Thursday, December 11, 2008

Is leaving at intermission really the problem?

Just how does this interaction between critics and artists work?

Don brought up the whole Westin thing, which in itself is pretty much easy to assess. However, some of the comments from individuals who identify themselves as critics had me pondering. None of critics were defending Ms. Westin's actions, but there still seemed to be a theme that the tonal or maybe even the act of calling her out had ramifications within the community. Perceived slights were suggested... even the suggestion that Chicagoans specifically were incapable of anything other than unchecked undeserved hostility when interacting with a less that adoring reverant press.

Whenever an artistic community has a misfortunate event where journalistic ethics are suddenly suspect, a hodgepodge of thoughts and preconceptions are thrust to the forefront of our constantly accumulating cultural conversation. How this conversation unfolds in the public arena has changed permanently due to the blogosphere.

Rather than remain focused on justifications, rebuttals, rebukes, and partial apologies, I’d like to turn the situation into an opportunity to question how the relationship between critic and artist is changing in the realm of theater criticism.

Before the blogosphere, print appeared to be authoritative and therefore was. Whether that authority was earned or not, who else were you going to turn to? Those voices who were in print were not merely part of the public record, they were the public record. The only opinions available for mass consumption /distribution were those of print periodicals. To say they were the standard upon which theater criticism was measured would suggest that there were other mass avenues for criticism. Aside from Word of Mouth, there were not.

In this sort of environment, the cause and effect of a good review and a well attended show seemed apparent. This led to a political/civil mode of ethics that some feel should still be the paradigm to emulate. Theater artists concerned with their reception rarely if ever rebutted critical negatives publicly, but touted even the smallest critical praise for obvious marketing reasons. The need to fill seats proved an unnecessary justification for this behavior. Critics had to (and still must for major publications) maintain an appearance of objectivity, fairness, and contextuality. That was how they were able to maintain reputation regardless of anyone else’s individual judgments of their perceptions. In the event that a critic’s words were challenged either with civility of not, those challenges were rarely visible for public scrutiny. Even the affluence of information we now have (searching archives of previous reviews by critic) was harder to come by just a few short years ago. Whether or not there is a perceptible bias or condition to a reviewer’s critical approach, is now retrievable by anyone online, with minimal effort.
Try doing that 5 years ago. It could have been done, but you would have had to be at the physical library and you’d have surrendered an entire afternoon if not more.

After living in a world with digital critical content, the cache of the newspaper print is not as apparent as it once was. It is in constant daily comparison for public consumption, and the question is… aside from there being more opinion available in a difference format of exchange, what has changed and does that affect how press and artist should behave?

In the beginning of digital theatrical coverage, it was still a frontier for only a very few. The papers merely replicated online what they had in the printed pages. The only other voices were those who dared to do something that few did, learn code, actually purchase a domain name, oh and find the time and discipline to write.

This is not the case anymore. Blog templates, RSS feeds… Are the words of other, newer, different individuals in the community suddenly seeming to challenge the perceived weigh or reception of the words by folks that once were not only in print, but due to media landscape one of a half dozen folks who got to weigh in at all?

I want to know peoples' thoughts on this, but lets keep it civil.


Tony Adams said...

I think the relationship between artist and print critic is changing, mostly for the better.

Not withstanding the potential extinction of arts journalism, which is a greater problem than a lot of artists think. For ex. I read recently that there is currently not a full-time dance critic in California. Not one in the state. That's a problem.

I now I'm kind of a kook on this, but I've argued for a while that there should be more interaction between the two. And I see artists and critics as peers. Both are strengthened by a greater knowledge of each other.

But along with blogs, etc. things like facebook have changed the game as well. If it had existed ten years ago, I don't think you'd see any critics on most artists pages and vice versa. It's pretty common now.

I was talking with a critic a while back about that change and he pointed out that in a city like Chicago, it'd be nearly impossible to act like you were in an ivory tower: critics live in the same neighborhoods as artists. They run into each other in coffee shops and at bus stops.

Kerry Reid suggested to me over the summer the idea of a monthly artist/critic salon type gathering. I think that would be a great idea.

Both face sides see and face a lot of the same issues.

Devilvet said...

I wonder (well lets be clearer here) often I doubt that everyone wants a salon like environment.

I think that the outdated model had a political power dynamic that is still present but evidently eroding, and that some on both sides of the issue (artist and critic) don't want things to change.

Tony, you've had a lot more conversations about this with critics than I have. But, my instinct is that there are some (not all) critics out there that feel they have something to lose and that it is only a matter of time before the blogosphere does it.

Again, in the comments to Don's blog there are members identifying themselves as press openingly suggesting that they are victims of the artistic community. We all know you don't have work too hard to find an artist who considers themself a victim of the critical community. Should we be troubled by these perceptions? Are they always so easily dismissed as sour grapes?

Is this a situation where the blogosphere has merely given artists the ability to go tit for tat online?

Do critics feel that is unfair since artists are not held to the same standards of expression critics are?

Or is that an assumption?... that critics in this environment should even have standards for expression?

Bloggers often make corrections in our comments... use our comments as a postscript... are media outlets allowed to do the same?

if it is ok for someone who works or writes exclusively online, is it ok for another who receives financial compensation for print and digital media?

I know for a fact that there are reviewers out there that on occasion want to address a criticism of their criticism (no names) but the 'professional' ones don't... is that merely due to the issue of public appearances... or do journalists have something to 'lose' by even acknowledging the blogsphere as an alternative to their perspectives?

Tony Adams said...

If memory serves me right the salon idea was less about the format and more about the gathering. The sense of being a victim is often lessened if you can see the struggles of the other half.

I think we are going through a period of massive change. Yes, there are folks actively resisting it.

Some artists have been furious at the mere idea of other artists (or any non-critic) writing about a show online.

Their line of thinking is only a critic has the right to write about a work. Other artists are much more open about it.

Companies in industries across the board are struggling with the fact that they can no longer control the conversation. Some have fared better than others.

I think online's still a new format that a lot of people are finding their way in it.

Some critics that write online treat a blog more like a news wire, like Chris Jones. Some blog themselves like Kris Vire. Some participate in online conversations but don't actively write online themselves like Kerry. Venus Zarris does reviews online in addition to what she does in print. Some, like Hedy Weiss, have no real online presence other than print stories also published on their site.

I don't know of any publication that has it completely figured out. The print business model is just as screwed as the theatre business model.

"my instinct is that there are some (not all) critics out there that feel they have something to lose and that it is only a matter of time before the blogosphere does it."

There is some truth to that, but as reports on journalism have turned into daily roll calls of layoffs being announced, the Blogosphere and Craig's List are easy targets. Much like the corporate model and subscriptions are for artists.

But I think the easy targets are often the ones that have the least to do with the actual problem.

Lindsay Price said...

It's all about control and change isn't it. People (in general) don't like to lose control, nor do they like the status quo to change.

Change will happen, and has to happen. To live in an ivory tower, to say that one group has no right to write about another means nothing in the long run. Because the ground rules will shift beneath their feet whether they like it or not.

It's going to be an interesting few years...