Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Only Antidote to Paid Publicity

Can you stomach more navel gazing? I know we've been all over the decline in arts coverage in regional newspapers, and the value of critics, and whether blogs are to blame, but Terry Teachout's recent colum in The Wall Street Journal (read it now, before Murdoch gets his grimy mitts all over it) brings this all into focus nicely, so I wanted to share some of my responses to it.

Teachout is a very good example of the sharp critic with
a blog who demonstrates the two are not natural enemies, despite what some of his fellow critics seem to think:

Richard Schickel, Time's film critic, actually published a testy op-ed in the Los Angeles Times in which he compared blogging to "finger-painting": "I don't think it's impossible for bloggers to write intelligent reviews. I do think, however, that a simple 'love' of reading (or movie-going or whatever) is an insufficient qualification for the job. . . . we have to find in the work of reviewers something more than idle opinion-mongering. We need to see something other than flash, egotism and self-importance. We need to see their credentials. And they need to prove, not merely assert, their right to an opinion."
One needs to prove their "right" to an opinion? In the United States? Terry continues:
Speaking as a veteran newspaper critic who started a blog four years ago, I suspect that Mr. Schickel hasn't looked at very many artblogs. I, on the other hand, read dozens of them each week. In fact, I now spend more time reading art-related blog postings than print-media reviews. Increasingly, they're sharper, livelier and timelier than their old-media competition.
And that: "I now spend more time reading art-related blog postings than print-media reviews" is why critics like Mr. Schickel are so testy about this, but, again, bloggers don't hate print critics and many talented print critics get that they don't need to fear blogs. Yes, yes, we've been all over that.

What I thought was particularly pertinent about Terry's column was his compelling and succinct rationle for why good critics are still needed at regional newspapers:

One of the most important civic duties that a newspaper performs is to cover the activities of local arts groups -- but it can't do that effectively without also employing knowledgeable critics who are competent to evaluate the work of those groups. Mere reportage, while essential, is only the first step. It's not enough to announce that the Hooterville Art Museum finally bought itself a Picasso. You also need a staffer who can tell you whether it's worth hanging, just as you need someone who knows whether the Hooterville Repertory Company's production of "Private Lives" was funny for the right reasons. [...] [B]logging, valuable though it can be, is no substitute for the day-to-day attention of a newspaper whose editors seek out experts, hire them on a full-time basis, and give them enough space to cover their beats adequately. The problem is that fewer and fewer newspapers seem willing to do that in any consistent way. I don't care for the word "provincial," but I can't think of a more accurate way to describe a city whose local paper is unwilling to make that kind of commitment to the fine arts.
Terry ends his column with this rather sobering quote by Virgil Thomson, who "dominated American music criticism in the '40s and '50s" :
"Perhaps criticism is useless. Certainly it is often inefficient. But it is the only antidote we have to paid publicity."
Support your local critics. Or, as Terry notes "you'd better be prepared to buy a lot of ads."

Labels: art criticism


Blogger Mark said...

The only miss in Terry's piece was the Winkleman blog. Terry gets it. He was one of the first to start blogging and linking to others. I think that is the future, more of a shared, rounded view of what's going on.

7/10/2007 09:34:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

The only miss in Terry's piece was the Winkleman blog.

Ahhh...did Bambino pay you to say that? :-)

Terry does get it, IMO.

I've talked with other writers about starting a blog and most don't want to. Maybe it's the idea of doing what they're normally paid to for free that hinders them (like the massage therapists whose friends ask for a tiny little neck rub perhaps). The writers I've spoken to about it report a range of reasons they don't start a blog, the fairest of all being they don't have the free time.

7/10/2007 10:02:00 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Torak said...

Actually I thought the point about regional criticism was quite weak. First of all –what size region is he talking about? Rural communities like the one I live in, or just any city that isn’t New York (I realize that seems like a distinction without a difference when you live in the city…) But seriously, his argument make more sense if he is talking about the New York Times which on the one hand has cut its number of fine art reviews to the bone and on the other has so much to see that there is a real need for a filter. In the provinces those who are interested in the arts go to see everything anyway and those who are not flip past the review section.

Vigil Thomson’s quote made sense in his time, but we have the internet now: news paper criticism is not the only antidote to paid publicity. Call me a jaded artist but I think it is pretty exciting.

7/10/2007 10:38:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...


I agree that the Internets can be an antidote to paid publicity, so long as the critics are credible, but when I read a slam on an artist blog (when it's clear to my mind that the work they're slamming is highly contrary to their own work), I dismiss it immediately as sour grapes or whatever. It can take some serious selection (i.e., the role editors serve in newspapers), and therefore time, to find that kind of quality on the Internets.

Good critic offer two advantages over the casual opinion offerer, IMO: objectivity and a broader perspective. Because it's their job to see as much as they can, they can offer a much better assessment than those of us who only get to see a fraction of the offerings. I disagree that rural art lovers get to see everything (good regional critics get out beyond their region from time to time, giving them that broader perspective). It's up to those critics to place a regional exhibition into a wider context for the locals who can't get to the cities, no?

news paper criticism is not the only antidote to paid publicity

I know I wrote that I agree, but to make sure I know what I'm agreeing to, can you expand on that idea?

7/10/2007 10:54:00 AM  
Blogger Joanne Mattera said...

Schickel Schmickel. He doesn't get it. Teachout does. Thanks for the post, Ed.

I am sorry to see reviews disappearing from the publications I regularly read, so I'm glad I can read about art in the blogs. But in comparing newspaper/magazine articles to blog posts aren't we comparing watermelons and cantalopes? A paid writer is working within the editorial scope a publication. A blogger is writing for herself and her real or perceived constituency.

I supported my art for 20 years by working as a writer and editor for several high-profile publications (one a daily newspaper, the other a monthly magazine, both based in Manhattan). Now as a blogger, I am proud to say that my writing is biased, myopic and journalistically suspect. Frankly that's what I want in a blog: a point of view unfettered by editorial constraints. And I want to know something about the blogger as well. That's what makes reading the blogs so interesting for me. I don't want to see pictures of the family dog, but show me where you've been, tell me what you're thinking about a particular show or film, tell me where you're showing and with whom. Connect the dots in your particular way. Since art and life are totally intertwined for us, our blogs reflect that same twist. That's why artists' blog are so interesting. (But I'd urge artists to learn to write decently. If I have to slog through a blog, I'm not returning.)

Now, a shameless plug: www.joannemattera.blogspot.com

7/10/2007 11:12:00 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Torak said...

Oh yes, I'll happily expand -you're going to have trouble getting me to shut up...

First of all, I was hoping to avoid the dreariness of elitism debates because I think there are much more interesting issues here, but I think Teachout's argument about the provinces does have a subtle odor of the patronizing -something about the way he describes the locals needing to have the inferiority of their Picasso explained to them.

Your argument makes more sense: although the information age has transformed rural life - people are quite knowledgeable about what goes on in the cities - there are indeed interesting performances and exhibits that fall between the local and the cosmopolitan; it is those that might be missed without someone sending up a flare.

The larger issue though, as I see it, is one of paradigm shift of which there are two kinds going on here. One is the explosion of amateur activity in many areas of life and the pressure it puts on people who are doing those same activities for a living. Despite his using Schickel for a foil, I suspect Teachout is very worried about this in his profession - and who could blame him (welcome to my world...) He is concerned about where young critics will cut their teeth - well, obviously they are doing so on the internet, the problem is that they are not being paid for it. The sad news for Teachout is that there is not much you can do about paradigm shifts of this magnitude except try to get out ahead of them (which he is doing with his blog) and let the chips fall where they may.

I'm shedding a tear for him - and simultaneously suppressing a smile since I think (well, okay I hope)that when the paradigm shift is complete (and it has only just barely begun) we will have a critical community as Balkanized as our art community (talk about oxymoronic phrases). I was cheering as I read your exchange with Franklin in a recent thread about the advantages of a Balkanized art world.

7/10/2007 12:35:00 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth Torak said...

Just a quick follow up to my last post (I told you you'd have trouble getting me to shut up) To clarify: the second, rather obvious, paradigm shift is the one away from a small critical community based in newspapers to a large broad-based critical community based in the internet.

7/10/2007 12:51:00 PM  
Anonymous ml said...

Bloggers who want to make money can collect the best of their posts and publish a book. (Hint, hint.)

Artists donate to benefits for free. We create work which while admired may not actually sell (thus working for free). Galleries don't charge admission. Everyone seems to think the arts are highly entertaining but shouldn't cost anything. So maybe the internet just parallels the arts. The strength and the weakness of the internet is that it is free.

7/10/2007 01:20:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

What's going on? The answer is painfully simple. Newspaper circulation is declining, driven downward by the rise of the new Web-based media, and many papers are trimming their staffs to make ends meet. [WSJ, T. Teachout]

Is this really an issues about the declining arts coverage, or is it a side effect of declining newspaper circulation? I think it is the latter. I believe that print newspapers have crossed over the ‘peak print’ threshold and are on their way to extinction, a quaint 20th century memory.

Even today, I’ll bet that all major newspapers, in their entirety, every page, pass through a PDF stage before reaching the press. Why bother printing them out at all? In fact, today newspapers are starting to sell PDF/electronic subscriptions, complete with both illustrated news and full page advertising. This is the wave for the future. Major newspapers are hiring staff like crazy for their web/electronic divisions, including the NY Times.

What is standing in the way at the moment? Primarily some minor technological hurdles. For one, higher resolution viewing devices will help make the electronic versions a better experience. Second, we need not only support for web neutrality but someone needs to kick the telephone companies in the butt to make them provide bandwidth (speed) comparable to what’s available in Asia for example.

Then: With the advertising revenue diverted away from the papermills we should begin to see an increase in the electronic press coverage in all areas which have a less than mainstream footprint. Everything on the internet doesn’t have to be free. I subscribe to the web version of the NY Times, I want to read the editorials and access other ‘select’ content. Art reviews, book reviews, music reviews, theater reviews, in depth sports reviews, all this content is what people paid for when they bought a ‘news-paper’. This is ‘value added’ content.

At the moment newspapers are crashing, smart money is buying them up because it believes this may be the economic nadir before the electronic news explosion that is coming to a computer near you.

The difference between blogs and the new electronic print media is an editor.

7/10/2007 02:03:00 PM  
Blogger Joanne Mattera said...

I agree with everything you said except the last sentence.

While many blogs could certainly use better writing and self-editing, there's a world of difference between not-for-profit (or barely profitable) blogs and for-profit publishing--namely, intent. As a blogger I don't want to be fettered by an editor's cyber pencil and a publisher's financial concerns.

7/10/2007 02:10:00 PM  
Blogger Oly said...

I know I probably sound like the peacemaker child I've always been trying to make things okay, but honest to god, what the hell is wrong with being totally thrilled by any and all information you can get-- from anywhere-- regarding the art world?

And why is everyone in the art world in such a negative mood online, and just in general?

Myself coming from the 9-7:30 pm world of the financial grind (aka corporate america) you guys have no idea how thrilling it can be to step foot in a gallery and just take it all in.

And every time I write a post on my blog (if given enough time at the end of my day) I feel so at peace and at home, and I love sharing my thoughts with others, if they like to read it or not.

There's millions of writers out there who aren't "writers"-- i.e., people in other career fields, etc., who just have never been given the opportunity, or lack the confidence, or maybe credentials to earn an income doing it full time.

I think doing something because you LOVE to do something means more, personally.

Also, to those who are actually in the art world-- DUDES-- It's fantastic, you're so amazingly lucky to be surrounded by beauty and like-minded souls, and anyone who takes the time to write a blog, or a paid-salary reviewer at the Times or wherever, is most likely doing it because they love it.

Why can't we all just get along?



7/10/2007 02:21:00 PM  
Blogger Oly said...

PS-- Also, when you get responses from places like the Brooklyn Rail's publisher saying things to you such as "Feel free to send us a clip, but I doubt we'll read it or publish it," when asking if they take submissions-- maybe blogging is one's only choice!!

MFA in art be damned.

Sorry, my chip on my shoulder is baring itself big time with this.

7/10/2007 02:23:00 PM  
Anonymous Daniel Sroka said...

We need to see their credentials.

With this statement, Schickel demonstrates that he really doesn't understand the value of blogs. A writer for a paper needs to prove his worth to his editor, who needs to prove the paper's worth to the advertisers. But a blogger needs to prove his or her worth to *me*. I do not need to see a blogger's credentials -- their writing *is* their credentials. With every post they have to demonstrate their value to me, or I will stop reading their blog.

People who think that blogs are just filled with "flash, egotism and self-importance" really need to just stop visiting those particular bad blogs, and find ones they like. Unlike the old world of newspapers, where you could trust that most articles in the NYTimes met certain editorial standards, in the blogging world the reader really needs to do their own homework, be their own editor, and find the content, voice and quality that interest them.

7/10/2007 02:49:00 PM  
Blogger George said...


I think what I initially meant by editor, had more to do with the better writing angle, but now that you mentioned it, maybe the ‘mainstream’ media, electronic or print, is in part defined by the fact it has an editor, and an editorial position. I think there’s a need for both approaches.

I also think it is important that writers of criticism get paid. Here, I’m primarily referring to the writers for the mainstream media where there is a advertising or subscription revenue stream. If we, as consumers, value a product or service, we are generally willing to pay for it. If we expect good writing, the writers need to know they can support themselves at what they do. Blogging will replace the lower echelon writing positions and become a like a farm team, a talent pool for the paying media. Everything must change, for things to stay the same, only slightly differently.

7/10/2007 03:08:00 PM  
Blogger the expat/pissedpoet said...

Comparing blog reviews to MSM reviews is like comparing street theatre to professional theatre productions. The smaller ventures can and often are more entertaining and can afford to be a good deal more honest.
Whilst declining circulations for the MSM is part of the problem it isn’t the whole story. Litigation from those disgruntled by the review is always at the back of the mind of the paid reviewer and their employer. The case of the Sydney restaurant that sued the Sydney Morning Herald when it went belly up 3 months after an unfavourable review is still making its way through the Australian legal system 5 years after the event. The details of this case can be seen at "No Stars for this unpalatable decision" (http://www.spiked-online.com/index.php?/site/article/3509/).
Bloggers like street performers can take greater risks when on a street corner with their suit case of props can say “Don’t like it? So sue me, look at all the cool stuff you will get.”
The only way to evaluate a reviewers worth is to compare what they have written with what they have written about. In the end a review/critique is only an opinion and whilst the arts remains a subjective play ground agendas will thrive.

7/10/2007 08:32:00 PM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

Viagra Ciallis Oxycontin Cipro Zoloft

So many drugs so little time!!!! I need an editor. Is my writing bad? Call 1-800-kis-myas

I'd go pro but I think it would ruin my tone. Plus I dont know squat about Picasso - i heard he was influenced not only by african masks but by popular culture as well - which blows my mind up!!!!!

Google will edit for you in 3-5 years, speaking of Chinese tea.

oh and terry teachout and wassisface can come over and watch Idiocracy with me - we got beer and bbq and death and gravitas too!!!!

7/11/2007 12:00:00 AM  
Blogger A Reason to Paint said...

Well you've proven your right to an opinion for me Edward - great reading; I'll be back.

7/11/2007 04:12:00 AM  
Anonymous Counter Critic said...

Yo Edward,

It would be important to note that Virgil Thompson--who we are all apparently agreeing "dominated music criticism in the 40's and 50's" blah blah blah--was also sustaining a dominating career as a composer. (Did you know he wrote the Pratt Insitute's anthem?) At any rate, categorically disqualifying artists from being critics doesn't make sense. Who knows better about the ins and outs of making art than artists? And if an artist/critic slams another artist's work, they may have valid reasons, or they may not. I think the important thing is to make sure that there is room in criticism for communal discussion--a la this very blog. That will help eliminate threats of artists' biases.

You feel me?

7/16/2007 02:33:00 PM  

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