Critiquing Criticism of the Arts

ST. PETERSBURG TIMES (Florida); Section: Floridian; Pg. 8E
John Fleming
Sunday, June 12, 2005

Norman Lear gave the world Archie Bunker, George Jefferson, Fred Sanford and Mary Hartman, "arguably four of the least intellectual characters ever to be seen on television," conceded the legendary screenwriter and producer.

Yet there was Lear last month giving the keynote speech to journalism's cultural brain trust. The occasion was the National Critics Conference, the first time organizations of critics covering classical music, jazz, dance, theater and the visual arts had gotten together. More than 400 showed up for the meeting, called "Critical Unity in Critical Times."

Serious arts criticism is looking beleaguered these days in the face of forces ranging from a celebrity-besotted media to the rise of critic-bloggers on the Internet to falling newspaper circulation to suspicion of anything that might be considered "elitist." The age of great critics - popular, influential writers such as Virgil Thomson on classical music, Clement Greenberg on visual art, Edwin Denby on dance or Pauline Kael on movies - is long gone.

Today, critics are more likely to be glorified touts giving thumbs up or down than probing thinkers and literary stylists. In a story by Scott Timberg in the Los Angeles Times, a magazine editor lamented the "Zagatization" of criticism, after the Zagat guides that poll consumers to rate restaurants.

On the eve of the three-years-in-the-planning conference at the Omni Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, there was a depressing piece of news, when the excellent National Arts Journalism Program at Columbia University announced it was folding because of lack of funding.

Lear set a feisty tone, riffing on the bestselling book by Princeton University professor Harry Frankfurt, On Bull----, as a useful way of analyzing the times. He quoted Frankfurt:

"The realms of advertising and public relations, and the nowadays closely related realm of politics, are replete with instances of bull---- so unmitigated that they can serve among the most indisputable and classic paradigms of the concept."

Nielsen ratings, sweeps weeks, SAT scores, bottled water, sugar-free, low-carb, No Child Left Behind, compassionate conservatism - all bull----, declared Lear. The critic's job, he went on, is to "help identify and showcase the art that can dispel the bull---- that afflicts our culture. You can help reinvigorate the moral passion that we so desperately need to experience."

But what if the art isn't that great, or falls somewhere in between great and awful? As any critic will tell you, the toughest review to write is the mixed review, and let's face it, most artistic experiences are a mix of good and not so good.

Margo Jefferson, Pulitzer Prize-winning critic at large with the New York Times, made the case for ambivalence on a panel on the changing role of critics. "Authority doesn't just come from making a stern judgment anymore," she said. "It comes from vulnerability, from finding how to make ambivalence interesting."

Reviews also have to be entertaining, said Dan Neil, whose auto criticism for the Los Angeles Times won a Pulitzer. "I've got to be funny, I've got to be provocative," said Neil, citing a car review he wrote that dealt with Persian poets.

Except at large newspapers, full-time critic jobs are few and far between these days. Many critics are freelance writers, who sometimes have to choose between making a living and making a point. As an example, Howard Mandel, president of the Jazz Journalists Association and a freelancer in New York, described conflicts he had to negotiate in his coverage of Jazz at Lincoln Center, directed by Wynton Marsalis from its new home in the Time Warner Building on Central Park.

Mandel is unstinting in his praise of Marsalis the artist, but he has problems with his direction of the jazz program. His article on the trumpet player as musician of the year for the 2004 directory of the performing arts of Musical America accentuated the positive.
"There is a market pressure on me to write about Jazz at Lincoln Center in a certain way," Mandel said. "And I'm cowardly about it, I admit. I need my rent money."

If he were to be brutally candid about the Lincoln Center jazz program, which he said "has no heart" and referred to as "this steamroller," Mandel thinks his access to free press tickets, assignments to write program notes and other bread-and-butter necessities of the freelance trade would dry up. (The St. Petersburg Times and many other newspapers pay for their critics' tickets and do not allow their critics to write for the programs of institutions they cover.)

"People in journalism and criticism have gotten into the habit of not saying things," said Coco Fusco, a Columbia University professor of the visual arts and co-founder of Undercurrents, an online discussion "about how feminism, new technologies, postcoloniality and globalization are interrelated."

Fusco ruffled a few feathers with her largely theoretical take on things ("It doesn't sound as if you do practical criticism, am I right?" dance critic Mindy Aloff archly asked her during a panel discussion), but she made a strong argument for more politically engaged criticism. "It stuns me that I have to struggle to find interesting critical, artistic responses to the current crisis" of the Iraq war, she said.

Though arts criticism is not exactly flourishing today, its death is exaggerated. In classical music criticism alone, there are plenty of writers doing first-rate work, such as Alex Ross of the New Yorker, Justin Davidson of Newsday, John von Rhein of the Chicago Tribune, Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times, Tim Smith of the Baltimore Sun, Scott Cantrell of the Dallas Morning News and Mark Swed of the Los Angeles Times, to name a few.

As that lineup of middle-aged white men suggests, a problem in classical music criticism is its lack of diversity. The average classical music critic is a white, 52-year-old male, according to the first-ever survey of the field, a joint project of the Music Critics Association of North America and the late, lamented arts journalism program at Columbia. Only one in four classical music critics is female, and just 8 percent are nonwhite.

"Why should we care about the gender, tastes, background or experience of those writing about classical music today?" writes the project's director, Willa Conrad, classical music critic of the Star-Ledger of New Jersey, in the introduction to the 54-page survey.
"Simply because critics act as lenses through which to view an art form. As classical critics shrink to the periphery, it is even more important that their numbers include a representative mix of the very population they write for and about."

But, as Lear pointed out, what goes around comes around, and arts criticism will surely survive its slump. "Criticism - like any basic art form - ebbs and flows, waxes and wanes, with changes in the times, the specific art form and the rise of new media technologies," he said.

"When television arrived on the scene in the 1950s, there was a lot of hand-wringing that the movies were as good as dead. Just before All in the Family was introduced, and again today, people are fretting that the sitcom is dead.
"And I will never forget when Time magazine asked in an April 1966 cover story, "Is God Dead?' If so, he sure has mounted one hell of a comeback."

John Fleming can be reached at (727) 893-8716 or