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


  1. Well, I have long thought that arts criticism is a hugely subjective area where a writer can– and often did– write a blank check that represented their ego more than a reasoned interpretation of the subject, that could be used to further understand and appreciate the creator’s intent and spirit, blah blah blah. I kid, but I’m pretty serious. As for the Sugar Plum Incident, the dancer herself holds that she is responsible for her weight and appearance in this ballet, and that the critic has a fair say regarding her physique. (I haven’t seen her, but I suspect that she looks just fine; I did read that she has had struggles with eating disorders, so this whole thing pretty much pisses me off.)

    But I would not want to live in a world without arts writers— at least the ones who engender discussion and encourage disparate opinions. They are like the coaches, in a way. Some are good, some suck and are overpaid and self-important, but without them the game would suck and fall apart.

    Comment by prufrock | December 14, 2010 | Reply

    • Thanks for your thoughts. As one of my students said, “art is so subjective,” and especially with postmodern dance, theater and art (she continued), what the critic produces is really their interpretation. So true. But worth reading is, in your words, the criticism “engenders discussion and encourages disparate opinions.” We could certainly use much more of these in our culture.

      Comment by Camille LeFevre | December 14, 2010 | Reply

      • Yup…. My pal posted the article from the Trib about the brouhaha regarding the censorship of Wojnarowicz’s video, and reading the comments got me a-thinkin’. I hate stupid, and especially deliberately stupid, but there have been too many critics who have given the arts a bad name, namely, “elitist.” I, for one, don’t like elitism any more than the average teabagger, though I also don’t like chest-thumpers who wear their deliberate ignorance on their sleeve, either.

        My biggest example of art-critics-run-amok is the success arc of Jackson Pollock. Peggy said he was “important,” and then it just went insane from there. The Emperor’s New Clothes, and all that.

        Did you know that, about twenty years ago or so, someone digging around on Pollock’s old studio found some blank canvasses under the floor in his barn/studio? That is, they were blank when he stretched them and shoved them in the crawlspace, but when he was “painting,” there was a fair bit of overspray that fell between the cracks in the old plank floor and dappled the stored canvasses below.

        They sold at auction for about a zillion dollars as prime examples of his oeuvre.

        Comment by prufrock | December 14, 2010

  2. Hmmm, I thought I already posted something, but perhaps I pushed the wrong button, so I’ll try again. Prufrock: Could you please provide a citatio

    Comment by Jeffrey Kastner | December 15, 2010 | Reply

  3. Sorry for being so inept at posting! One last try: Prufrock, citation for this Pollock anecdote please?

    Comment by Jeffrey Kastner | December 15, 2010 | Reply

    • Probably not– it was a long time ago. I’ll try Googling.

      But it didn’t surprise me, and that is my point.

      Comment by prufrock | December 15, 2010 | Reply

  4. Right, except the story isn’t true. I believe what you’re thinking of is the discovery, after Lee Krasner died and gave the house to Stony Brook in the 1980s, that there were paint drips on the original floor of the barn under some Masonite sheets Pollock put down in 1953. They’re still right there, on the floor.

    Comment by Jeffrey Kastner | December 15, 2010 | Reply

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