It’s become rather common, perhaps even boringly so, for critical writers to kvetch about their craft’s growing obsolescence and looming demise. (I myself am guilty of such an act.) Such a glut of self-obsessive hand-wringing by critics is easy to dismiss, since it is so self-serving at heart and since none of it really addresses the heart of the problem (which I humbly submit is that art itself is failing in America)…
Still, in all the critical hand-wringing you have to believe there is some cogent thought and valuable information. This piece, written by Terry Teachout in July, 2007, examines with cold-eyed objectivity the disappearance of quality regional critical writing (in press publications). The article starts by quoting a veteran NY drama critic: “We’re the last generation of newspaper critics, you know. After us, everybody will be online,” and then it enumerates the situation on the ground at that time–loss of book-review sections in papers across the country, loss of classical music critics in the Chicago and Minneapolis papers, loss of regional movie critics across the country…
Teachout goes on to give a simple explanation for the situation: “Newspaper circulation is declining, driven downward by the rise of the new Web-based media, and many papers are trimming their staffs to make ends meet. Whenever times get tough at an American newspaper, fine-arts coverage gets thrown off the back of the sled first.” He also mentions that a number of critics, as well as some arts advocates–both up in arms over the cutbacks—blame arts bloggers for this situation. Teachout somewhat disagrees with this last assessment about blog critics, saying that “some of them do it better than their print-media counterparts,” but he also laments the loss of real critical perspective about the fine arts in regional print publications.
One of the most important civic duties that a newspaper performs is to cover the activities of local arts groups — but it can’t do that effectively without also employing knowledgeable critics who are competent to evaluate the work of those groups. Mere reportage, while essential, is only the first step. It’s not enough to announce that the Hooterville Art Museum finally bought itself a Picasso. You also need a staffer who can tell you whether it’s worth hanging, just as you need someone who knows whether the Hooterville Repertory Company’s production of “Private Lives” was funny for the right reasons.
In the end, Teachout concludes with two points that I happen to agree with. One, though he is now prominent NY critic, widely read and widely admired, he still worries about the loss to the overall quality of criticism now that print publications are abandoning it. After all, he says, he got his “start reviewing second-string classical concerts for the Kansas City Star 30 years ago. Now that such entry-level jobs are drying up, I fear for the future of arts journalism in America.” Just this week I had lunch with a young arts writer in his mid-20s—who’s been writing short and pithy arts preview pieces for a side-publication of one of the Minnesota dailies—and he’s begun to seriously wonder after two years at his craft whether or not there are any options for him to have an eventual career doing this thing that he’s surprised he likes so much. “I don’t know what to do,” he says, putting his finger on a certain Gen-Y dilemma. “I’d love to keep writing, but I’m at my capacity between my day job and the freelance writing gig and all the shows I end up going to. I’d also like to have a job someday that allows me to make more than 12 dollars an hour…”
Finally, Teachout warns any artist who is prone to bid glib “good riddance” to the critic: “Any artist who’s been side-swiped by a lame-brained critic will doubtless be tempted to cheer this news. Before such aggrieved folk break out the Dom Perignon, though, they should pay heed to the warning of Virgil Thomson, who dominated American music criticism in the ’40s and ’50s: ‘Perhaps criticism is useless. Certainly it is often inefficient. But it is the only antidote we have to paid publicity.’ If you think you can do without that antidote, more power to you — but you’d better be prepared to buy a lot of ads.”
As a self-serving, Minnesota-Art-Failure-Tale (MAFT) aside: I’ve been attempting to address this issue (of the death of criticism) in Minnesota since early in 2002, after a downturn in critical writing staff at the metro’s weekly and one of its daily newspapers led me to start a local art critics’ association called VACUM. I have to admit that my efforts haven’t done much good, and today, six years later, Minnesota continues to be a shrinking market for arts critical writing.