Friday, January 02, 2009

On the death of art criticism in newspapers

City Arts Seattle

By pushing out distinguished writers whom readers trust, the dailies are sinking themselves, warns the great chronicler of the media crisis, New York Times columnist David Carr. "Having missed the implications of the Web and allowed both their content and their audience to be scraped away by aggregators and ad networks," writes Carr, "newspapers are now working furiously to maintain audience, build new ad models and renovate presentation. But they won't stay relevant to readers with generic content ginned up by newbies with no background in the communities they serve."

The "newbies" Carr refers to are of two tribes: (a) low-paid staffers too young to have costly families on the health plan, or (b) freelancers with no health plan and little stature. Brave souls who work for cheap, hustle a dozen pitches at once and only get paid on publication, freelancers are awash in work as unemployment soars - and they're still broke.

Seattle native and LA Times staff rock critic Ann Powers describes the freelancer's plight this way. "A [freelance] critic is never able to be comfortable that they own a space in the dialogue, that they will have a true place in the community conversation." If staff critics like Farr and Powers feel compelled to articulate the cultural history of their cities, the freelancer's survival instinct compels him or her to secure the next paycheck before embarking on any history lessons.

At the time of our interview Powers had just seen three of her close friends axed from their writing jobs, and she was having nightmares about getting the axe herself. On December 8 the Tribune Company, which owns the LA Times, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Like David Carr, Powers has been trying to articulate why the business strategy taken by so many dailies is wrong-headed, resulting in a doomed parade of goodbye parties for people who should not be leaving. After much contemplation she settled on the metaphor of hamburgers:

"Just to take it out of the professional realm for a moment, think of it in terms of hamburgers. Would you trust someone's opinion about a hamburger joint if you did not know what kind of food they liked or if they even ate hamburgers? Or would you go to a trusted friend who you knew ate hamburgers all the time?"

Critics come to know the town just as reporters get to know their beats: they find their sources, their deep throats. As Tori Ellison phrased it, they learn how to "unearth" truths about the scene - digging into the underground instead of running over its surfaces.

Some say: forget the daily papers, the really great arts criticism is happening on blogs. I have searched and searched Planet Blogosphere and have yet to find this to be true. Of course blogs, twitter, myspace, all of it is in some sense revolutionary (Obama's win proved this). But the blogosphere is not a place that produces great, careful writing. Perhaps this is because bloggers don't generally craft and revise their work: it's all about back-and-forth discussion, diary entries, lists.

"A staff critic is by nature a generalist," says Powers. "Their job is to cover as wide a range as possible. The blog world does not encourage generalists it encourages specific passions." It also encourages?xenophobia - fear of those who are unlike you. "Who do we have in common?" asks the social networking site. The staff critic binds society together, if only by giving everyone someone to disagree with. The new, unknown critic splits audiences into interest groups. The critic starves on $125 a review; artists and audiences, starved of comprehensive coverage, drift into separate, solipsistic twilights.

Read the full article HERE

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