A FEW WEEKS AGO, over tropical cocktails at a party at my home, I spoke with my old friend and colleague Caroline Palmer. Caroline and I first met about ten years ago, when we both started writing around the same time for the alt-weekly in Minneapolis, City Pages. She was a dance critic, and I was a writer on visual art, but we had certain key things in common that guaranteed we’d become friends: we were both in our early thirties at the time, and nowhere as cool and hip as the average alt-weekly writer; we both had come up as practitioners, in our twenties, of what we wrote about (she a dancer, me a visual artist); we both had made a conscious decision to give up professional pursuit of artistic practices in favor of more secure and stable work and income (she a nonprofit lawyer, me a book publisher); and we both were, despite our giving up the practices, completely dedicated to and fascinated by our respective fields.
For various reasons, Caroline and I hadn’t seen each other for several years. I had been forced to stop writing art criticism for City Pages four years earlier, when the newspaper began to struggle with declining advertising income and space became a premium, so I no longer saw her at social events related to the paper. Then, in short order, I got divorced, moved across the country, got several new jobs and a graduate degree (in arts management), moved back, got engaged to someone new, got married, got another new job, and remodeled a house.
Eventually, we reconnected. Caroline has continued writing for City Pages, in the process becoming—after a year-long littany of layoffs, staff turnovers, firings, and other guttings (that started with the firing of the editor who first cut back on my visual arts writing) decimated the paper in 2007—the currently longest continously employed writer at City Pages.
At the party, I congratulated her on her longevity. “Yeah, I know,” she said. “I can’t believe I’m still doing things with them. You wouldn’t believe how much things have changed over there in the past year. It’s a completely different place. I don’t know. The atmosphere is different… It used to be fun and lively, but now it’s just glum.” We talked a bit about writers we knew in common who had been let go by the papers corporate masters—whoever they might be now—and how poorly they had been treated by the outsourced management. A few of the (unceremoniously) shit-canned writers—like film critic Rob Nelson, and music writer Jim Walsh—had an actual national following and cred.
“Well, at least you’re still writing,” I said. She smiled wanly. “Yeah, but it’s not the same. All they let me do now is write A-List blurbs,” (this is the same deal I was offered by the arts editor when he told me they’d no longer be taking visual art stories or reviews), “I really miss writing reviews. Saying something significant about dance, you know? I wish I could just find a place to write dance reviews. It’s really all I want to do.”
A LOT OF ARTISTS profess to hate critics, their inconstancy, their unpredictability, their lack of support of artists (read: of them), their recalcitrant independence. Some artists say “good riddance” to the critic who gets downsized out of the local papers and publications, and they exclaim, “so what? Things are tough all over. What have you ever done for me?” Then, in time, many of these same callous artists turn around and bemoan how hard it is to get attention from an ambivalent, overtaxed, overstimulated public.
It’s looking now, more and more, in this Web 2.0 mob-rules age of user-generated content, that artists won’t have to worry about being frustrated by professional critics anymore. Even though a 2003 report saw a huge lack of cultural coverage in the nation’s daily papers, things have grown worse. Among national and regional publications of late, we’ve seen significant layoffs in every field of artistic and creative endeavor. It’s been true in visual arts criticism, literary criticism, classical, jazz and other music criticism, even movie criticism. It’s gotten so bad, that the venerable national weekly news magazine Newsweek recently fired its entire cultural staff.
At the party, I had no answer for Caroline’s dream of writing reviews about dance. Though I still write occasional art reviews for local publications and several national ones, it’s true that the local media landscape has become increasingly denuded. It also seems that things will only be getting worse in coming years. The weeks since Caroline’s lament have seen two major firings of prominent professionals in Caroline’s field—both Laura Bleiberg of the OC Register and Deborah Jowitt of the Village Voice have lost their dance critic jobs.
And lest you pull out a gut-wrench “good riddance,” or “you’ve never done me any good,” or “you’ve never written anything worth reading anyway” (translation: you’ve never written anything about me), consider: Fewer working experienced critics means less opportunity for being written about (not more); fewer regular publication venues for arts criticism and writing means almost no opportunity for young writers to learn their craft, hone their judgment, and develop professional future careers as critics; and, ultimately, the loss of arts criticism means that the forces of blind commerce and bottom-dollar, high-yield economics will be dictating to the rest of us, for many many years to come, that our culture will be grayer, drabber, less vibrant, less diverse, and generally less understood and appreciated than it otherwise could have been.