Blog Post

The State of Art Criticism and How Technology Can Help

The climate for art criticism is in a state of flux.  There is essentially no economic climate for reviews, which has led to an increase in unpaid freelance art criticism on sites such as culturevulture.net and ballet-dance.com; paid art critics still exist on staff at major newspapers.  The role of the art critic in determining what is good art and what is bad art is increasingly viewed as expendable, Maurice Berger writes in his book, The Crisis of Criticism

In his essay, "Condition Critical," CJR reporter David Hajdu notes that the audience for intellectually engaging criticism - as opposed to reviews with a service function - is on the wane, a condition that greatly threatens the long-term sustainability of art criticism as a genre (50). Hajdu cites Alisa Solomon, director of the Arts and Culture Program at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, in stating that present-day ideas about the ownership society and about the free market the idea that anything that is worthwhile has to pay for itself are contrary to serious criticism in all spheres (50). "In an environment where there's disdain for expertise, and where intelligent conversation about a topic is considered elitist and therefore oppressive, critics look not only dispensable, but somehow evil or wrong," Solomon says (qtd. Hajdu 50).

In his essay, "State of the Art," Barry Gewen references the book Art Since 1900, noting the authors' beliefs that art has become little more than commodity production, investment portfolio and entertainment.  Recognizing the difficulty of critiquing art in such a setting, a setting in which anything goes and in which art is not definable by quantifiable standards, Gewen describes a variety of coping strategies that he has observed in the field. Such strategies include focusing intently on the political implications of a work, reviewing from an academic standpoint, and removing judgment from reviews.  The art criticism field has also seen an increase in laudatory reviews in all genres, which has pushed it toward having a more commercial function in society.

I propose that in the interest of sustaining the field of art criticism, it is necessary to re-imagine the ways in which critics connect to their readerships. By engaging audiences in critical discussions via the Internet/social media, critics can invite a wider, more diverse slice of the public to interact with a part of society that is often viewed as being reserved for the upper class.

Arts Criticism as Commercial Product

As early as the 1970s, critics were growing concerned about the growing commercial function of arts criticism. "It may be that it is time to abandon not art but art criticism, which has anyway become little more than a shopping guide," said American writer, educator, philosopher and art critic Harold Rosenburg just before his death in 1978 (Gewen). And the situation has persisted to the present day.

In his 2009 essay, Hajdu explains that today, art criticism often acts as a conductor for mass consumption, directing the public toward or away from certain movies, books, performances and the like (49).  It is for this reason that the arts pages in many printed publications have become obsolete, Solomon says (Hajdu 50); it is for the same reason that the climate for online criticism has grown so rapidly during the last decade.  

"Our attitudes toward the arts have been framed within this notion that they have to have some sort of commercial value, and we're losing our ability to talk about them in other terms," Solomon says (qtd. Hajdu 50).

In the same piece, Hadju discusses the glance box that often accompanies movie reviews in Entertainment Weekly; this small box lists movies that are playing around the country, followed by grades assigned to those titles by six movie critics polled by the magazine (49). But Entertainment Weekly is not the only publication that does this; movie ratings are seen across the news media, and are often given in the form of stars, thumbs up/thumbs down, report card-like letter grades, or cute sayings such as Rent it or Buy it.  By utilizing an infographic structure, media outlets reduce what could have been pages of insightful prose to a terse, rudimentary form.

"From that box tucked under the text of a movie review, the conception of arts coverage as a kind of ineffably digestible, data-driven form of service journalism steadily expanded in the pages of EW, and it has expanded far beyond them," Hajdu writes (49). 

 

Hajdu references websites such as Metacritic, Rotten Tomatoes and Critic-O-Meter as furthering the superficial mass consumption of arts criticism.  Metacritic is an aggregate site that averages the movie, game, TV and music ratings of critics from multiple publications to grade new releases on a scale of 1-100.  The reviews selected by Metacritic come from established news publications, giving the site a heightened air of credibility.  However, the site features only the most informational blurbs from these reviews, which detracts from the artistry and creativity that go into writing a piece of art criticism.

Rotten Tomatoes allows users to search for ratings of actors, directors, movies and DVDs, as averaged on a scale of 1-100 percent approval; anything rated 51 percent or higher earns a fresh tomato icon, while those at or below 50 percent are deemed rotten.  The site has firm rules about the qualifications of its featured critics, and is similar to Metacritic in its layout; pull quotes are selected from each review and a reader may click a link to read a review in its entirety. 

Critic-O-Meter, now called StageGrade, focuses on New York City plays and musicals, and uses an A+ to F- grading scale. Each grade is defined by a blanket statement about critics reviews; for example, an A- means that The review contains high praise with at least one quibble, while a C means "Meh." It is clear through its reductionist tendencies that this site does little to preserve the integrity of pieces of art criticism. StageGrade gets its information from published reviews only, but the site is unclear about whether any further regulations exist. StageGrade will soon give users the abilities to write their own reviews, to track the amateur reviewers they trust, and to give recommendations, indicating an even more pronounced shift away from traditional art criticism. 

Amateur Reviews

Due to the increased production of amateur reviews and the immediacy of online publication, readers are just as likely to seek their friends advice before seeking out the opinion of an established critic on any given topic; Berger writes that the consumer has become the king in public evaluative processes.

In his article "Everyone Eats," The Columbia Journalism Review's Robert Sietsema reflects on the boom in amateur criticism that has occurred in recent years, with a focus on food criticism. He notes that the prose in these blogs is often spontaneous and unedited, and that its quality can range from "barely readable" to "brilliant and innovative." More of concern than the prose itself is the means by which publication-unaffiliated reviewers are conducting their reviews.

"From their inception, these restaurant-reviewing blogs saw no point in adhering to the rules established, nor did they, in most cases, announce what the substitute rules were. Most rejected anonymity, accepting or even soliciting free food in the restaurants under review," Sietsema writes. 

 Such a lack in ethical considerations calls into question the legitimacy and the objectivity of reviews produced under these circumstances.  Also in question are the credentials of the writer.

But it is unfair to dismiss all bloggers based on their title alone, says Time Out Chicago Dance Editor Zac Whittenburg, noting that bloggers arent necessarily amateur, and that seasoned critics dont necessarily know anything. He explains that the Internet has radically restructured the publics ability to assess a critic's credibility at a glance, adding that someone who has the benefit of name recognition and association with a publication wont necessarily have more readers than someone who is an expert in a given field.

New York Times Dance Critic Claudia La Rocco agrees. "I dont think it is true that the criticism in newspapers is going to be automatically better than that on blogs," she says. "What I get at the Times is an incredible scaffolding and structure that is going to enhance my writing, but we can all name good and bad magazine critics, and bloggers as well."

For Whittenburg, it all comes down to the critic's experience and the frequency with which he or she is attending performances. "I'm not inclined to take someone's opinion seriously if he or she sees one show a month or a year," he says. To him, Whittenburg continues, amateurism is dilettantism (somebody who takes up a subject or interest in a superficial or desultory way/somebody who is very interested in the fine arts) it is people who think it might be fun, but who only have one toe in the water. "They aren't diving in and soaking themselves in the field," he adds, noting that usually amateur critics don't have enough background to properly assess a piece.

"In dance, it is the opposite of what it tends to be in other fields - you often have an amateurish movie review that is really nasty. In dance, I see most amateur dance criticism as being really overly positive and congratulatory," Whittenburg says.

But the problem doesnt exist in dance criticism alone.

Industry Cheerleaders

More and more, critics in all fields of art criticism exist solely as industry cheerleaders; in his article, "Condition Critical," David Hajdu discusses the trend toward viewing criticism as a form of publicity and advertising.

For example, many music critics review with the goal of looking cool, or of aligning themselves with the right album at the right time, comments an anonymous long-time rock critic (qtd. Hajdu 50).

"There's this fear that you could hurt your career or your image if you go out on a limb and say 'I don't like The Hold Steady or Arcade Fire.' So, for various reasons, people have decided to focus on the positive and be of good service to the readers," the critic stated (Hajdu 51). 

But some critics have motives outside of maintaining self-image - keeping their jobs, for instance. Recognizing a dwindling economic market for the arts, some critics use boosterism as a form of arts advocacy (Hajdu 51).  Such critics are of the mindset that by encouraging people to attend art-related events or to purchase commercial art products, they are garnering funding and support, and building a broader audience for the fine arts.  By increasing the amount of money in circulation in the fine arts realm, these critics hope to prolong the existence and importance of their own profession (51).

Academic Criticism/Political Lens

Other critics follow more academic paths; these critics historically have tendencies to base their arguments on obscure theoretical models and to infuse their reviews with jargon (Berger 8). This contributes to the marginalization of criticism, Berger writes, by making the writing highly inaccessible to a publications readership. 

Critics also have a higher likelihood to analyze art through a political lens. Critics' attribution of political and social themes to art makes sense when one considers that the government is much more likely to fund art that it believes has some sort of political or social benefit (Berger 18). 

In her essay, "Discussing the Undiscussable," Arlene Croce writes that some forms of utilitarian art art that justifies the arts bureaucracy's existence by being socially useful makes it difficult for critics to do their jobs properly.  For example, Croce cites choreographer Bill T. Jones' "Still/Here," a multimedia piece of choreography that includes AIDS victims' personal narratives, as being beyond review (24); Croce maintains that Jones crossed the line between theatre and reality in his thinking that victimhood in and of itself is sufficient to the creation of an art spectacle, (Berger 17).  The unabashed social and political overtones of the work created a no-win environment for Croces role as critic, she writes; she adds that she believes that Jones, as an HIV+ person himself, effectively disarmed criticism, especially in creating a piece about AIDS (Berger 24).   

"The need for any further evaluation, formal or otherwise, has been discredited," Croce writes. "If an artist paints a picture in his own blood, what does it matter if I think its not a very good picture? If he mixes the blood with Day-Glo colors, who will criticize him? The artist is going to bleed to death, and that's it," (Berger 24).

Snark

Snark is a shorthand term used to describe a snide remark.  In his article "Lit Seen: David Denby on Snark," The Village Voice's Zach Baron presents two conflicting views regarding the use of snark in journalistic criticism - his own, and that of David Denby. Denby writes that snark is utilized by established journalists who are afraid that they are going to vanish, or by aspiring writers desperately attempting to crack a dying profession.  In his book, Snark, Denby explains that snark is often used to offer solidarity between two or more parties and to exclude someone from the same group. The tone is often used by journalists on Twitter, the social network on which "every journalist is a press critic," writes The Daily Beast's Ben Crair.

In his article, "Twitter is Destroying Press Criticism," Crair gave the following example: In November 2010, Fox News chief Roger Ailes made a comment to The Daily Beast's Howard Kurtz that NPR is run by Nazis; shortly thereafter, Twitter users began re-imagining NPRs programming for Das Fuhrer: "This American Life" became "This American Reich," and so on.

Crair notes that journalists often attack other publications in ways meant to emphasize their own superiority to the thing they mock; he says that Twitter brings out the worst in people, which when it comes to many writers, "appears to be an insecurity about their own standing in the journalistic firmament and a consequential complex that attempts to camouflage this insecurity with mockery and snark."

In contrast, Baron believes that the use of snark may be one of the few paths to success in an industry where the more conventional paths - long-form investigative journalism, arts criticism - are threatened, if not nearly extinct. He cites the case of writer Emily Gould as an example; she published an essay in The New York Times Magazine about her experiences blogging for Gawker and has been a hit with a "certain class of Internet-savvy New York youngster, without a sense of humor or self-awareness" (Rovzar). But these fans arent necessarily in the majority; there is also a large section of Times readers who find Gould's self-involvement and mindless prattle to be an embarrassment (Traister).

In her piece, "Another pretty face of a generation," Salon.com's Rebecca Traister explains that after Gould's article was published in The NYT Magazine, "the typically staid Times comments section roiled with readers who were practically apoplectic in their loathing for Gould."

The snarky reader comments actually boosted Gould's fame, despite her apparent lack of mass appeal.

"Perhaps most maddening is the way the buildup of critical attention to a piece like Gould's -- or to a cultural phenomenon like 'Sex and The City' -- only affirms that certain kinds of women, and only those kinds of women, are worth elevating to begin with, in part because of the delight people take in tearing them down," Traister writes.

Traister later writes that it is okay to criticize poor performance, but that it is important not to project stereotypes or personal bias onto the subject in question. 

Moving Beyond the Surface

Berger presents the idea that art critics must strive to help the reader to move beyond the surface details of the cultural artifact. Art always reflects the needs, politics, intellectual and aesthetic priorities, and tastes of the artist, the institutions that support and disseminate his or her work, and the social and cultural universe of which both are a part (Berger 11). It is up to the art critic to make such connections and to thereby allow readers to place the art in question in context. 

Time Out Chicago editor Zachary Whittenburg agrees, stating, "The best review serves the work and serves the field in which that work is taking place. The poor review serves the reviewer or the publication. When the whole review is talking about good or bad," he explains, "it is missing how the work is in dialogue with other work that is happening in the field, or how it is communicating issues outside of its own field." When the reviewer gives himself the space to pull back to see the nexus of alignments and where they converge in the piece - when he looks outside the work to see where they are pointing - that reviewer is more successful, Whittenburg adds.

La Rocco holds a similar view.

"My interest in criticism is more as the cultivating of thought," she says. "I'm not interested in criticism that builds a case for something and ends in judgment. Of course judgment is a part of criticism, but I think the criticism that most excites me doesn't stop there. It uses the work as a triangulation between the work of art the mind of the critic and the world at large."

Hajdu writes that the higher mission of critics in all realms of the arts is to confront works of art intelligently and honestly, and to stir readers to thought and to feeling (51).  New York Times Book Review Editor Sam Tanenhaus discusses the publication's habit of regularly publishing negative reviews, stating that the practice is effective in cultivating a broad audience of readers.  "The way the critic [provokes interest in the reader] is to abandon himself or herself to the work," Tanenhaus says (qtd. Hajdu 51). "Now, it may not be the happiest abandonment, but the sense is that there's something serious at stake - that it matters whether this book is good or not. The writing about the book matters. The argument matters."

Whittenburg cites Edwin Denby's quote, "It isn't a critics job to have the right opinions; it is his job to have interesting ones," in his discussion of what constitutes quality art criticism.  "A review can launch thought and dialogue about what is happening," Whittenburg says, "which is more important than its announcement of judgment on the quality or success of the artwork or the performance."

My argument/research

In art criticism's abilities to further discussion in public spheres and to broaden public access to the arts, it proves itself to be a vital part of todays social, cultural and political environments. 

In an effort to make the arts more accessible, dance critics and artistic directors have utilized the digital age of the media to facilitate further critical discussion of the arts. New York Times dance critics Charles Isherwood and Alastair MacCauley published an extended critical discussion regarding Twyla Tharp's "Come Fly Away" in lieu of writing post-performance reviews as a way of inviting their readership into an intimate critical conversation.  

Such a technique has also been employed recently at Time Out Chicago; Whittenburg says that he talked to Time Out's theatre critic about "doing an Isherwood-MacCauley" about Billy Elliot, but that it has not yet happened. Time Out Chicago Film Editor Hank Sartin framed a 2010 Holiday film preview about "Black Swan" as a Q & A with former ballerina Julia Rhoads; Sartin took a similar approach with the film "Made in Dagenham," using union organizer Rebia Mixon as his expert consult.

Misnomer Dance Company, a New York-based company with a dedication to redefining the relationship between dance and the Internet, has also invested in dialogue-based analysis and critique. Artistic Director Chris Elam streams performances live on its website and allows site visitors to participate in a moderated discussion about pieces of choreography.  Adhering to the idea that journalism should lead to and facilitate the exchange of ideas in an open marketplace, Misnomer has taken a step in the right direction.

Elam has two main goals in his re-imagined web usage: to create an online system that allows performing arts organizations to deepen audience engagement, and to redefine the role of the audience member.

"In most cases, performing artists interact with their audiences once a year and for the rest of the year so much of what makes the art meaningful to [the artists] is invisible to the audienceit is the behind the scenes.  If an audience member sees a company perform and is inspired, there aren't a lot of other ways to connect with that performer again", Elam says.

Elam invests in creating meaningful touchpoints throughout the year that allow audience members to play an active role in the company's creative process. These touchpoints range from holding live brainstorming sessions about upcoming works to asking audience members to vote on costume design or title. By doing this, he said, audience members can personally invest in the work and thus foster deeper connections with it. So where does the critic fit in?

Critics can use Elam's model as a way of interacting with their audiences throughout the reviewing process, especially if they are not writing on tight deadlines. In my own experience, I have found that having conversations with my peers about a performance deeply informs my reviews, as it heightens my awareness of alternate viewpoints and interpretations.  I tend to solidify my own opinions during these conversations, as they force me to endure a certain level of questioning, on both an intrapersonal and an interpersonal level.  And courtesy of social media, post-performance conversations are now easier to have than ever; thanks to sites like Twitter and Facebook, critics and their readerships can have discussions in real time about the nature and implications of works of art.

"There are so many critical conversations happening on Twitter," La Rocco notes. " It is allowing anyone to listen in on these conversations that are being fired back and forth. Those conversations would happen otherwise but in a small environment and people wouldnt be privy to them. I think that Twitter is changing criticism in new ways that we can't even wrap our brains around right now."

But Twitter is also integral to the field of art criticism in its ability to widely distribute written work; Twitter users can post or "ReTweet" links to reviews with just the click of a button.

"People share articles through social media all the time," Whittenburg says. "When something is written well and feels like it means something, it is so easy to share it. A new article will go zooming around the world in an hour and will be read by a million or two people in a few hours. That is new - that is unprecedented."

Whittenburg explains that the Internet has a way of pushing the cream to the top. In other words, articles that circulate widely are traditionally those that make some sort of notable impact, and a wide circulation indicates significant public engagement. 

Based on Whittenburg and La Rocco's assessments, it looks as though the future of criticism may not be doomed after all.  In fact, La Rocco even argues its necessity to the United States governmental structure. 

"I see [criticism] as being necessary in that being able to elucidate what one thinks about something is absolutely essential to the workings of a healthy democracy," she says. "It is the idea of citizen access - if people aren't informed and able to speak about the systems that they are a part of, that is problematic."

And with the help of art criticism, there may be hope for an informed general public yet.

 

Source list:

 

1. Baron, Zach. Lit Seen: David Denby on Snark. The Village Voice. Jan. 21 2009. Nov. 14, 2010. http://www.villagevoice.com/2009-01-21/books/lit-seen-michael-robbins-s-alien-vs-predator-explained-david-denby-on-snark/.

 

2. Berger, Maurice, ed. The Crisis of Criticism. New York: The New York Press, 1998.

 

3. Crair, Ben. Twitter is Destroying Press Criticism. The Daily Beast. Nov. 22, 2010. Dec. 12, 2010. http://www.businessinsider.com/twitter-is-destroying-press-criticism-201...

 

4. Craven, Peter. Eventful merging of critic with the fan an unqualified success. The Age (Melbourne, Australia). Sept. 10, 2010. Nov. 10, 2010. http://www.lexisnexis.com.proxy2.library.uiuc.edu/lnacui2api/results/docview/docview.do?docLinkInd=true&risb=21_T10600190323&format=GNBFI&sort=BOOLEAN&startDocNo=1&resultsUrlKey=29_T10600180145&cisb=22_T10600233019&treeMax=true&treeWidth=0&selRCNodeID=59&nodeStateId=29126601en_US2E9A18CFF75C44F286221C9F8600BB98,1&docsInCategory=145&csi=314239&docNo=2.

 

5. Denby, David. Snark: Its mean, Its personal, and Its ruining our conversation. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009.

 

6.Elam, Chris. Artistic Director of Misnomer Dance Theater. Personal interview. May 3 2010. 917-602-0478.

 

      7. Gewen, Barry. State of the Art. The New York Times. Dec. 11, 2005. Nov. 10, 2010. <http://www.nytimes.com/2005/12/11/books/review/11gewen.html>.

 

      8. Hajdu, David. Condition Critical The Columbia Journalism Review. January/February 2009. November 30, 2010.

 

      9. Isherwood, Charles and Alastair MacCauley. One Loves It. One Loathes It. Thats Life. The New York Times. March 31, 2010. Nov. 10, 2010. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/01/theater/01tharp.html.

 

      10. La Rocco, Claudia. Dance Critic for The New York Times. Personal Interview. Dec. 10, 2010. 917-648-1041

 

      11. Rovzar, Chris and Jessica Pressler. Emily Gould Will Not Let Us Ignore Her Upcoming Times Magazine Cover Story. The New York Times Magazine. May 21, 2008. Dec. 9, 2010. http://nymag.com/daily/intel/2008/05/emily_gould_shamelessly_plugs.html

 

12. Sietsema, Robert. Everyone Eats Columbia Journalism Review.  Jan./Feb. 2010. Nov. 2010. http://www.cjr.org/feature/everyone_eats.php?page=all.

 

13. Stephens, Mitchell. The Case for Wisdom Journalism. Daedalus. Spring 2010.

 

14. Traister, Rebecca. Another pretty face of a generation. Salon.com. May 29, 2008. Dec. 12, 2010. http://www.salon.com/life/feature/2008/05/29/gould

 

15. Whittenburg, Zachary. Dance Editor of Time Out Chicago. Personal Interview. Dec. 6, 2010. 773-454-3907

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