Another critic bites the dust

March 4, 2008
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The Los Angeles Times has decided it doesn’t need a full-time dance critic and so Lewis Segal is now out of a job.

What does that matter to you?

Well, it’s no secret that daily newspapers are placing less emphasis on arts and entertainment criticism. Where there's still arts coverage left, it’s more likely to be feature stories and previews (and, even then, it leans toward television and popular music).

So as I send off my credentials and clips to join the American Theatre Critics Association, I have to ask: What role will critics not academic critics but those of us trying to reach the average reader have in the future of journalism?

I’ve got my own ideas on the subject I should, or else why would I have this job? But I’m curious to hear what you have to say, whether you are an arts professional, an audience member or an intersted bystander.

Oh, and for a taste of Lewis Segal’s insightful writing on dance, read a sample here. Hard-core ballet fans might not like what he has to say, but the piece reflects the kind of clear, opinionated, thoughtful, passionate writing that is in shorter and shorter supply in newspaper arts sections these days.

Your thoughts?
  • I must confess, I hadn't given this an ounce of thought. That is, until you brought it up.

    My very impulsive thoughts about the future of the A&E critics, is that you're on the right path. That is to say, by encouraging the critique to become more dialogue and less dissertation is a step in the right direction. The internet offers a wonderful way to measure viewer response and readership. If you're getting readers, it is more possible for the critic to sell his/her contributions to the publication.

    Like I said, this is an off-the-cuff response. I reserve the right to think more on it. :)
  • Consider the value of the critic for one reason, if for no other: as an advocate for the consumer. Sure, you can buy a new car or TV or washing machine based solely on a salesman's pitch or the product description on the box. You could also go online to one of the myriad sites where consumer comments are collected and presented on everything from hotels to jewelry, but on those you tend to get responses that cluster toward the two poles of reaction: those who were either delighted enough or disgusted enough with their purchases to take the time to post their opinions. Enter the consumer advocates, like J.D. Power and Associates or Consumer Reports magazine. From these professionals the consumer can obtain assessments that result from rigorous, informed, and disciplined testing by people who know the products they're evaluating better than most average consumers, and can therefore help tell buyers what attributes are most important to consider about their potential purchase.

    So it is with a critic: Preview articles in many publications amount to little more than a word-for-word reprinting of a press release from the artist or company presenting a performance, gallery opening, music release, and so on. There are some that are reported in more depth, but most still have more to do with what the producing artists would like their potential audiences to know than with the quality of the work to be presented (about which nobody but the artist yet knows in the case of most previews, and sometimes even the artist doesn't know). Online forums and even live word of mouth about art suffers from the same positive-negative clustering: The person who thought the ISO's performance was money well spent but didn't have a life-altering experience there is not likely to spend much mental energy describing it to others. So the critic has a place for the interested potential arts consumer - as an individual with enough experience, training, and/or powers of observation to know the medium (be it dance, visual art, fiction, or theatre) better than the average reader. The critic knows the attributes of the art in question and can therefore test them for the reader.

    One might argue that the critic's role is necessarily subjective, and that it's only one person's opinion, and that's certainly true, but there's a degree of subjectivity even in determining the picture quality of an HDTV in Consumer Reports. In either case, the consumer has to make a decision about how much to trust the reviewer, but at least there's someone there whose views the consumer can use as a benchmark.
  • I would also like to add that the role of a critic in a community like ours is essential to the overall eaducation and enlightenment of the community as a whole. My greatest challenge as the artistic director of a contemporary dance company is ignorance. Ninety nine percent of the populace don't know what contemporary dance is, and what's more, they don't want to know! In many ways, the crtic is our only pipeline to the outside, where a glimpse of what we do can either be inviting or not, interesting or not, compelling or not to the average Joe. I consider actually, that critics have the awesome responsibility of educating the public about the arts that they are writing about. We the readers should always know something more about the particular art form after we have read a review!
    David Hochoy
    Artistic Director
    Dance Kaleidoscope
  • I would like to hear the rest of your thoughts, Lou.

    In the meantime, thanks for telling me (us) about the American Theatre Critics Association. I would love to be a guest at their upcoming conference in Washington, DC, and maybe a member some day.

    Looking at the ATCA website led me to the O'Neill Institute's critics' boot camp. That sounds heavenly, too! I can not take that much time off from my day job this year, but it is something to dream about.

    In the meantime, I will just keep blogging about theatre. Donald Murray says that writing is a way of making meaning. I write about theatre in order to learn about it.

    I also write about it in order to play Kilroy. To say, I was here, at this show, and this is what it made me feel, think, and understand. I like to record and to report. To document.

    However, I am very, very, VERY glad that I am not the only one writing about theatre in the Indianapolis area. I learn so much from you, Lou, and from the other professional reviewers in Indy. I wish there were more of you. Learning = enjoyment for me.

    I agree with the comments that other people made above: professional reviews help the consumer to decide what to see; professional reviews help the consumer to more fully appreciate and understand the art form being reviewed; professional reviews in an interactive setting spark discussion, which extends the original enjoyment of the art.

    Professional reviews also serve as good references for the future, if good archives are kept.

    Hope Baugh

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