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.

  • Bob Denmore

    Yes, but critics aren’t read just because of the publications they write for. The best critics are read because their writing stands on its own as a piece of work. The best writers command the best salaries. And still, despite Jeff’s hype about the power of blogging, there is no business model on the web that subsidies high quality, professional journalism. In the end, you get what you pay for.

  • I agree with you, Jeff. An additional, and more immediate problem is for “local” reviewers. Why bother reading the Raleigh News & Observer (I just picked that paper at random) film critic when you can read the critic from the Washington Post, the New York Times, or the Los Angles times online? Who needs so many movie reviewers, anyway? In the film arena, what constitutes experience, anyway? We’ve all been seeing movies all our lives. Does that count? It’s easy for Richard Corliss to whack away at IMDB commenters, but if he looked around, he’d find excellent points of view on any number of arts pages. Ultimately, I think this points to a larger issue than just arts reviewers. Journalists claim credibility because they write about things long enough to have obtained a working knowledge of the field they cover. That doesn’t make them experts, just experienced. If I want an opinion about a legal decision, I’d rather get it from a lawyer/blogger like Volokh than the Detroit Free Press’ legal beat guy or gal. I don’t think many business writers have advanced business degrees. They didn’t study economics in college, they studied journalism, and theoretically, learned how to write; not about marginal propensities to save. I can read about military affairs from a person in the military. I can read about political issues from a professor emeritus of government, not from a graying beat writer desperately looking to get his “I took down the goverment” story before he retires.

  • Vermont Neighbor

    It’s a race against time. It may not matter anymore what a critic brings to the table, but what table he brings it to. The link at the end mentions that Pirates of The Caribbean has a MySpace account.

    While Corliss and Turan and others have the necessary credentials and reputation, tomorrow’s interviewers will find themselves text-messaging a review in an effort to make a personal connection and become a desirable brand. A brand that can attract financial backing.

    I wouldn’t give up my print critics for newbies. But it’s easy to find great reviews on the Internet. It’s the wild, wild west right now, a real free-for-all for anyone who wants to take it.

  • Bob Denmore Says:
    The best writers command the best salaries.

    I don’t know where you get your data, Bob, but for those of us laboring in the freelance arts writing field for *decades* would that it was so! And that’s not even counting the really thoughtful, experienced critics who have just left the field because once you average in the hours-per-article-fee it just isn’t worth it.

    Yes, there are some wonderful writers out there but *most* arts writers are not on salary at the newspapers and magazines that publish them and are making a living another way.

  • You may find the Blogcritics site an interesting contrast to the main stream media critics.

    Over 1000 bloggers contribute reviews, opinions and, yes, even news.

    Disclosure: I am a volunteeer editor of the site.

  • chico haas

    I would’ve read Pauline Kael on a napkin.