Posts about criticism

Choice and art

As a consumer, creator, and critic, I celebrate the choice and freedom our new medium-of-the-people gives us. But some fear that choice.

In one of those impossibly broad, I’ll-explain-the-world-to-you, year-end survey pieces in The Times’ arts section, Jon Pareles tackles the video of the people. It’s a fine summary of where we are but, like a newsmagazine piece, it really adds little new in information or thought. At first, he seems to celebrate this explosion of creativity. But just wait. . . .

All that free-flowing self-expression presents a grandly promising anarchy, an assault on established notions of professionalism, a legal morass and a technological remix of the processes of folk culture. And simply unleashing it could be the easy part. Now we have to figure out what to do with it: Ignore it? Sort it? Add more of our own? In utopian terms the great abundance of self-expression puts an end to the old, supposedly wrongheaded gatekeeping mechanisms: hit-driven recording companies, hidebound movie studios, timid broadcast radio stations, trend-seeking media coverage. But toss out those old obstacles to creativity and, lo and behold, people begin to crave a new set of filters.

Tech oracles predicted long ago that by making worldwide distribution instantaneous, the Web would democratize art as well as other discourse, at least for those who are connected.

But in the end, this all turns out to be a rhetorical exercise: Pareles sets up the phenom of this grand era of self-expression only to shoot it down:

The open question is whether those new, quirky, homemade filters will find better art than the old, crassly commercial ones. The most-played songs from unsigned bands on MySpace — some played two million or three million times — tend to be as sappy as anything on the radio; the most-viewed videos on YouTube are novelty bits, and proudly dorky. Mouse-clicking individuals can be as tasteless, in the aggregate, as entertainment professionals.

Unlike the old media roadblocks, however, their filtering can easily be ignored. The promise of all the self-expression online is that genius will reach the public with fewer obstacles, bypassing the entrenched media. The reality is that genius has a bigger junk pile to climb out of than ever, one that requires just as much hustle and ingenuity as the old distribution system.

The entertainment business is already nostalgic for the days when it made and relied on big stars; parts of the public miss a sense of cultural unity that may never return. Instead both have to face the irrevocable fact of the Internet: There’s always another choice.

But choice is the fuel that feeds art. And the freedom to create is the match.

I return, as is my thumbsucking Sunday-survey-piece habit, to my time as a TV critic in the mid-80s, when choice — enabled with the remote control, VCR, and cable box — yielded better television. The entertainment industry had to fight harder to get our attention and could no longer forcefeed us their swill, and so TV improved. The Beverly Hillbillies yielded to Cosby and Seinfeld; Knots Landing yielded to The Sopranos.

Choice is good, not something to be lamented. Indeed, I find it ironic that a critic, of all people, should be complaining about choice. Choice is precisely what necessitates criticism.

Ah, but criticism, too, suffers fragmentation. It’s no longer possible — nor was it ever desirable — to be the one-size-fits-all-aesthetics critic because taste and choice go hand-in-hand: We all have different tastes and so we all want to choose what we like. This makes it damned hard — no, impossible — to be the critic for everyone, which is what a newspaper-for-everyone demands. No, I want critics who like the sorts of things I like to find the things I want. In other words, I want to know what my friends like. Friends whose taste we know, trust, and share have long been the most effective critics. Now, the internet provides the opportunity to make more such friends and I am confident we will see more and more systems to enable that.

In fact, I’d argue that this is a role of critics and their outlets. I don’t give a damn what the nation’s best-selling books are; that matters only to the publishers to print them. I would, however, love to know the best-selling books among New York Times readers are (or New Yorker or Guardian or Paid Content). That starts to get us to a smaller group of friends whose judgment matters.

Pareles makes the common mistake of bringing old-media, mass metrics to the new-media, niche world. We judged TV as a mass medium on the basis of the shows on the top of the ratings and that worked when there were three channels. But it didn’t work when we got 100 channels and the best of sci-fi had nothing to do with the best of history or food or sports or news or business on TV. And that critical worldview especially does not work in the new age of unlimited channels, when we all make our own networks.

It is a mistake to judge this new medium by the presence of junk; there is junk in all media. And it is a mistake to judge this new medium by the most-watched; those are merely the curiosities that happen to ignite for a moment. That analysis misses the great pockets of niche quality that are growing underneath: See Terry Teachout’s discovery of the treasures of jazz in YouTube.

Oh, and by the way, it is also a mistake to judge the value of a medium so new. The people’s TV is really less than a year old, for it was in this year that YouTube brought us the last piece to the puzzle enabling unlimited creativity — adding free distribution to the inexpensive equipment and easy tools and powerful marketing via links that we already had. The first days of TV produced crap (that was hardly the medium’s golden age; I say that age began when we got choice, starting in the mid-80s until, oh, about a year ago). Hey, babies make crap. But we know this baby will grow.

So the more intriguing question is what the role of criticism is in this new world of magnificent choice. That’s what I plan to explore in a new course I’ll be teaching next fall at CUNY: Criticism in the Age of Convergence. I hope I’ll get Parales to join me and my colleague Anthony DeCurtis — two of my favorite critics, by the way, both of whom I tried damned hard to hire when I started Entertainment Weekly — and Teachout, too, to explore the new opportunities and needs for criticism.

: Here’s a related Guardian column I wrote about criticism.

: LATER: Staci Kramer deftly dissects Pareles’ piece:

It’s close to a compulsion–this need for traditional media to expound on the real meaning of user-gen media. Social phenomenon. Old wine in new bottles. No substitute for pros. Pick one or all. . . . He views [MySpace and YouTube] as “empty vessels: brand-named, centralized repositories for whatever their members decide to contribute.” MySpace is “an ever-expanding heap of personal ads, random photos, private blathering, demo recordings and camcorder video clips.” YouTube is “a flood of grainy TV excerpts, snarkily edited film clips, homemade video diaries, amateur music videos and shots of people singing along with their stereos.” . . . “User-generated content” is “the paramount cultural buzz phrase of 2006” but Pareles prefers self-expression. Whatever it’s called, it leads to more fragmentation countered by user ranking/filtering that mimics the old media gatekeepers–and a further splintering of “cultural unity” in an online world with endless choice. As he explores the cultural meaning, what Pareles skips over is that News Corp.and Google weren’t buying the content as much as the community, the massive traffic and the distribution and provide respectively. That, and the idea that sophisticated online advertising can overcome fragmentation. . . .

The morphing critic

The Daily Mail eliminates the role of TV critic and Peter Preston explains why in the Guardian.

Who needs Borat?

Who needs a British comic to make fun of America when The Telegraph can find plenty of material on its own. See these two frightening slideshows there about religious nuts and nutty stage mothers screwing up little kids’ lives.

: And while we’re on Borat, I agree with David Brooks when he says that Borat took the safe route by not ridiculing Volvo drivers:

Cohen understands that when you are telling socially insecure audiences they are superior to their fellow citizens there is no need to be subtle. He also understands that any hint of actually questioning the cultural suppositions of his ticket-buyers — say by ridiculing the pretensions of somebody at a Starbucks or a Whole Foods Market — would fatally mar the self-congratulatory aura of the enterprise.

But I disagree with his argument that snobbery and mockery are in any way new forms of entertainment. Game shows are built on making fun of our fellow man from the comfort and safety of our own couches.

Criticism is free

The Guardian has taken the Comment is Free model and extended it to arts and entertainment.

That model: They take their columnists and throw them into the conversation (whether they like it or not). They add in new voices and opinion leaders from many different perspectives to broaden the conversation more than the bounds of paper could ever allowed. Then they open the gates to anyone to comment and converse, discovering more interesting voices. It’s a wonderfully rich and spicy stew. In a short time, CiF has become a platform for opinions and, like its foremother, HuffingtonPost, has been used as a place to announce positions (e.g., Jimmy Carter and the Euston Manifesto on CiF, John Kerry on HuffPost).

So now the Guardian brings this to arts and entertainment, which makes perfect sense. Now critics find themselves in the conversation . . . with other critics (formerly known as the audience). What’s so right about this is that the conversation is going on anyway; by helping it to come together, the Guardian puts itself in just the right position, in the middle of the talk. It becomes the water cooler. If I started Entertainment Weekly today, it would look like this, with links to stories, clips, sites, and more.

I can see this working beautifully in sports because, again, it only facilitates the conversation that is going on already among fans — and any opinion there is about as good as the next. [UPDATE: Proving once again that I am not a real man, I never look at sports sections and thus didn’t see that the Guardian had already put up its sports columns CiF style; thanks to the real man in the comments who informed me.] The paper becomes the pub. I wonder whether it might work in business or at least in market coverage — why not provide a place for the crowd to dissect, for example, the Google/YouTube deal because we are doing this already. And I think a variation of this can work in local, only instead of trafficking mostly in opinion, this becomes a means for people to share reporting as well. More on that in a minute.

Many months ago, I sat in the office of Guardian editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger as we talked about the extension of the CiF model and he drew a diagram showing the new relationship of the journalist — columnist and critic but also, I believe, reporter and editor — to his or her public. He drew a funnel with talk flowing in and out and I can’t recreate that now. So I’ll give you a very mixed metaphor: Journalists should no longer act as choke-points in that funnel but instead as pumps and filters, keeping the flow of opinions and information going in, around, and through — and contributing to and improving that flow along the way.

And that is the important thing to watch here: What is the role of the journalist in this new, networked world? Moderator. Enabler. Even educator. I think the Comment is Free model works beyond merely opinion and conversation as journalists’ roles change.

First, there is the informational role. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the journalists saw questions, curiosities, or misinformation swirling around the conversation and then went and fixed that with reporting: ‘Since you asked . . .’ ‘Here are the facts. . . .’ That is their first contribution. Of course, this is what jounalists do already: They report. I’d like to see the reporting and the conversation around it come closer together in the CiF model. And then, of course, the reporters aren’t the only ones reporting. This becomes an example for anyone; it empowers us all to go get facts, to improve the conversation, to make the crowd wiser.

Second, I think the journalist-as-moderator needs to be more of a magnet, to both attract and actively go out and find the really interesting voices and the knowledgeable experts and bring them into the conversation. Again, this is what reporters do already when they find the right people to quote. But now they can do more than quote those people; they can invite them to the party. And the party only gets better.

Third, editors should see themselves more broadly. I hesitate to say that they should edit and educate the crowd, for I can hear the crowd shouting back at me, ‘We don’t need no stinkin’ editing!’ But at CiF, when comments started to go wild, I suggested that instead of concentrating on the bad guys, they concentrate on the good guys and they found and highlighted some great new voices. That is one role of an editor: finding and cultivating talent. I also think an editor’s contribution to a conversation — as to an article — can and should be to push to make it better, to ask the right questions, to focus the narrative, to push for more reporting. That is how editors will operate in Yes, in this sense, we are all editors. Except I think what’s missing is for the paid editors to bring those skills to the conversation. And the conversation will be better for it.

I think that the CiF model is an important step on the way to networked journalism, for it brings together the pros and the ams to do new things together.

Critic, pan thyself

Bob Garfield gives himself a lousy review. Now that’s transparency.


I haven’t been a fan of Virginia Heffernan, The Times’ TV critic, but now she has done something to make me like her: She’s diving into online TV on her blog, obsessing about the lonelygirl15 series and whether it’s real or how real it is. She even appeared on On the Media this week to gab about it, calling it something to the effect of one of the most compelling TV shows going. TV explodes.

First thing we do, let’s kill all the critics

I’m finding critics so hard to take. And I was one. This Romenekso letter from Margaret A. McGurk of the Cincinnati Enquirer typifies the snotty, isolated, egotistical, haughty uselessness of them. She writes condemning star ratings for movies (though she gives them herself):

In 10 years of reviewing films, I never found a single colleague who considered stars (or 1-10 scales, or boxes of popcorn or whatever grading gimmick) to be anything but an abomination. They are worse than meaningless; they are dishonest.

The very fact these “grades” exist suggest to readers that there is some sort of objective standard by which any and all critics rate all movies. This ludicrous notion is so easily absorbed that even journalism professionals carp about “the critics” in the same way Fox News commentators carp about “the media” — as if there were a single, monolithic entity following some secret, authoritarian rule.

Even worse, ratings suggest that they convey information about the movies themselves. They don’t. At best they are no more than a crude shorthand for how much one particular critic liked or disliked the films. Four-star or one-star, ratings tell you nothing about why critics liked or disliked a film, or what they liked or disliked about it, or what qualities they value in film in general — the kind of information that lets readers judge a critic’s opinion on how it compares to their personal tastes.

Oh, ferchrissakes! She must think her audience — whatever there is of it — is a bunch of idiots who can’t figure out that stars are shorthand for the opinion of one person, the critic.

I started grading TV shows — which later became the critical conceit of Entertainment Weekly — when I faced a huge pile of new series one fall and wanted some way to help readers through it without having to plough through all my blather (though, this being at People, there wasn’t much of it). Fellow critics complained: ‘But they’ll read just the grades, not the reviews.’ And I said: ‘So? If they don’t want to read the review — if they really don’t care about a grade C Tony Danza show — they shouldn’t have to. They’re busy people.’ But McGurk wants to force her readers to read all her prose. This is why I say the critic is in danger of extinction.

Guardian column: Who needs critics?

My column for the Guardian this week pulls together some of what I’ve written here to ask what the role of the critic should be in a world where everyone is a critic and no critic can watch everything. (Nonregistration link here.) Snippet:

New media
When everyone’s a critic, where do all the critics go?

Jeff Jarvis
Monday August 7, 2006
The Guardian

Who needs critics, anyway? Not the producers of The Da Vinci Code, who launched a gigahit without showing the movie to critics much in advance. Not the latest Pirates of the Caribbean, which was deep-sixed by professional scribes – who as a group gave it only 52 out of 100 points, as calculated by – while the critics who count, the ones with tickets in hand, gave the sequel the biggest three-day box office in US history. Not newspapers in the US, which are laying off critics and refusing to send many of those left to soak up PR and parties at television critics’ junkets to Hollywood.

Yes, who needs critics in an age when everybody’s a critic? And what is the role of the critic at a time when there is far too much entertainment for any critic to take in and review?

The critics are, naturally, debating the point. The Wall Street Journal’s man on movies, Joe Morgenstern, fretted recently that at a time when “shoddiness has been radically redefined by a surging stream of studio swill … 11 movies so far this year have gone into distribution without being shown to critics – up from two during the same period last year.”

Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw warned: “Without critics you would be left with hype, with a jabbering army of Amazon reviewers and headache- inducing prose on” New York Times critic AO Scott argued that critics, even if ignored, suffer for your good: “We don’t go to the movies for fun. Or for the money. We do it for you.”

Music man Anthony DeCurtis of Rolling Stone dismissed his amateur competitors: “Much as I like Depeche Mode, I’d sooner shoot myself than read 50 short reviews of their latest CD by DM obsessives. If that’s the future of arts journalism, best of luck to all.” But the Wall Street Journal’s man in the theatre, Terry Teachout, argues on his blog at “Middle-aged print-media critics who want to be read in the age of web-based journalism must start by recognising that they’re in direct competition with younger bloggers. If they don’t, they’ll vanish – and most of them will deserve their fate. If I were a newspaper editor, I’d be looking to the blogs for the next generation of critics.”

In 1990, I created Entertainment Weekly, a magazine of pop cultural criticism in the US, because I saw an explosion of entertainment choice thanks to cable and the VCR (little did I know what would come next). And so I said we needed critics to help us find the good stuff. But if I started EW today, I’d create it online and I’d try to find ways to gather the taste of the crowds regarding far more entertainment: let sci-fi fans help you hunt the best sci-fi; debate the literary merit, if any, of Harry Potter; argue with Woody Allen fans over whether he has his mojo back. Mind you, I’d be loath to end up with the world’s largest focus group or most uninformative online poll. Instead, I’d hope this would be a salon of salons, where you could find the discussions and people you like and with them, the entertainment you want.

Would I have critics? Yes, but their roles would change. They still should give their views and set art in context. But rather than issuing pronouncements and bon mots, unchallenged, from the screening room, I’d want them to spark the discussion about entertainment: find the good voices, pinpoint the arguments, even referee debates among artists and critics. A great critic should be a magnet for fascinating discussion. Take the debate around politics at the Guardian’s Comment is Free and imagine similar discussion over the arts, with critics acting not as pontificators but as opinionated moderators, even generous hosts.

Just as the public and critics have a new relationship thanks to the internet, so may artists and their audiences alter roles. I know authors who’ve written books on blogs, to get help from readers. I know others who have opened up acts of fiction online with interactive elements to make the audience part of the art. The New York Times reported recently that the producers of some TV shows go to the fan site Television Without Pity to defend what they have done to favourite characters. I’ve never been one of those to predict that we would want to choose or create our own endings to movies and books. Art should not go karaoke. I do believe in the role of authorship. But what happens when the public, so quickly promoted from audience to critic, can now become participants in creation? What happens when art becomes interactive?