The Playgoer: Earth to Critics: It's Over, Man

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Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Earth to Critics: It's Over, Man

LA Times' Patrick Goldstein laments:

There was a time when critics were our arbiters of culture, the ultimate interpreters of intellectual discourse. When I was growing up, eager to write about the arts, it was just as important to read Pauline Kael, Frank Rich and Lester Bangs as it was to see a Robert Altman film, a David Mamet play or listen to the latest Elvis Costello album. Critics gave art its context, explained its meaning and guided us to new discoveries.

As a flood of stories in recent weeks has shown, those days are going, going, gone. Critics today are viewed as cultural dinosaurs on the verge of extinction. Most of the attention lately has focused on the demise of film critics. The Salt Lake Tribune's Sean P. Means actually posted a list Wednesday of film critics, now totaling 28, who have lost or decided to leave their jobs in the last two years, including such notables as Newsweek's David Ansen, the New York Daily News' Jack Mathews and the Chicago Tribune's Michael Wilmington.

Critics are being downsized all over the place, whether it's in classical music, dance, theater or other areas in the arts. While economics are clearly at work here -- seeing their business model crumble, many newspapers simply have decided they can't afford a full range of critics anymore -- it seems clear that we're in an age with a very different approach to the role of criticism.

Obviously the Internet has played a big role in this shift. It has promoted a democratization of opinion in which solo bloggers -- most famously Matt Drudge -- can outstrip mammoth news organizations. Whenever I spend time with young students, I see an even more intriguing concept at work. Although they are heavily influenced by peer group reaction to films or music, they do listen to critics, but largely as a group, not as individual brands. The age of the singular critical voice is ending -- people prefer the wisdom of a community.
Talk amongst yourselves.

Personally, I think it's the medium not the individual critic that's endangered. The internet is not the enemy. Put the critics on the internet!

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

Yes. By all means: critics on the Internet.
But how about PAYING critics for their labor (and expertise)? Will our criticism be written only by those with a life of leisure?

Mark said...

Side note: I really loathe the phrase "democratization of opinion", especially when applied to the internet and criticism, with its yahoo-ish, anti-"elitist" implication that more voices always equals a livelier discussion. Having an opinion doesn't make you a critic any more than owning a scalpel makes you a surgeon. It takes not only immense writing skill and a deep understanding of how to support, sustain and contextualize your approach and argument, but also, if you take what you do seriously, a vast knowledge of the field you cover and an unflagging effort to expand and deepen that knowledge. I suppose I'm thinking more of movie criticism right now than of theater criticism, but most of what passes for criticism on the internet is sloppy and thoughtless, and would benefit from more intellectual rigor and writing skill, not to mention a good editor.

Anonymous said...

http://www.amazon.com/Artist-Critic-Critical-Writings-Oscar/dp/0226897648

Jason Grote said...

Mark, you're right, but so very few professional critics (present company excluded, assuming you are who I think you are - ditto for the gentleman in whose house we now meet) have bothered to learn those lessons. Everyone always talks about how mean theater critics are, but few talk about how flat-out ignorant so many of them seem to be. I assume you know who I mean.

I'm as bummed out about the fragmentation and illiteracy of our culture as anyone, but it's a vicious cycle - pressured newspapers and magazines follow the lead of USA Today and Fox, further eroding their credibility among their core readership, including the credibility of the critics, many of whom (again, present company excluded) are far from blameless.

Anonymous said...

Who is John Gault ?

RLewis said...

We once championed the oncoming egalitarian revolution of the internet. I hope we’re not now going to lament its repercussions. Hard copy newspapers are a dying breed and that includes critics. When I surf, I do click on “reader reviews”, and after a few I can tell if I want to attend that restaurant, performance, class, club, etc. I don’t need a Ben Brantley or Gael Greene to make that call anymore. What is it they say about being careful what you wish for?

Anonymous said...

Sure, if all you want is a consumer guide, rlewis, you can cull from reader reviews. But if you want to chew on some informed, well-written discussion of ideas, then critics with expertise and good prose style have far more to offer. You put your finger on the precise problem: the decline of intelligent discourse about culture in favor of bald consumerism.

mark said...

Jason, I don't think I'm who you think I am (?)...but I take your point: There's plenty of culpability to spread around, and not just in "new media".

JBranch said...

For me, reading about our culture means something more than (different than) reading critics. In a given week, I try to check on two or three theater blogs, maybe some theater and/or dance commentary in the NY Times and Village Voice, whatever the New Yorker's critics write about, whatever the Economist's critics write about, and probably some other venues I'm forgetting. That's not to mention trying to check on a music-writer's blog, one or two science blogs, a language blog, a technology-and-culture blog... See what I mean? Reading about the culture isn't the same as reading critics.

I think Patrick Goldstein is talking about two or three different things.

That's all I have time to say at the moment, since I'm stealing this comment time from a job.

RLewis said...

Anon, most critics today have been in the theater less than half as long as I have, so I can do my own chewing, thank you. Bald though I may be, when I'm shelling out for tickets, I have no problem acting like a well-guided consumer.

But I agree with you: I'm all for good criticism; however, in publications today that is rarely what you get. You get a 75-word review, not criticism, so even the best critics start with one hand tied behind their backs. Give me a full plate of good, informed food, and I will eat; but Isherwood's great prose does nothing for me if I can't surmise what the damn play is about.

I will disagree with you on a last point: "the decline of intelligent discourse". I see no decline; in fact, there’s more than ever. The discourse is just not where it used to be. It's here - in these blogs, show showdowns, and other online resources; and it's free.

The theatrosphere is going up, up, up! It’s the msm that’s taking a well-deserved hit, critics and all.

Anonymous said...

i suppose it is all subjective but i am sorry -- the critics we have in the theatre, with the exception of MAYBE one or two are either burned out (feingold and lahr) or have abandoned their stewardship and cheapened the entire discourse with their (well mainly isherbitch, let's be candid) bumptious
advertisements of what play/artist he/she can make "hot" or who can be decimated and humiliated (to paraphrase sarah ruhl, he's got two emotions: happy and mad).

the democratizing influence of the net does something to offset -- MAYBE -- that influence, but then you have to deal with the superabundance of "opinion" and a whole bunch of bitching and lionizing that again just amplifies what seems to be the problem.

as a theatre artist i feel alienated from critics, from audiences, from producers, everyone seems to be operating in their own weirdo orbits. we're in an interregnum and it is all bourgeois garbage: the ecosystem of american theatre is deeply damaged here. every aspect of the theatre in this country is impoverished. can todd haimes REALLY with a straight face tell us that the roundabout simply CAN NOT get on without extorting 40 percent of and author's royalty for 10 years? i read once that a single opera house in vienna gets more annual funding than the entirety of the arts in the united states. so it feels right that the criticism should be in the same state of ill health. it feels right that it is all devolving into bald consumerism -- that critics advocate for tarted up boulevard plays, that there's no passion or love in theatre criticsm, only adversarial snarkiness and folderol and cynicism.

isherbitch is a symptom of a more profound and widespread malaise, and it is painful for those of us who love the art to see it ransacked...

sorry for these disjoined angry thoughts -- i'm just so over it all...

Anonymous said...

John Lahr says that Neil Labute is the greatest living American playwright. Michael Feingold has trashed more new writers than Isherwood. If these two are the best we have, then we're really in trouble.

Anonymous said...

i counted them among the burned out - reread my post...yes, lahr lost me with his encomium of labute...while feingold can be churlish i think he is probably just a sane man who loves theatre and has gotten drained and exhausted by the rut of it

at least these are two guys who love theatre -- unlike isherwood, who has a more vampiric constitution.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I thought they were the "one or two" who weren't burned out.