Arts Desk

The Incredible Shrinking Critic (According to Michael Kaiser)

Michael Kaiser

Whither critics? Michael Kaiser apparently thinks so. The Kennedy Center president, in his latest Huffington Post column, declares that "arts criticism has become a participatory activity rather than a spectator sport." Uh oh, looks like the netizens are out for our jobs!

Or are they? In lamenting what he sees as a decline in top-notch arts criticism in major newspapers, Kaiser makes a few true, if unoriginal, observations:

  • "Far fewer people are getting their news from print media."
  • "Advertisers are spending less in print media because fewer people are reading hard copy newspapers."
  • "Younger people get virtually all of their information online, through news web sites, social media and chat rooms."

OK, that last one is a bit 1999. Do people still use chat rooms these days for reasons beside, you know? Then again, we all know how well the Kennedy Center understands young, urbanite audiences. But Kaiser does make one other valid, though totally obvious, analysis: that with the rise of everyone owning accounts on Twitter, Facebook, and blog comment threads in addition to perhaps their own websites, the avenues for criticism have never been wider.

But here's where Kaiser gets a little bipolar. He's writing this for The Huffington Post, a place where anyone—or at least any Friend of Arianna—can wax halfwittedly about the issues of the day. Do we really need the contributions of unpaid bloggers on, say, Jean Paul Gaultier, Hugh Jackman, Jan Vermeer, or Christo and Jeanne-Claude? Oh, but those bloggers have, like, titles and mugshots, so their opinions are supreme, even if they write really stupid things.

Kaiser's not wrong in intimating that comment threads are often full of idiots, but that's an especially myopic view. Not all Internet users are part of some giant Yelp scheme in which favorable reviews are only given after a payoff. Sometimes the back-and-forth can be quite engaging. For instance, excepting a few pointless objectors, the comments on Bob Mondello's review of Imagining Madoff included a heady conversation between fellow Washington City Paper theater critic Trey Graham, the playwright Deb Margolin, and even a few civilians.

Better yet, take Travis Bedard, a contributor to the excellent and altogether non-mainstream-media theater blog 2amtheatre.com. In a post today responding to Kaiser, Bedard, the artistic director of a company in Austin, Texas, reminds us that smart criticism doesn't require a specific academic degree or the marque of a major broadsheet newspaper. Instead, Bedard, writes, "Keep writing. You have opinions about things in your world ... and your opinions matter. Respond to these things simply to have a record for yourself of having felt and thought that way, but also? You never ever know who’s reading."

In Bedard's case, it's probably safe to say that Kaiser is not reading.

Kaiser also laments that sites like TalkinBroadway.com, TheaterMania.com, and Playbill.com are lousy with "blogs, chat rooms and message boards" giving professional critics "a slew of competitors." Maybe so with the first two sites, but Playbill has been a fixture in American theater—including the Kennedy Center—since the late 19th century. It might be an insidery tabloid, but it's not exactly new, so it's peculiar that in a blog post trashing the Internet, Kaiser would malign the website of the most ubiquitous publication associated with his industry.

Locally, a site like DC Theatre Scene might be run by "people from both sides of the stage," but it still races with Washington City Paper, The Washington Post, and others to break news and analysis about the performing arts. One hopes people get paid to do good work, but a lack of payment should not be grounds for automatic dismissal of the criticism. If it's good, it's good. The weight of an unpaid but intelligent blogger dissecting a play is far greater than some snippy commenter bitching that his seat was uncomfortable.

If Kaiser can't see that, he should probably try following Bedard's advice.

And to Kaiser's other point that the Arts & Leisure section of The New York Times is wearing thin of articles and reviews about "serious opera, dance, music or theater" in exchange for more "popular entertainment" (i.e. film, television, and pop music), he's wrong again. Yes, the arts section, like all other pieces of the newspaper, used to be fatter, but even in its slimmed-down form there's still plenty of "serious" stuff. Yesterday's Times featured a dialogue between Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin, a profile of Alan Rickman as he prepares for a new Broadway role (only three of 1,100 words were "Potter" or "Snape"), a preview of a dance show at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and a full-page feature on a new opera by Peter Maxwell Davies. By his own logic, Kaiser must have skipped Manohla Dargis' column on a short film series that probably will only be seen by a handful of true movie geeks in Los Angeles, and a very smart essay by Porochista Khakpour—a creative writing professor, not a journalist, by the way—on the new TLC series All-American Muslim.

Wait, I forgot movies and television aren't serious. You know what else is laughable? Discarding entire mediums because they have no barrier to access. If many Internet conversationalists are pea-brained, they all must all be, right?

Wrong. There are good critics in this great, big series of tubes. From a personal preference I'd like to think the best criticism still gets printed—or at least posted on the website of a print publication—but it's reassuring to know that there's smart, aggressive competition in the digital realm.

Kaiser ends his column by warning that with the rise of the Internet critic, "great art must not be measured by a popularity contest. Otherwise the art that appeals to the lowest common denominator will always be deemed the best." Because it's not like the Kennedy Center ever engages in that.

Photograph courtesy of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation using a Creative Commons ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license.

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Comments

  1. #1

    Zing!

  2. #2

    Brilliant article, especially the point about how an art isn't art just because it's inaccessible. Frankly, I like the variety of options I have now. I can check Tom Sietsema's take on a restaurant but also see what my good friends think about it. In some cases I trust my friends more than him. One isn't necessarily more "valid" than the other, it's just about context.

  3. #3

    Kaiser is entirely correct.

    There are two separate things here and the article conflagrates them.

    First is the struggle of the business model supporting professional critics, and so the disappearance of professional critics, and second is the rise of online media. I don't see Kaiser objecting to the second. What Kaiser laments isn't the rise of online media, and the multiplication of the number of critics, but the decline of traditional criticism. And he is right to be worried.

    Professional critics have always mediated between new art (which the public finds odd) and that time ten years later when the odd is integrated. Whitman said, "to have great poetry, you need great audiences", and that is part of what critics have always done.

    We should be scared of american idol-style criticism. Recognizing that the market is struggling to support good criticism, the arts magazine I manage created the DC Student Arts Journalism Challenge to identify and support the next generation of arts journalists. The competition is now in its second year, and I'm very proud of what we're doing with it. You can see more about it here: http://bourgeononline.com/student-arts-journalism-challenge/

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