Posts about Culture

Who needs critics?

ArtsJournal is playing host to a group blog leading up to the meeting of the National Arts Journalism Program in Philadelphia and it’s a fascinating clash of old and new views of criticism in the internet age. Terry Teachout, not surprisingly, gives us a ringing endorsement of the new:

Middle-aged print-media critics who want to be read in the age of Web-based journalism must start by recognizing 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. What’s more, I’d not only encourage but expect my new young guns to transfer their blogs to my newspaper’s Web site, complete with snark and comments and four-letter words.

Time was when the critics of large-circulation newspapers and magazines were important de facto, regardless of whether or not they had anything original to say. That time is over, and a good thing, too. I know I’m not entitled to be part of the cultural conversation simply by virtue of the fact that I publish in The Wall Street Journal. The only way for critics to “earn their authority” in the age of new media is to be interesting. Nothing less is good enough.

Applause. Applause.

But then we hear this from Anthony DeCurtis of the formerly hip Rolling Stone (whom I tried to hire when I started Entertainment Weekly; he said no):

Much as I like Depeche Mode, I’d sooner shoot myself than read fifty short reviews of their latest CD by DM obsessives. If that’s the future of arts journalism, best of luck to all.
Similarly, the notion that editors are combing the blogs for the next generation of arts journalists is hilarious — even moreso if it’s true. Blogging can be fun, I’m sure, but I wouldn’t give up that WSJ gig.
People should obviously do the best and strongest work they can, regardless of the medium in which it appears. Somewhere in here, the notion of getting paid for this work ought to be addressed. The disappearance of outlets and the downward pressure on rates seem to me the most disturbing aspects of the past couple of years.

I’m amazed that people think that criticism is an entitlement program.

Andras Szanto (who’s also teaching at CUNY’s J-school) argues that the abundance of blogs will lead to gatekeeping again.

The blogsphere today is more or less where the arts were circa 1975. It’s a realm of new opportunities, naïve expectations, and faux democracy. It’s smack in the middle of that euphoric moment that every innovative movement goes through before it makes its own peace with the status quo. Back in the seventies, it seemed everything was possible in the art world. Anything could be art and “everyone an artist,” as Beuys proclaimed.

But a funny thing happened on the way to this pluralist nirvana. Three decades later we are seeing an unprecedented institutionalization and commercialization of art. The entry fee into a successful art career is a $60,000 MFA. And while laissez-faire rules, aesthetically speaking, who can doubt that the artists being seen and heard are the ones who have the muscle of major galleries, presenting institutions, and distribution companies behind them. From the cloud of unbounded opportunity has emerged a new ironclad structure, no less selective and, in its own way, constraining than what had come before. To some degree, the very scale and openness of postmodern culture have mandated these new filters and hierarchies. And so it will go with the blogsphere. When the smoke clears, we will be back to listening and trusting a finite number of voices. We will depend on them, and we won’t have time for many more.

I’ll disagree. He assumes that there is still a scarcity of gallery walls. No, there’ll only be a scarcity of money.

March to the movies

Well, both left and right are telling you to go see United 93 (note that I wasn’t so presumptuous).

Via Glenn Reynolds, I see that George Will says you have to go because:

Going to see “United 93” is a civic duty because Samuel Johnson was right: People more often need to be reminded than informed. After an astonishing 56 months without a second terrorist attack, this nation perhaps has become dangerously immune to astonishment. …

The message of the movie is: We are all potential soldiers. And we all may be, at any moment, at the war’s front, because in this war the front can be anywhere.

The hinge on which the movie turns are 13 words that a passenger speaks, without histrionics, as he and others prepare to rush the cockpit, shortly before the plane plunges into a Pennsylvania field. The words are: “No one is going to help us. We’ve got to do it ourselves.” Those words not only summarize this nation’s situation in today’s war but also express a citizen’s general responsibilities in a free society.

Now from the other side of the pond and the political spectrum comes Mary Riddell in The Observer of London, who sees the same movie and comes away with the same imperative to go watch it but for, as n ear as I can tell, the opposite reason:

Like the passengers, we all sat that day in the departure lounge for another world.

That’s not what I would call British understatement. Anyway, I interrupt…

But, as the politicians and the generals flailed, the hijack victims were the only people who saw that the global order was shifting. Although they would not live to see its consequences, they spent their last minutes doing what they thought right.

And now, their gravestones are etched with the West’s variable tributes to their memory: Afghanistan, Iraq, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo. George W Bush’s war on terror, ordained by their fates, has claimed many thousands more lives. Each day, 35 to 50 bodies pass through the Baghdad morgue, stacked up in freezer trucks when the storage rooms overflow. Other ordinary citizens, in Bali, Madrid or London, have suffered or died as al-Qaeda turned their normal routines into a theatre of barbarity….

See Paul Greengrass’s film. It will stop your breath with fear as it breaches the thin margin between power and vulnerability and between normality and carnage. But its message is not just of doom. In averting an attack on Washington’s seats of power, a handful of people shifted the course of history. And now, five years after they died, they are the ushers between their yesterdays and our tomorrows. For all their reason, optimism and courage, those who boarded United 93 had no chance to avert their fate. We do.

But only if the West is not paralysed by fear or drawn further into the clash of evil against virtue espoused by democrats and jihadists alike. The passengers of United 93 took a plainer view. They saw a universe where those of good faith must take all necessary risks to ensure that the earth keeps turning round the sun and that they are there to see it rise again.

I certainly do not get her metaphoric view of the movie and the world. The passengers fought back. They met violence with violence. They fought evil.

Scandalous anti-Americanism

The Times of London reports that a joint French-German history textbook “is coloured by anti-Americanism, according to one of the historians who wrote it.”

Guillaume Le Quintrec said that the book, Histoire / Geschichte, contained “unashamedly pro-European ideology” and an underlying distrust of the United States.

But he said that German historians had fought to prevent their French counterparts from introducing an even harder anti-American line into the book….

It starts in 1945, a convenient date that enables the authors to focus on “memories” of the Second World War rather than its causes…. The next stage is the Cold War, where the US and the USSR are presented as broadly equivalent in moral terms. Both were engaged in an arms race described as “the balance of terror” and both sought to “impose themselves by an omnipresent propaganda” that involved “gross exaggerations and simplifications”.

A substantial section of the work is devoted to the EU — a startling success story and a beacon for the rest of the world, according to the five German and five French scholars who worked on the project. “Through its willingness to co-operate with the Third World, its attachment to multilateralism, its dialogue with other regions, the EU appears as a model on the international scene,” it says.

By contrast, modern American unilateralism “enshrined by George W. Bush is widely criticised throughout the world”, it says. Music, cinema and other forms of culture are “dominated by American multinational firms, which are the main beneficiaries of the free trade”.

M Le Quintrec told The Times that it was “largely right” to describe the work as antiAmerican. But he said that German historians had insisted upon softening the message with sentences such as: “Some people, notably in Germany, consider the US to be a power which defends democracy in a world where the UN is not always able or willing to do it.” …

This is beyond disagreement over policy and beyond an effort to find balance. Too much of what I hear today approaches bigotry.

Who killed the critics? (continued)

Continuing discussion on the shrinking world of the professional critic: In WBUR’s blog, Bill Marx writes:

Some critics think that their opinions, grounded in expertise and taste, is what makes them valuable. Now that the Internet lets readers sample written judgments from around the world, that position is becoming increasingly precarious. Still, many established reviewers don’t feel intimidated by the musings of the “cyber-rabble.” In “Time,” film critic Richard Corliss wrote that “the web is where traditional criticism is democratized….You don’t need experience, insight or a spell-check function … just passion and a lot of spare time.”

In truth, Corliss should be afraid, very afraid. The divide between the world of the web and traditional reviewing is narrowing, as column inches for arts reviews are shrinking in newspapers and magazines, while commercial pressures are morphing criticism into a bastardized form of feature writing. Reviewers no longer are given enough room to write well, even if they could. All they have left is their expert thumbs, flicking up and down.

The case of Kakutani is symptomatic of a dirty secret: arts critics have been, and are, hired by mainstream publications for many reasons. The ability to write with humor, daring, and passion is not on the top of the list. Editors figure that the publication lends the reviewer gravitas and power, rather than what he says or how well he says it.

: And Doug Fox criticizes dance critics with many suggestions for change.

: See also Kay Inigo on the marketing of Pirates of the Caribbean via MySpace.

The chaos machine

Brian McNair, a UK journalism prof, writes a very nice essay in Media Guardian today about the chaos the internet, technology, and communications cause, for bad and good.

Events in one part of the world feed back instantly into the politics of another, and linear, machine models of top-down cultural control no longer explain very much….

From the offices of News Corp to the boardrooms of the BBC, the age of top-down, elite-controlled media is passing, replaced by a decentralised global infosphere of unprecedented accessibility and diversity….

The grounds for optimism in this are that cultural chaos, like chaos in nature, can be both destructive and creative. On the one hand, the networked nature of globalised news culture makes it easier than ever before to terrorise the planet….

Where there is chaos and disorder, however, there is also the prospect of evolution and progressive change. If globalised media culture provides the jihadists with a weapon to demoralise the enemy and mobilise support, it also spreads the very ideas and values which inspire their rage. Arab Big Brother provoked riots in Bahrain because it exposed TV audiences in the Middle East to an alternative model of gender relations….

All we can do is to stand firm against authoritarianisms of every hue, and in defence of the freedoms we value, without apology or qualification. In doing so we recognise that the defining struggle of our time is not a war on terror, but a culture war, in which the globalised media are more powerful weapons than bombs and bullets. Its outcome will determine the shape of the 21st century.

McNair has a book out today — Cultural Chaos — that I’ve been trying to find in the stores in London.

Who killed the critics?

Who needs critics anymore? Wall Street Journal movie critic Joe Morgenstern bemoans the state of his world today, when he sees a report that studios are releasing more movies without showing them to critics. That could be because there are more bad movies today. But no, it really illustrates a fundamental shift in the dynamics of pop culture thanks to the internet. The Being-Reasonable bloggers write at

The tactic of skipping advance screenings is taking hold now because the dynamics of movie marketing and pre-release publicity have changed. Like other professional arbiters of taste, movie reviewers just don’t matter quite as much as they used to. Once upon a time, they were the point of origin for popular opinion. In an age of ratings Web sites and consumer-generated content, they are just one voice of many.

Pop-cultural criticism is, if not doomed, on a severe decline for a few reasons:

The first is that we are all now critics. You no longer have to wait for the friend you trust — who, I’ve long said, is the best critic for you — to see a movie, you can now find friends online or watch the aggregate opinions of people online or go write a review yourself. And it’s not just movies, of course. Amazon’s audience is everybody’s critic for everybody’s product. (Who needs Consumer Reports is another question we may be asking eventually.)

The second is that in the failing economics of big, old media, critics are dispensible.

And there’s this: As media explodes with more and more choice, one critic or one publication simply can’t keep up with it all. That was efficient when you had one-screen theaters and three TV channels and no internet and no tools that let anyone create media.

I shocked Howard Kurtz when I suggested that newspapers could get rid of their own critics and help their audiences share their own opinions instead.

If I launched Entertainment Weekly today, I hope I’d have the sense not to propose starting a magazine by hiring a bunch of critics. Oh, I might have a few of them, if they’re really worth reading. But I’d turn Entertainment Weekly into Entertainment Whenever, an online event that brings together opinions on entertainment, big and small, from anywhere, and I’d use technology to help you find the critics you trust.

The truth is that criticism isn’t dying. It’s opening up now that everyone is a critic.

United 93

United 93 dredged my anger and hate about September 11, the silt of my soul that is never far below the surface.

I wasn’t sure whether I should see the movie. Some of you who have come to this page more recently and find mostly blathering about media may not know that I started this blog after September 11, because I was there. It’s personal for every one of us. For me, the memories and emotions are inseparable. Before I went into the theater, I even made sure to take my heart pill, because fear triggers my arrhythmia. I really wasn’t sure I could take it.

The planes hitting their targets one more time hit me as those scenes always do, except these images usually are not part of a drama; they are the drama. The sound and sight of the people on this plane calling home to tell their families goodbye was so sad and so close to home it was about unbearable; as I’ve told you before, since September 11, my children still no longer let me leave the home without saying that they love me and hearing me say it to them.

But the movie starts and ends not with the victims but with the criminals who committed these murders, praying to a God who surely must disown them or there is no God. They are the objects of my anger and hate.

The meme running through many of the reviews of United 93 is that it is carefully made, but the critics wonder why it was made. Let Salon’s Stephanie Zacharek speak for most of the critics (and more eloquently than many of them):

I’ve never had a more excruciating moviegoing experience in my life, and as brilliantly crafted — and as adamantly unexploitive — as the picture is, it still leaves you wondering why it was made in the first place….

But I went into “United 93” with a feeling of dread, and ultimately, I’m not sure Greengrass did much more than pluck at that dread with dogged, if scrupulous, persistence. I walked out of “United 93” feeling bereft and despondent; my stomach muscles had tensed into a seemingly immovable knot. But the picture didn’t make me feel anything I hadn’t fully expected to feel.

Yes. The movie is meticulously and masterfully made. The performances — including especially those from the people in the FAA and military control rooms who play themselves — are incredible. The entire effort is restrained, respectable, and respectful. It tries hard not to tell you what to feel because it doesn’t have to. And I can’t tell you whether you should go because only you know whether you could or should bear it. Nor can I tell you why director and writer Paul Greengrass made this film.

All I can tell you is my reaction, beyond that dread and sorrow and admiration for the heroism and humanity of the victims. I felt the anger and hate again. This is a movie about a crime, a mass murder, a Godless sin.

But not according to The New York Times. In a parody of Times reviews, Manohla Dargis — who also doesn’t know why the film was made — finds, or rather injects, a political agenda:

“United 93” is a sober reminder of the breakdown in leadership on the morning of Sept. 11. Unlike Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11,” the film doesn’t get into the whereabouts of the president that day, or why Osama bin Laden ordered the attack; its focus is purposely narrow. But that narrow focus, along with the lack of fully realized characters, and the absence of any historical or political context, raises the question of why, notwithstanding the usual (if shaky) commercial imperative, this particular movie was made. To jolt us out of complacency? Remind us of those who died? Unite us, as even the film’s title seems to urge? Entertain us?

To be honest, I haven’t a clue. I didn’t need a studio movie to remind me of the humanity of the thousands who were murdered that day or the thousands who have died in the wars waged in their name.

No, I don’t think it is a “sober reminder of the breakdown in leadership.” I think it is quite clearly a sobering reminder of a crime perpetrated against thousands of innocent people by deluded fanatics.

And so perhaps we do need that reminder.

As I went into the theater to buy my ticket, I heard two young women talking about what to see.

“United 93,” said one, “that’s the one about the terrorists who take over the jet.”

Her friend replies, “You know I don’t like action pictures.”

“It’s not really scary,” says the first.

It’s just another thriller to them, about a story apparently forgotten.

Yes, perhaps we need to be reminded of the anger and the hate. We need to be reminded to be scared.

Thank you for spinning

Thank You for Smoking finally hit the ‘plex and I loved it. It’s a commentary less on tobacco companies and even on politics than on news media and the dark art of spin that has overtaken it. Hilarious and highly recommended.