than there otherwise might have been of pundits and writers that will have national and international reputations. The Web has democratized opinion making, yes, but it’s created a much smaller number of folks who reliably offer critiques on the Web. It takes time, no matter who you are, to write a decent piece of criticism, and when you sit down to do it you are more than conscious of the great hall of educated opinion you’re stepping into.

For everything I say in a critical piece, I am aware that some if not most of my readers know more, and in some cases, much more than I do about a specific piece of music that I’ve heard. What I can offer is not superiority of education or the ability to play pieces better than anyone I hear; what I can offer is the relative pleasure of knowing that someone who’s as interested as they are in the art has volunteered to take the time to go to the event, take notes, and write up what he thought.

I don’t take my criticism writing lightly, either. If I can (and it’s much easier now with the Net to find things) I study the scores of the pieces before the concerts, play through them if I have enough time, and listen to recordings, also if there’s time.

If it’s a book  I’m reviewing, I almost always — and I’ve only failed to do this once or twice — read the book through twice and take notes. Serious nonfiction is very difficult to review because in many cases so much of the information is new or looked at in such a novel way that it sounds new. Fiction can be an easier read the first time through, but the second time is almost harder because you’re trying to see how the writer carries off his effects and makes the fiction work (if indeed it works).

So I don’t think there will be more seat-of-the-pants criticism that competes for our attention in the long run. A few voices, and there will be more than there would have been before the arrival of this technology, will rise above the others to shoulder the burden of received general critical opinion about the arts.

That will be true not because everyone is retrograde and afraid of different opinions. It will be because doing a decent job of writing criticism that people will respect and read is actual work. It’s brain work, not physical labor, so it’s not as demanding on the muscles as roadbuilding or something crucial to the way we live.

But it’s still work, and that fact will push most of the millions of occasional bloggers to the margins, which is the land of the hobby, and there’s not a thing wrong with that. It’s wonderful, actually.

What will remain for those who want to be professional critics is the question of the outlet, and that, too, will follow the same logic. The best blogs and news organizations will get the best critics, and they will be well-known names whom people enjoy reading and whom they respect, even when they disagree violently with them.

Speaking of criticism, I’ve been to four concerts in the past eight days: The Poulenc Trio at the Flagler Museum; the Boca Symphonia at St. Andrews; Itzhak Perlman at the Kravis; and the Dublin Philharmonic, also at the Kravis.

A dispatch from a citizen of QuasiBoho



A couple interesting pieces in two magazines about the state of journalism and that of criticism of the arts:

The first is by Michael Hirschorn, who’s writing in The Atlantic about the coming death of print journalism. In it, he says many of the things those of us who spent many years in print journalism have said to each other. Print’s going to die, we said, the Web will take over; this will be the age of the freelancer, we said; there will be a lot more information outlets but far fewer recognizable brands, we said.

But this one sentence above all really caught my eye, because it didn’t just hit home, it drove there and sat in my living room. No more print doesn’t just mean the end of a beloved daily ritual, particularly on Sunday, of reading a big newspaper and sipping coffee as you do so, Hirschorn writes: 

It  will also mean the end of a certain kind of quasi-bohemian urban existence for the thousands of smart middle-class writers, journalists, and public intellectuals who have, until now, lived semi-charmed kinds of lives of the mind.

This is me, though I’m not really very smart. I am, however, an ID card-carrying citizen of the Isle of QuasiBoho. And I am completely aware of how lucky I was, and so were all my fellow citizens. I don’t think Hirschorn meant to be critical, but the implication I get is that this life of the mind is a needless luxury, a kind of job we can easily do without.  Work for people who don’t do real work, in other words. Slackers and layabouts, apply here.

I’m not going to compare editing and writing, photography and Web management, to something physically difficult like working in jobs that make up the bottom of the list of desirable jobs. I once worked for a summer at a water-filtration plant, and that was actual labor, even though overtime and weekends never were involved. I’ve also done fast food, short-order cooking, furniture assembly and golf caddying, to mention a few other non-music or journalism jobs, and all of them involved hard, often unpleasant work that you were happy to be rid of at the end of the day.

All of which means that I understand how lucky I was to be able to do things like talk to another colleague about subtleties in an orchestral performance we both witnessed, or to jaw with the editor of the books section about how a new novelist tackled an old subject. Then again, activity in the arts is every bit as much the life of our country as anything else people work at every day , and if you don’t pay attention to it, the full life of the nation is not fully reflected. 

So he’s right: There is a certain kind of life that comes to an end with the disappearance of regular print journalism. What I think will happen is that the major brands, including the New York Times and the wire services, will become even more dominant in setting the national news agenda than they are now.  A certain subset of the people of QuasiBoho will always find work in the market of the life of the mind, but they are likely in the future to be concentrated in the big brands, no matter where in fact they actually work.

What might disappear to the vanishing point are the Little Bohos, and I think in this case not the smallest ones. The littlest towns served by a print publication can probably have that paper for some time to come because the market penetration of that paper is substantial. It’s the medium-sized papers at the medium-sized towns that are in the most jeopardy of having no Boho to go to, and that means a lot less information about what’s going on where you live, including arts activities, because the people who are going to fill the journalism jobs of the future have to have somewhere to practice their craft, and not just in blogs like this one.

I think print will be around for as long as a certain segment of the population wants it, and the providers can make it cost-effective. That segment will dwindle, but it’s always struck me that the ways of the past have a funny way of hanging in there longer than you’d think. What we may end up with is a far larger populace with a wide knowledge of the world, but a much smaller elite that shapes the agenda for that populace. We already have seen signs of this in the increasingly short, blisteringly hot news cycles that get driven by TV and the Internet and then evaporate without a trace when the news is done.

Here’s Hirschorn’s piece; it’s a good one, and worth reading. Tomorrow I’ll talk about another magazine piece I recently read that deals with arts criticism.

Library meditations, and a new arts project


Began the other day to read Alberto Manguel’s The Library at Night, and already I find it captivating. There’s something special about the bookish book for bookish people, and I’m glad people are still writing them.

Right at the beginning, Manguel writes about his own personal library in France, and he gets across a feeling with which I’m quite familiar:

But at night, when the library lamps are lit, the outside world disappears and nothing but this space of books remains in existence. To someone standing outside, in the garden, the library at night appears like a vast vessel of some sort, like that strange Chinese villa that, in 1888, the capricious Empress Cixi caused to be built in the shape of a ship marooned in the garden lake of her Summer Palace. In the dark, with the windows lit and the rows of books glittering, the library is a closed space, a universe of self-serving rules that pretend to replace or translate those of the shapeless universe beyond.

Nicely written, and I love that sense of the library as a separate thing, not just a room devoted to bibliophilia, but the literal manifestation of the curiosity of the human mind. I know having a decent selection of books around me at all times means I’m never bored. There are more than enough voices I’ve yet to hear in those pages to keep me occupied for years to come.

A new blog for area arts: We’re starting small, but a few of us have launched Palm Beach ArtsPaper on the Web. We’re a work in progress, but we’ve got some good plans for a custom site and other projects in the months ahead. Mostly, we just didn’t want our community of audience members and artists to miss out on what was happening because of what the economy has done to the critical community hosted until now by newspapers.

Please check in from time to time as we add more reviews and commentary from the arts scene here in Southeast Florida. There’s simply too much going on not to take serious notice of it.