Camille LeFevre on teaching and writing arts journalism

Arts Criticism: Still Relevant or Passé?

The current relevance of arts criticism in contemporary culture is a thorny, complex topic that would take multiple posts to begin untangling and addressing. But here’s a start to an ongoing discussion.

During JOUR 4990 “Covering the Arts” this semester, we’ve been discussing whether arts criticism is still relevant to, necessary for or even wanted by readers. As we’ve discovered through our readings and guest speakers, most coverage of the arts (in Minnesota) is now promotional. Arts coverage–whether it’s via blogs, newspapers, magazines, tv or radio–appears primarily in advance of a show, exhibition or performance. Arts criticism is becoming more difficult  to find; especially thoughtful, in-depth critical assessment.

We all know some of the reasons for this dearth of critical thinking and writing. Briefly: Newspapers have been laying off their long-time, full-time critics for a decade now; freelancers are picking up some of the slack, but many of them already have full-time positions in other professions–covering an arts discipline isn’t their primary job as it was for critics in the past. Some critics have migrated to online platforms, but again the work is freelance and the pay isn’t anywhere comparable to what professional critics had been paid. And so on.

With blogs, now everyone’s a critic (or rather, a reviewer as Rotten Tomatoes editor Matt Atchity explains in this video):

[blip.tv ?posts_id=3834881&dest=-1]

The democratization of opinion has merit, of course. But as one my students mentioned yesterday, the casual reviewer is more apt to give a thumbs up or thumbs down assessment of a show, while a seasoned critic is likely to discuss the art in cultural or historical contexts while relating that art to contemporary experience, thus “creating a discussion in your mind” or providing fodder for discourse with other interested people.

Then there’s the progressive dumbing down of our culture as entertainment and celebrity gossip take precedence over critical thinking about the arts. Apparently, this has even seeped into professional criticism. I asked my students: Is the manner or form in which criticism written relevant?  “It’s huge!” was one enthusiastic reply. Her example: New York Times dance critic Alastair Macaulay’s sugarplum comment and the ensuring uproar. Read here for details:

As Charlotte Higgins writes in the above article, “It’s a tricky area, this: bodies, after all, are the material for the art form of dance and come under intense scrutiny. But there is a general agreement among critics that commenting on body shape is not done, unless it relates directly to the interpretation of the work.”

My students agreed, and their solution? The arts should have its own gossip columns, where such comments as Macaulay’s belong: “Jenifer Ringer, as the Sugar Plum Fairy, looked as if she’d eaten one sugar plum too many; and Jared Angle, as the Cavalier, seems to have been sampling half the Sweet realm.” According to my students, such remarks don’t belong in a “serious review,” which should focus on the work.

Thoughts? Let’s keep this discussion going.



December 14, 2010 Posted by | From the Classroom | 7 Comments