The crisis in criticism.1


1: The critic is dead—long live the critic

 We have seen a great deal of public hand-wringing in recent years over the so-called death of criticism. In an age of instant access to the Internet, it seems that everyone’s a critic.What does it matter that you can’t spell, can’t construct a sentence, and quite often don’t know what you’re talking about? Your words are in print on-line, and that in itself seems to invest them with a miraculous credibility. Who wants to think about anything in depth when 140 characters—reductionist thinking in a virtual nutshell—is all you need to get an audience? Who needs critics?

Good or bad, all this? It depends.

Goodness knows, there’s certainly enough fodder for conventional despair. It’s impossible not to have noticed the way print and broadcast media have cut back on the space they devote to serious discussion of creative activity of all kinds.

Mainstream media, flailing around to find their footing and their market in the shifting digital landscape, and acutely aware of the need not to alienate real and potential advertisers, are less and less inclined to allow critics the room they need to do their job.

In the past decade more than half of all arts journalism positions have been eliminated in North American newsrooms. And what arts coverage there is today is dominated by puff reporting and personality news.

The job I did for much of my life, arts criticism, has been rendered—is thought to have been rendered—redundant by the gift that the Internet has bestowed, the ability for everyone to circulate their views, instantly, to the world.

The steady coarsening of public discourse, the shallowness of what passes for debate, the polarizing of political thought, the pernicious crudeness of public taste—much of this directly attributable to our era’s convenient whipping-post for all social ills, the Internet.

Even an incurable idealist like myself has to face the evidence. The changes I’ve worked for so long to bring about—changes of attitude, changes in our educational system, a fresh awareness across our society of the human riches that are uncovered in creative activity, the benefits of the examined life—are still far from achieved.

Have we allowed technology to foster an anti-elite, anti-intellectual society where people feel that professional criticism is not worth bothering with? (Was that society always there? The cynic might point out that anti-intellectualism is nothing new.)

I hover on the side of optimism. Technology has shaken us out of a long, comfortable slumber, waking us up, asking us to face some uncomfortable questions, and we’re still stretching and yawning, reaching for our first cup of coffee and trying to focus. We’re not quite awake yet to the possibilities of what we are making for ourselves. But they are there, and we are beginning to discern them.

We’re seeing the democratization of criticism—including a breaking-down of the traditional barriers that kept so many people away from the arts for so long—and I think that’s a good start.

Because what this new democratization will lead to—you have to hope—is new forms of discernment, new understandings of what artists are up to and how what they do affects our lives and our world. New ways of looking.

Equally important is the increasing recognition—again, fostered at least in part by the new technologies—of the range and importance of our different understandings of society and identity.

Roger Kimball said in a recent essay he believes it is unlikely that we will ever see another Great American Novel. He thinks today’s world is devoid of the common reference points we used to rely on. It lacks intelligent discourse built around a common framework. He points to what he sees as the evaporation of a broadly shared set of values and cultural assumptions,  the breakdown of the moral or spiritual core that let us assess the way we conduct our lives through the lens of fiction.

Did that moral or spiritual core ever actually exist? It did for a particular social/cultural  group, certainly—and because that group tended to be the one that dominated the discourse, a general assumption existed that those common reference points were universally shared within a common cultural milieu. We convinced ourselves that there was a common code. We believed in the importance of the Western canon.

That firmness of base assumptions certainly doesn’t hold today. The whole notion of a cohesive, common-code society is cracked. Trying to set out things we can all agree on is like trying to nail down clouds. Today’s critic—today’s individual—is obliged to find meaning and significance in a bewildering range of art forms and cultures—not only find it, but embrace it and contextualize it.

And to do it at speed. As recently as half a century ago, within my working lifetime, innovations (in artistic creativity, for instance) took time to be noticed, to catch on, to have influence. Today we have instant access to everything new, all the time. That availability of information, stimulus and commentary necessarily changes the way we process the world. It changes and widens—some might say coarsens—the discourse.

None of this is cause for dismay. To interpret this opening-up of the world through the new technologies as a loss of common values is to ignore its huge upside: the breaking-down of the old silos, the breaching of the old boundaries, the opportunities to engage with cultures different from our own, whatever our own might be, the constant invitation to go somewhere quite else—not merely to renovate the structures we are familiar with, but to build fresh again.

Engagement with the imagination and creative expression of others has always been one of the ways we develop our moral sensibilities, using our mutual experience of art as a way to understand our place in the universe. And the unprecedented access the Internet gives us to the collective intelligence of others—the Internet’s hive mind—gives us a fresh chance to make a thorough re-examination of our moral, economic and social priorities, our own core beliefs.

The torrent can be bewildering. Disconcerting. Even dismaying. It’s not surprising that much of the response we hear and read is immediate, unfiltered, half-formed. So in a society in which serious public discourse is already at a premium, most of us need help in coming to terms with all this.

James Gnam, who directs Vancouver’s interdisciplinary ensemble, Plastic Orchid Factory, has noted that the Internet generation—a generation that has never known a time when the Internet didn’t exist—communicates by what he calls “digital collaging”: specific cultural references (music, language, image, popular culture) that they weave together into a rich new form of expression.

Performance has moved on as well. Classification into genres (music, dance, theatre, mime, film, video) is not only out of date but has diminishing relevance. Everything is accessible, and everything is endlessly cross-referential. Nothing is static, no previous assumptions can be trusted to hold. Wagner, thou should’st be living at this hour.

The great and exciting challenge of writing any kind of cultural commentary in today’s creative climate lies in finding ways to get a grip on that seething complexity—and new ways to write about it that will interest and provoke your audiences (the established and the new). Maybe, indeed, new forms of communication that go beyond writing and embrace the “digital collaging” that Gnam identifies.

However the form evolves, we need people who will stimulate critical thinking and enhance public understanding and appreciation of creative inquiry—even scepticism—in our interpretation of the world around us. So it seems more important than ever that we have critics.

At its most basic, the critic’s job has always been to connect art to the broad public: to become the context provider, the interface between the act of creation and the imaginative activity that it liberates. Despite the traditional assumption of mutual antagonism, the critic is the artist’s best friend, if the job is done right.

The best pieces of criticism not only illuminate the event or object under discussion, they also give us ways to think about them. They give us insight into how other people think about the things we experience—and, beyond that, push us toward thinking about aspects of the world and living in it together that are new to us. They share enthusiasms, provocations, disappointments, pleasures that we feel as individuals—not only share them, but help us try to understand them.

That examination of the effect on the individual is at the core of it all. The core of it all because it is in the experience and the examination of artistic expression that we can begin to find answers to the questions that we live with all our lives: Who am I? Why am I here? How should I relate to others? How can I be the best person I can be?

Books, plays, paintings, ballets, music … they all have the potential to express ideas and insights that we have perhaps intuited but not been able to articulate. I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again: ultimately, it is useful to look on our contacts with art as part of our  personal search for authenticity, the hidden truths of our daily being. It lets us know there is a multitude of ways to love and protect and celebrate what it is to be human.

And perhaps we should see these changes in society as a chance to return criticism to its primary function: examining together the way we live together through informed analysis and commentary on works of the human imagination. Pushing us, as the public intellectual should, to rethink who we are and contemplate how we can be better. Using clear and vigorous language about the arts to inspire us to aspire.

In other words, the critic as guide, moderator, provocateur: the same functions, but in new forms.

What those new forms might be is still up for debate. We know that there’s a dwindling demand for one-way lectures. People want dialogue, and the internet gives them the opportunity. They are curious and thoughtful and ready to engage—despite how it sometimes seems in the wilder reaches of the blogosphere. So maybe this is an opportunity to move criticism in a new direction, while still retaining its importance in the task of probing and developing our personal and social identities.

Specialist magazines and journals like Canada’s Dance Current are certainly a help, particularly when they allow readers to respond in on-line dialogue. And while we certainly don’t need new web-based monetized media, a moderated aggregator blog like Douglas McLennan’s web daily Arts Journal, which has been providing arts-related news and blog commentary for close on two decades, might be a good model to start with.

Germany has a web magazine of theatre criticism called nachtkritik where a ten-person editorial team coordinates the writings of about fifty freelance writers across the German speaking countries. It publishes reviews the morning after a show has premiered, and the following days posts summaries of reviews from other media. Readers can comment or even write their own reviews.

London, England, has DanceTabs, a website featuring the work of around 20 critics, some of them names of long standing. According to its home page “DanceTabs looks to cover dance with writers and critics of experience. It’s a shrinking world for pukka criticism and we worry about knowledgeable voices being lost in a sea of much social and blog happiness. We look to cast a sharp eye over what is happening and tell it like it is in happiness or sorrow.”

In Canada, a website called Critics at Large publishes daily criticism of all aspects of popular culture—television, books, movies, theatre, dance, at-large culture—contributed by close to 20 writers. It was founded in 2010, and its originators say they want to make it possible for established and emerging critics to practice their crafts outside the constraints of commercial media. “In an era when arts journalism is increasingly driven by careerism and conformity,” they say on their home page, “we appeal to voyeurs of the arts rather than mere consumers.”

The site’s motto, as posted on its home page, is a quote from D.H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature:  “Never trust the artist. Trust the tale. The proper function of the critic is to save the tale from the artist who created it.”  Not all the reviews are this confrontational, though they can be provocative and range widely in topic. Comments from readers are welcomed, though recent posted comments have been bland and perfunctory.

That’s all fine, as far as it goes. Sites like these give starving critics a new home for their work, even if they’re still starving. But—in light of the changes that the new technologies are bringing about in communication and performance—what we really need, if we want criticism to be broadly relevant, is a creation and delivery system that is entirely new.

Perhaps that will be a whole new technological structure that doesn’t exist yet—though the way technologies are emerging these days, who’s to say that can’t happen? Perhaps it will be an interactive experience that marries a learning process (how to be a critic, which I’ll get to in a separate piece) with a shared exploration of the world through the arts—new ways to think together about the things that matter.

Perhaps it will be something facilitated by the makers of the art themselves. Many organizations like opera houses and ballet and theatre companies—people with a vested interest in helping an audience makes its way to them through the turbulent ocean of events and on-line opinions—already encourage their artists to get involved in on-line promotion and debate.

In an article in Critical Stages, the on-line magazine of the International Association of Theatre Critics, Finnish dramaturge Juha-Pekka Hotinen takes this idea further, suggesting that production companies should start publishing criticism, since media houses seem no longer interested, and maybe even extend that idea to performers’ unions.

In a novel twist on that idea, the award-winning music critic Zoe Madonna is coming toward the end of a ten-month stint as the Boston Globe’s classical music critic—a stint that has been financed by a consortium of non-profit groups connected to the arts. The backers in this odd enterprise wanted to ensure that high-quality coverage of the Boston music scene was maintained while the permanent staff critic was on leave, so reached an agreement with the Globe’s management to underwrite the hiring of Madonna.

Eyebrows were raised, of course—at first glance it seems an odd arrangement with huge potential for compromise (what if she has to review someone whose career is also underwritten by one of her supporters?) but the consensus seems to be that this could be a novel and effective way to counteract the relentless shrinkage of arts coverage (the Globe has apparently used the money that would have gone to the salary saved in this arrangement to maintain its freelance stable).

Many other alternatives exist. Playwright and theatre teacher Ellen Margolis suggests critics “create their own outlets and establish brands—which is what artists across the board are now under so much pressure to do. Maybe this means publishing beautiful little broadsides or booklets?”

Hotinen also suggested critics should become more like political journalists and follow the undercurrents of creative development at length—abandoning the traditional review format and instead writing about all the phases of a new production, from planning to rehearsal to finished premiere.

One of the benefits of the new media is that critics have access to a much broader sample of the art they are discussing—even if that access is a lot of the time virtual. That might lead logically to a virtual conference twice a year, bringing together critics—and maybe artists as well—to exchange ideas and information among themselves on a global scale.

Will this broadening of access and commentary lower the quality of the debate? It hasn’t happened at nachtkritik. From the outset, says managing editor Esther Slevogt, “the greatest scandal was our comments section. People resented us for allowing voices that had never been heard before to suddenly take part in the conversation about art. We were accused of cannibalizing theatre criticism, handing it over to the mob. Yet crude comments have always been the exception …

“In these times of Facebook and Twitter, the old representational system, in which a few spoke for the many, is a thing of the past; even if this fact didn’t reach the exclusive quarters of high culture until recently.”

Slevogt’s comment puts its finger on the pulse of the new democratization. Change is always in process. We are fortunate folk, and before we step onto what novelist/critic Luke Jennings calls the slow, carpeted staircase to extinction, we must celebrate—and do our best to understand, in every corner of our muddied souls—the marvellous gift of living together in this glorious, constantly mutating world.

Through the smoke and chaos of it all we will probably come to recognize the enduring and embracing fundamentals on which new codes of living together can be built.

And yes, critics can help with that.

Part two:  So what does it take be a critic?

This series of essays would not have reached its present form without the commentary and input of Susan Mertens, whose clarity of vision, aptness of metaphor and rigorous insistence on precision of language always distinguished her own work as a critic. I have been fortunate to spend the past four decades sharing and discussing with Susan our ongoing engagement with the imaginative expression of other people. These essays are a distillation of that long period of experience and reflection. –Max Wyman

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