Saturday, January 31, 2009

What Is a Critic? The Daily Gorilla Goes Ape

Lord knows I'm not the first to bloviate on how the definition of the critic is changing. Recently, I came across a Daily Gorilla essay, Demise of the Critic, that gave me pause. It is written by one of the site's primary primates, Thomas Garry, and his thesis is that the blogosphere, owing to the print media death-spiral, is not changing the idea of what a critic is so much as diluting it, and that quality standards, always a subjective measure, are falling in the process. "As newspapers and magazines lay off professional critics and young twentysomethings anoint themselves experts," Garry writes, "the review has fallen on hard times. As critics shift from being the sole educated authorities into a percentage point on review-aggregating websites, some fear the nuance they once brought has fallen victim to the nagging blogger."

Note the assumptions in Garry's statement: that critics can and, in fact, must exist in traditional media only; that all blogger-critics are self-anointed and therefore, by definition, are untrained, unscrupulous, unwashed; that no blogger-critic can possess the credentials, the education, the wherewithal intellectually to write criticism worthy of the term.

As someone who has worked in print and Web journalism extensively, and as someone who is a committed blogger-critic and whose writing, I think, meets any fair standard of good or great criticism, I feel that Garry is rather obviously neglecting to acknowledge the long tradition of mediocre, willfully ignorant critics in print; that so many of them have lacked and continue to lack the academic background or the training as a practitioner to develop and deliver criticism that is both informed and constructive to the artists and audience. There is a difference between criticism that artists may disagree with, due to varying aesthetic judgments, and criticism that is inadequate because the critic possesses only some of the tools necessary to do the job effectively.

To buttress his assumptions and burnish his thesis, Garry opens his essay by raising the specter of Tom Moon, a music critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer for 20 years. The "biggest difference between old reviews and reviews now is that in the past," Moon moans, "the critic’s job was to give readers a deeper sense of the work." Now, he says, critical standards are cratering because bloggers represent a "megaphone" culture that values amplification of bloggers' own views over any further investigation of the work itself.

Perhaps this is the case in music criticism -- it isn't an area of the practice I am well-versed in. But I do, however, resent how Garry uses Moon's view to imply that all criticism is wounded by the rise of the blogger-critic. My sense of the theatrosphere is the opposite: As so many theater critics in print are preoccupied with crafting phrases useful in posters and ads, and attempting to outdo each other with a consumer-is-king mindset, the theatrosphere's benefit is that it's critics do focus on the work critically. Dance-oriented blogger-critics may be fewer in number but their presence, no doubt due to the aforementioned death-spiral, is even more essential currently and thereby more beneficial. Art criticism, architecture criticism, even literary criticism are all vastly improved, I would argue, because print will no longer permit young talent to get their feet wet, to generate the storehouse of cultural memory that makes a promising critic into a good critic into a great critic over the course of a professional lifetime.

Indeed, Moon's issue, sadly, is age -- or as Garry phrases it, the issue is that as "wannabe critics turn to online publication, they no longer have to be deemed knowledgeable enough by an editor." Here's another assumption: editors are knowledgeable. In my experience as writer for more than 20 publications theater-related and otherwise through the years as a freelancer and a staffer, decision-making editors only know enough about various art forms and genres about 50 percent of the time. Meaning no disrespect, for example, to The New York Times, but when was the last time a decision-making arts editor came at their position after a period of immersion -- either as a journalist-critic or as a practitioner? Moon finally articulates the generational crux of the matter when he expresses resentment that "some 20-year-old trust-fund kid thinks that TV on the Radio sucks.”

Garry laments the passing of an era in which "a single critic, like New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael, could deliver a positive review and instantly propel a film into the general public’s consciousness." But I would argue that concentrating power in the hands of a few critics tends to encourage art-makers to cater to the known aesthetics of those critics, and that such slavishness tends to inhibit innovation and creativity. All critics have their likes and dislikes, of course, but when you focus power tightly, you can choke the air in the room where art wants to breathe.

And why doesn't Garry include theater criticism in his piece? Or do the monkeys of the Daily Gorilla prefer their second bananas simply on the boob tube?

Or the silver screen: Garry begins to bring his piece to a conclusion by writing about how "users are more likely to turn to websites like Rotten Tomatoes, a popular film-review aggregating website, and the Internet Movie Database, where movies are ranked out of 10 stars and all reviews are user-generated." Then he reinforces my earlier point: "If people can turn to the consensus of dozens of critics, why should they depend on only one?" Precisely.

As for Garry quoting J.D. Hoffman, the film critic -- “Internet users are more likely to check out Rotten Tomatoes than to read an actual review from a newspaper.... It’s so much easier for people to read the one pull quote they provide than to read an entire review" -- I'm not at all sure that's so. I think, more accurately, people aren't reading print as a whole the way they used to. And that's a bigger issue than what it is that we call a critic.

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1 comment:

Thomas Garvey said...

Thomas Garry may be right about the demise of the critic in the pop music and film worlds, but as you point out, the writing on the performing arts in the blogosphere is usually as strong as, and often stronger than, that in the MSM. In Boston, for instance, the leading theatre critic clearly has had no formal training in theatre whatsoever, and, I'd argue, no real passion for the form either, and maybe not even that great an interest outside of her professional commitment. (Odder still, this seems to be the way management likes it.) Her competition is a little better - one critic is smart but immature, the other more erudite but a little batty - but neither is anything to blog home about, as it were. And all are severely limited in the amount of space they are allotted - and given the requirements for zingers, ledes, closings, and puns, that leaves little room for actual argument (in the case of some of these writers, that's actually just as well). And people are often shocked when I point out to them all the potential criticism the MSM has always "left out" - in Boston, for instance, there's never been any discussion in print of the proper relationship between the arts and the university (which you'd think would be a topic of some interest in this town!). Meanwhile I think aloud about those kinds of questions on my blog all the time. Essentially because there's no editor there to censor me. As I often tell people, when you write for free, you suddenly find that you are, indeed, actually free.