Camille LeFevre on teaching and writing arts journalism

Criticism? continued

Given the comments, thus far, to my last post, clearly the topic of arts criticism generates passionate responses, ranging from the financial power of critics to boost (or diminish) the monetary value of art to what exactly constitutes a work of art. Curiously, responses thus far are mostly from those concerned with the visual arts. Which brings to mind several conversations I’ve had lately about criticism (the topic on which, for now, these posts are focused).

Last week, Scott Stulen (visual artist and project director of mnartists.org) and Alan Berks (playwright and originator of mnplaylist.com) ended their visit to my class with this call: The Twin Cities needs a visual arts critic, with tough skin and well-honed critical abilities, to really address the work being created here. Artists may not like this person, but they’ll respect him/her.

I heard a similar call later in the week, while talking with two artists who are friends. The lack of thoughtful, well-substantiated criticism, they said, leads to mediocrity. This speaks to the belief that criticism is integral part of the art making, promoting, consuming and appreciating ecosystem. My questions are these:

What form should criticism take in the digital age? Meaning, what should the writing read like?

How do we critics negotiate the public’s hunger for entertainment and critical assessment, for the growing distaste for “elitist” critics (and what does that mean, anyway? That readers don’t like critics who know what they’re talking about?), and for access to arts criticism that creates thoughtful discourse?

As more critics migrate to pr, and pr takes on a more journalistic role (in terms of providing insights, education and in-depth access to artists, as my students did with our blog for the Southern Theater’s “Lush Life” show http://southernsongbook.tumblr.com/ ), where will criticism be published and who will write it?

I look forward to your comments.


December 15, 2010 - Posted by | From the Classroom, The Wild West of Arts Journalism


  1. Small thoughts for a big topic:

    It seems online criticism could be both “big” and “little,” both “mass audience” and “elite”. Given the internet, its structure and its access points, couldn’t there be a substantive critical piece that lies just behind the 500-1000 word “review” but is a part of it? Links or rollovers can reveal greater insights and extended discussion, the more in-depth version of the writing’s pretty face. This would require deft writing, structuring and editing, but in my head there is a 500-1000 word blurb in every intense — even academic — critical piece. Or better yet, have the in-depth critical work out front with the blurb version just behind the virtual door.

    As far as the “elitism” question goes, that is a bottomless pit of self-fulfilling simplification. There has been altogether too much attention paid to the lowest common denominator from where I sit so I say grab your principles and let the others catch up. The reader has an obligation, too, to try to remain informed.

    If all arts criticism were able to abandon the need to please a broad audience, no one would read it but the artists and their committed audiences. I may be wrong, but I think that is a good place from which to start over building an informed public for a new age.

    Comment by Charles Campbell | December 15, 2010 | Reply

    • Hi Charles…no small thoughts at all, and provocative ones. I’m intrigued with your idea: are you saying that a blurb (which customarily, fyi, is 100-250 words) should proceed–as a doorway, window or portal–the longer form review (of 700-1000 words)….is this a format type that would work in the digital realm?

      Comment by Camille LeFevre | January 13, 2011 | Reply

  2. It seems to me that the problems with arts criticism have to do with these elements: the quality of writing, the amount of opinion, the proportion of service to the arts and the public. The great critics who have had their work collected and published were fine writers and/or minds, such as Virgil Thomson. His approach was to report on the event as descriptively as possible, trusting that the quality would come through that without making opinion statements. In these days where everyone has their own opinion and feels utterly empowered to broadcast it, they are not tolerant of others who publish theirs, or presume to be more knowledgable. I think emphasizing description rather than assessment, including the audience in the description, is a recipe for greater success. The other side of the coin is elitism by writers, who won’t stoop to cover anything but the “best” events, a NY Times approach, which has been killing the arts for decades now. It is first and foremost, journalism.

    Comment by S. D. Zlatkovski | December 16, 2010 | Reply

    • S… thank you for your intriguing response….when you mention journalism that emphasizes description, I immediately think of the New York dance critics in the 1960s and 70s, who because they were reporting on a new form of dance–post modern–and weren’t sure (initially) how to adequately respond, focused their writing on description rather than evaluation and interpretation. In this way, they created written documents of what they saw and experienced.
      Today that approach is somewhat frowned upon, as a critic is expected to have, articulate and substantiate a point of view on the work being critiqued. And, as I’m teaching my students how to substantiate their arguments with description, interpretation and evaluation, we explore how the details they choose to substantiate their point of view do in fact support it by conveying the writer’s take on the work.

      Comment by Camille LeFevre | January 13, 2011 | Reply

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