Criticism, competition and culture

Art critics can work together via Wikimedia

Alison Hallett, the arts editor/theater critic of the Portland Mercury, has gotten me thinking, something she often does with her theater reviews in the Portland Mercury.

At the end of a post on the alt-weekly’s indispensable blog, she raised a question that I have considered myself from time to time but set aside: To what extent are arts journalists competitors? (Earlier in the post, Hallett cited an Oregon Arts Watch story, linked to it and then said some very nice things, very nice, about our new venture here. Thanks, Alison!)

Then she wrote the following sentence: “Maybe I should be thinking of this [meaning Oregon Arts Watch] as competition, but I just can’t bring myself to.”  And that started my wheels spinning.  Are Hallett and I competitors, and in what way ways, exactly?

In the old journalism business model, the one I grew up in, we would be.  Each of us would strive to be first with the news scoops and first off the line with a new review. And we would even shape our journalism to make it more distinctive, to fit the “brand” of the newspaper or magazine and establish our own voice within that brand. We would  compete ultimately to attract readers, and through readers, advertisers. This sounds more Darwinian than it was. In practice, arts journalists operated mostly on the periphery of their own publications and mostly in isolation.

But I understand the sense of competition. A critic fights for an audience, fights for attention. We think of it as a zero-sum game. If someone is paying attention to you, by definition she is not paying attention to me. Read my dance review, not that one.

I don’t think of it that way any more, though. I think we are all engaged in a conversation, however halting and fleeting, about the culture we are creating here. That conversation needs to involve far more voices and become far more central than it does now. It needs to be smarter and more subtle, sure, but also more forceful and clear. I quote Simone Weil all the time now: Culture is the formation of attention. If we are thinking exclusively about silly things in simplistic ways, that’s who we are. And that has implications for our politics and our economy, not to mention our art.  It already has. Bad ones.

As arts journalists, it’s our job to engage in that conversation, to lead it sometimes but mostly to extend it. That’s how we make the culture more responsive to our (the public’s) needs, more adaptive to the challenges we face. That’s how we start to create the common understanding that allows us to move forward together, to make the big decisions that we need to make in concert — about how we educate ourselves, how we preserve our resources, how we take care of each other, what we need to make human life flourish here.

So, if the conversation is the thing, then I should engage Hallett’s descriptions of the culture, extend them, offer my own amendments, reject them and offer something new, which she then can consider and test. And not just Hallett’s. (Shockingly, that’s how democracy itself should work.) Not that we ever develop uniformity of opinion. My own thinking and the world itself changes fast enough that I abandon my own opinions of today for new ones tomorrow. Or at least I should.

That’s all sounding preachy, isn’t it? Because, come on, I want to write better and sometimes I use competition with other writers to move me along, to help define myself and my approach. I don’t want to be “worse” than Hallett or Marty Hughley or Richard Wattenberg or Ben Waterhouse (just to pick some Portland theater writers); I want to be “better.” I don’t want to parrot their ideas, I want to have my own. And goodness knows, I love a good argument, a test of ideas. In my experience critics practically live to argue, we readily admit.

It’s just that when I take my responsibility to the culture as a whole seriously, the competition (which is always abstract, because we have no way of measuring our relative usefulness to readers, really), just doesn’t matter that much. I want to be part of the conversation, not “win” it. And anyway, the conversation that theater fans are having among themselves is more important than the little responses I cobble together. They are the ones with the power to change things — themselves, theater, the culture.

That’s why I always get back to this question: What can I do to help you negotiate the culture, specifically the local culture?  And my answer to that changes every day as I encounter the world and hear from the people who read what we write here at Oregon Arts Watch.

Hallett actually answered the question about competition herself in the post I’ve cited, and I think she and I agree.

Her best ideas, like the best theater, stimulate discussion, and then I can join in. There are few enough of us trying to do that right now, trying to respond to the arts in a useful, sustained and independent way. We are in this together, just as we are in the culture as a whole.

2 Responses.

  1. TylerInCMYK says:

    I think this is an interesting question and I appreciate the thought. I also appreciate Alison encouraging the discussion by linking to your page from Twitter.

    For me, arts criticism is different than traditional news journalism in a number of ways, the most obvious and significant difference being its inclusion of opinion. Regular readers of this type of writing expect this and often have their favorite critics whose opinions they have come to value. Irregular consumers of arts criticism who may only be looking for something to do Friday night may believe that what they are reading is fact or universal opinion being “reported.”

    If the task set forth is “to help [the reader] negotiate the culture” than I would say it is important for the writer not to compete with other critics for readers but to instead be honest and consistent. If I find myself disagreeing regularly with a critic, I will read someone else’s column.

    Here’s the rub for me, especially in a small market: if a reviewer, arguably better-informed and more well-read than his/her readership pans a work of art, does the average reader or irregular art consumer understand that they may still enjoy it? Does the reviewer have an obligation to the casual reader? (This is a topic that I have discussed a number of times with a friend of mine who works at PCS.)

  2. Barry Johnson says:

    Good question, Tyler. Personally, I’m not much for “panning” a play or a performance, because I respect the work that goes into productions that don’t work. Wasn’t it Malcolm Cowley who said that it’s just as hard to write a bad novel as a good one?

    I’m always trying to write for the casual fan (and reader), to make his or her experience of the play a better one. I’m hoping that the connections I make between the play and the general culture are interesting enough to engage someone with no intention of seeing the play in question, but I don’t have any evidence of that happening on a very large scale. So, I try to give an overall ‘sense of the play’ in the review, at the same time I try to figure out what might be distinctive about the production compared to others — for better or worse.

    I think it’s easy to forget that a performance of, say, “Romeo and Juliet” that I might find run of the mill (because I’ve seen a few) may be a revelation to someone else, even someone who has seen it several times before but especially someone who has never seen it before. What doesn’t click for me may be just the thing for someone else. I think that should keep critics humble, that subjectivity of the art experience.

    I think your own experience is exactly right. If a critic isn’t serving your needs as a reader, you discard the critic, although if you always disagree with a critic, then you can act directly the opposite of what he recommends and find true happiness! But I’m hoping that I’ll give you enough interesting stuff so that you won’t dump ME, even though I may be more or less enthusiastic about a production than you are!

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