How the death of professional journalism is impacting the arts in 21st-century America (and what we can do about it)
Editor’s note: Part 1 of Art in a Critic Free Zone can be found here.
By Paul Horsley
Whose Version of History Will We Believe?
In the absence of vigorous critical curiosity many of the larger arts organizations have taken to “telling their own stories,” as the executive director of a major orchestra said to me a few years ago. (Balanchine himself is reported to have said something quite similar: “Ballet will speak for itself and about itself.”) One can understand the frustration: In the absence of press coverage, why shouldn’t an arts group hire a recently fired journalist to help tell its stories? In 2017 Tim Mangan, one of the West Coast’s most influential classical music critics, left his post at the Orange County Register to accept the newly created position as writer-in-residence for the Pacific Symphony, the orchestra he had formerly covered as part of his “beat.” For a year, he contributed feature stories to the symphony’s blog that often resembled the articles he wrote for the Register — with the notable difference, of course, that they contained no negative commentary whatsoever. (Alas, that position was eliminated in September 2018 due to lack of funds.)
Many arts groups find themselves hiring social media consultants as part of their marketing teams, a reflection of the extent to which Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and of course blogs (and online commentary in general) have become the locus of a sort of “new criticism” — the Fifth Estate as it has been dubbed. Indeed, reviews from the general public in the form of Tweets and Instagram posts have, for many young arts enthusiasts, become the go-to source for “hot tips.”
At the same time, larger arts groups have not given up entirely on the conventional press. Those that can afford a full-time staff “media liaison,” for instance, find they can often get better press simply because they become the sort of “squeaky wheel.” As associate director of marketing and communication for Hubbard Street Dance from 2012-2016, Zachary Whittenburg — himself a critic and a former dancer who had served as dance editor for Time Out Chicago — found that the more information he provided to local press outlets, the better and more extensive coverage the company received.
“I had the advantageous position of representing one of the finest dance companies in the country, if not the world, and one in which the people of Chicago place a lot of their hometown pride,” said Whittenburg in an email exchange. He currently serves as communications and engagement director for Arts Alliance Illinois.
But even a company such as Hubbard Street didn’t “sell itself,” he added. “I had a habit of sending a lot of background information to our press in advance. I tried to anticipate as many basic questions as I could so that, once we were in the theater, we could focus on the finer points, and dig a little deeper. Having been on ‘the other side of the fence,’ I understood that the more work I put into my role as a press liaison, the better the reviews we got would be — and I don’t mean ‘good’ as in ‘positive.’ For me, ‘a good review’ is one that is well-informed, factually correct, and which considers the needs of both the artists and the readers.”
The Sixth Estate
For the most part, though, dance criticism as we have traditionally defined it is vanishing, probably forever. And no amount of verbiage on how pointe shoes are made or what a dancer eats for breakfast is going to help audience members — not to mention future historians — understand what is happening onstage in today’s dance. “This means that dance is becoming another item in the experiential supermarket, a thoughtless art without a memory,” Mainwaring writes. “As emerging choreographers come onto the scene — and there’s some very substantive work being made today — it remains unclear as to who will have either the expertise or the outlet needed to discuss the importance of these developing artistic voices.”
Both Mainwaring and Debra Cash join a growing number of voices expressing concern not just over the death of the profession of arts criticism, but also over an even stronger fear that the lack of aesthetic, economic and social accountability to which we hold non-profit groups will permit the arts in America to disintegrate into yet another “commodity” driven by sheer profit-motive.
This has long been a concern for criticism, of course, as expressed nearly a decade ago by journalism professor Alisa Solomon in a Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) piece by David Hajdu about consumerism and the critic (“Condition Critical: Can arts critics survive the poison pill of consumerism?”). “This isn’t just a crisis in arts criticism,” said Solomon, who is director of the arts concentration program at Columbia Journalism School. “This is a problem in the culture at large, and it has been, certainly, for the last eight years, when some basic principles have held sway that are inimical to serious criticism in all spheres. Those are ideas about the ‘ownership society’ and about the free market — the idea that anything that’s worthwhile has to pay for itself.”
In a culture that disdains expertise of any kind (two words: “fake news”), and which views intelligent conversation as “elitist and therefore oppressive,” Solomon continued, “critics look not only dispensable, but somehow evil or wrong. Our attitudes toward the arts have been framed within this notion that they have to have some kind of utilitarian or commercial value, and we’re losing our ability to talk about them in other terms.”
Yet serious criticism in the “primary news sources” of cities across the country has also helped steer the course of how organizations large and small make their artistic and economic decisions. (Think of it as the part of the voting public’s “right to know” about organizations to which we have granted non-profit status.) And the loss of regular expert opinion, it stands to reason, could eventually impact not just the quality of the arts being produced in a given place but the very health of the art itself — not to mention the facilities in which they are presented. (Some planners of Kansas City’s Kauffman Center have said they believe that without a decade of extensive exposure in the local press the project might never have been completed, at least not in its current form.) Indeed, there is every reason to believe this process has begun.
In the best of worlds, of course, marketability and aesthetic value need not be antithetical. Arts groups go to great lengths to find content that can both fulfill their “vision” and sustain them economically. Almost by definition, in fact, non-profits produce very little that is viable in a traditional market economy, Whittenburg said. “Already, before the first rehearsal even begins, they’re half-funded, at most, by earned revenue.” Ideally the funding community is “in tune” with the artistic climate in which it functions, and artists seek ways to inspire excitement among that community, initially, to get any project off the ground. But what happens, Whittenburg asked, when artists, audiences and dance funders have different ideas about which projects fulfill an organization’s mission? “If and when they don’t, who’s responsible for the reconciliation?”
Traditionally critics have played a crucial role in the conversation as to whether an artwork — “popular” or not — is worthy in the long run. “Now, dance curators and presenters do a lot of that heavy lifting, too,” he added, “as do marketing professionals and dance advocates and scholars.” If a project is so “out there” that audiences decide to stay home and watch TV anyway, it’s all for naught. “And if there is no audience for the work, then the artist or producer has to ask herself or himself or themselves why they feel they need an audience for that work to be complete — and maybe the truth is that they don’t.”
Stop Boring Me!
“It’s better to be absolutely ridiculous than absolutely boring,” Marilyn Monroe is alleged to have said. Is the art of criticism simply less engaging than it used to be? Those making this argument often compare today’s critics to some of the greatest writers of our time, which might seem unfair to a workaday critic who spends 80-hour weeks covering multiple art-forms in Sacramento or Sarasota. “[Lionel] Trilling was read because, however small the circulation of The Partisan Review, it was dedicated enough that it could be an ongoing concern,” said Sam Tanenhaus in the same CJR article cited above. “Even more important was the fact that his ideas could filter out through more prominent publications into the culture. There used to be room for a very idea-driven critical journalism. Now what you get is a lot of opinion, especially but not only on the web.”
One likes to think there might someday be a “Sixth Estate,” a body of web-based expert commentary that manages to find a business model — one that can afford to hire specialists to cover arts groups with the same kind of professionalism at which the organizations themselves are expected to perform. Sadly, at large newspapers owned by publicly traded companies, web traffic — which accounts for more than half of most newspapers’ readership these days — is currently measured with such an unrealistic yardstick that no arts writer can compete with, say, NFL or Big Ten coverage.
By the time the door hit the derrières of the last arts critics at the Kansas City Star, no arts reporter could possibly keep up with the page-view quotas, which this year ranged from a million to 1.5 million per year in a city of 1.8 million inhabitants.
Arts lovers are optimists, fortunately, and many believe that, while criticism might be undergoing seismic shifts, so is the art that it purports to cover. Why should we expect to suffer any less than the starving artists who are being ever-marginalized by American society? “Perhaps we’re also witnessing the birth of something else, something new,” said arts reporter Hady Mawajdeh, in a discussion with Jerome Weeks at artandseek.org, a website administered by KERA Public Radio & Television in Dallas. (The article’s title is as provocative as its content: “Newspapers Are Banishing All Their Arts Writers. Or, Wait, Is That The Good News?”)
Gig Economy for Critics
If that’s the case, replied Weeks, who is the blog’s senior arts producer, “I sure hope it pays. Because the current web set-up doesn’t support consistent, thoughtful, ongoing, influential, locally focused cultural criticism or hard-news journalism — any more than many of our media companies do nowadays. Nor does the web support many working artists whose careers were seriously disrupted by the recession. So paycheck-wise, critics are now in the same economic hole as the artists or actors, musicians or novelists they cover. Welcome to our great gig economy, the ‘crash of the creative class.’”
If there’s a silver lining, Weeks said, it’s that good writing will always find a place, however small or niche-based. “Quality content, smartly written, smartly presented, eventually gains an audience. Period. And I believe that holds for criticism. People have always turned to knowledgeable, persuasive, inspiring, entertaining sources for ways to think about and appreciate the arts they enjoy. Or just to help them understand what the heck they saw last night at the theater.”
Paul Horsley is performing arts editor for The Independent, a journal of society and culture in Kansas City. From 2000 to 2008 he was classical music and dance critic for The Kansas City Star, and before that he was program annotator and musicologist for the Philadelphia Orchestra. He has contributed to The New York Times, Dance Magazine, Pointe, Symphony, Musical America, Chamber Music, the American Record Guide, Playbill and numerous other publications. In 2003, he was a National Endowment for the Arts/New York Times Foundation Fellow at the Institute for Dance Criticism at the American Dance Festival. He received a Fulbright Postdoctoral Fellowship for study in the Czech Republic, a Newberry Library Fellowship for research in Chicago, and a German Academic Exchange Grant for study in Berlin and Munich. He holds bachelor’s degrees in piano performance and journalism and he earned his M.A. and Ph.D. in musicology from Cornell University. Find him at kcindependent.com or on Twitter at @phorsleycritic.
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