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.

  • I guess Szanto hasn’t noticed the rise of the blogging arts and crafts movement…people selling their goods directly to friends, family and their peer group by showing their wares on blogs. Who needs a gallery wall when you have endless internet pages?

  • Old Grouch

    “The entry fee into a successful art career is a $60,000 MFA.” ?!?!?

    Gee, I always thought that one thing that “validated” art was that “somebody liked it.”

    I guess Szanto’s world is all about credentials, manifestos, and gallery owners (and their clueless customers) who lack the confidence to look at a piece and judge it on its own merits. People afraid to make up their own minds without having heard from the “trusted voices” who will tell them whether they should like somthing or not. Glad I’m not part of it.

  • There always seem to be writers and artists who refuse, or don’t know they have to promote their works, and that it is an unavoidable part of the process, if you’re expecting to make a living from those works.

    It never ceases to amaze me that people think going to classes about your art for X number of years somehow imparts creativity and success all by itself. That is precisely how you limit yourself forever to mediocrity.

  • Tony my boy, you want to know who the good blogging critics are, keep your eye out for those who are getting a wide, and deep, buzz on the blogosphere. Most especially, a varied buzz on the blogosphere. A Depeche Mode album gets a lot of cross chat from a lot of people with a lot of different interests, that Depeche Mode album might be worth listening to. A blogger who has a wide and varied audience might be worth listening to too.

  • How silly to suggest that we need art galleries to sell art! Every webpage is a potential art gallery and every artist with a following can make money no matter what the snobs say. The tyrannical art critic who makes or breaks a careet is now a wooley mammoth sinking in a tar pit. Good riddance.

  • Christopher Dawes

    Sorry to cut to the real substance of Szanto’s message while everyone trashes the minutiae… but hey, someone must.

    His analogy between the blogosphere and the artistic period of the mid-1970s is both insightful and instructive. As much (or more) extinction of creativity will be the legacy of blogging in our time than then, as indeed has been the legacy of many prior times (not just the post-1960s) which simplistically chose to skirt questions of merit and content instead of facing them.

    Market can dictate many, many things to our time – but not art, and not insight. The notion that some kind of anarchical Darwinist view of the Internet can provide a meaningful vehicle for either creativity or comment in our time is preposterous.

    I have argued frequently that the time will come when this works: all I’m saying is that it is NOT NOW. When collective consciousness and the necessary Internet infrastructure allow that time will come… but please, please, don’t mislead a bright generation of critics into thinking that blogging is their ticket to visibility and viability. Wait until the print industry is colder in its coffin… and its just not there yet.


  • hey


    The fact that you felt it necessary to maker your point here tends to refute it!

    Power laws will dominate in everything, but solely due to the rarity of attention. If you are good and unique, there are no barriers. The barriers are to the mediocre me-too people. There are some blogs that could have been you, if you got there early enough, but now you have to be good to supplant the crap that’s already there. You can’t win with derivative crap, unique crap maybe, but no derivative crap.

    The internet really does make things different, as there is no limitation in distribution. You can sell anything and everything, with as many different SKUs as you want. There will be less credentialisation, as people don’t have to invest any serious money into you, so they can just try something if they like it.

  • EverKarl

    So, when was Rolling Stone hip? When they didn’t get the Jesus & Mary Chain? When they didn’t get Led Zeppelin?

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