The Playgoer: Dog Days of Criticism

Custom Search

Friday, April 10, 2009

Dog Days of Criticism

The economic crisis seems to have only hastened the already apparent vanishing of print-media arts criticism. Here are three different views of what's happening.

First, here's Elaine Showalter addressing book reviewing, but her words apply equally to theatre, I believe.

I'm very, very sad about the closing of the Washington Post Book World and the redistribution of it, should we say, online. I spend almost half the year in London, where this hasn't happened to such a degree. All the daily newspapers have book reviews several times a week. And on Saturday there's the Guardian Review, which I think is the greatest stand-alone book review in the world. There's the TLS, the London Review of Books, magazines, radio programs, even TV programs where books are still so much at the center of culture and so much a part of people's conversation.

I don't understand why we can't do that in the United States. It's partly, obviously, an economic problem. I also think that book reviewing in London is more entrepreneurial and creative than it's been here. The inventiveness and humor and wit of something like the Guardian Review could really make a difference to book reviewing here, which is still a pretty serious--let's abandon all jokes, ye who enter here--straightforward and kind of elitist occupation. British reviewing: there are so many reviews of any given book that no one cares if the reviewer knows the person, is a former lover, a former enemy. Literary culture feeds literature. The disappearance of reviewing here is a very ominous note about what's going to happen in the culture.
Well one look at Ben Brantley or Charles Isherwood will tell you that lack of jokes is hardly the problem in mainstream US drama-crit. But I love her last points about the more the merrier, and the self-destructiveness of limiting criticism only to seemingly "unbiased" educators. In fact, nowhere in the media does "theatre culture feed theatre" better these days than the blogs. (If I do say so myself.)

Next, a case of what's gone wrong. Friend of Playgoer, and sometime guest-blogger, Steven Leigh Morris, used to be the theatre editor of LA Weekly. Until...

yesterday...the newspaper's corporate uberseers in Phoenix eliminated the position of Theater Editor at the paper. Over six years, the "transitions" at this and other papers in the chain have become the alt-weekly's answer to the French Revolution.

In 2002, the New Times alt-weekly chain "merged" with its rival Village Voice chain, of which the L.A. Weekly is a part, renaming the hybrid, "Village Voice Media." The merger was leveraged on insurmountable debt on the cusp of a global economic meltdown....

After almost 30 years, the Theater Editor position in a city with 2,000 professional plays opening every year was determined by Phoenix to be a fiscal extravagance.....Much earlier, Phoenix eliminated the Theater Editor position at their flagship New York paper, The Village Voice, in a city that's the theater capital of the world. So their latest, local beheading is hardly surprising.

Theatre as "extravagance" is indeed the problem pervasively in our society. (And indeed the New York Village Voice now only has one overseeing "Arts Editor" responsible for many sections.)

Finally, an utterly original and only slightly mischievous proposal from Douglas McLennan for mandated "Critics in Residence" at arts institutions. Economically, the premise is pretty sound:

Lots of arts organizations have blogs on their websites. Most aren't very good, and they're difficult to maintain well. There are many out-of-work critics. And less and less arts coverage in local press. So why not critics-in-residence?

Now once again, the kneejerk objection would be that old "objectivity" ideal. But is that worth actually decreasing the outlets for criticism in the modern world?

I fear the guardians of criticism--like the doomed US commanders at Khe Sanh--may end up destroying it in order to "save" it.

No comments: