Camille LeFevre on teaching and writing arts journalism

Beck vs. Richardson, Opinion vs. Critical Thinking: How POV and the personal manifest in criticism

Last week my students were drafting and revising their first major writing assignment: a film review. During class, I presented them with various challenges in considering (and articulating) the different ways in which commentators (I hesitate to say journalists…you’ll know why in a moment) “review” (in this case, movies and theater).

I started class with this video excerpt: Glenn Beck (I know, I know…just hang on) bloviating on Julie Taymor’s Broadway debacle “Spiderman: Turn off the Dark,” from the Huffington Post. (scroll down to the second video)

Then I had them return to a review they’d read of “Black Swan” by Kartina Richardson, in which she takes a personal, almost scholarly, and unique approach to analyzing the dualities and multiples in the film, complete with screen shots like the one to the right:

The point of this exercise was to consider how each of these “reviewers” established a point of view; how each one addressed people with a different point of view; and how each expressed the personal in their review. i.e.: bluster versus articulation and explanation; opinion versus critical thinking.

At the same time, of course, I was subtly engaging the students in a dialogue about civility in public discourse, and in the value of self-awareness in being able to clearly substantiate an opinion…and in Richardson’s case, using another’s point of view as a jumping-off point for engaging, well-considered analysis.

We also discussed the evolution of film criticism in print and on television, especially with regard to the new “Ebert Presents at the Movies,” the latest iteration of the Ebert/Siskel/Roeper franchise, which debuted last week with Richardson as one of its commentators. Our reference texts: Ebert’s “Film Criticism is Dying? Not Online” and A.O. Scott’s “A Critic’s Place, Thumb and All.

My takeaway from these articles is Scott’s eloquent defensive of criticism and its value: “Criticism is a habit of mind, a discipline of writing, a way of life–a commitment to the independent, open-ended exploration of works of art in relation to one another and the world around them.”


January 30, 2011 Posted by | From the Classroom, On the Media, The Wild West of Arts Journalism | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Arts Criticism 2011

The Critic as Artist: “To the critic the work of art is simply a suggestion for a new work of his own, that need not necessarily bear any obvious resemblance to the thing it criticizes. The one characteristic of a beautiful form is that one can put into it whatever one wishes, and see in it whatever one chooses to see; and the Beauty, that gives to creation its universal and aesthetic element, makes the critic a creator in his turn, and whispers of a thousand different things which were not present in the mind of him who carved the statue or painted the panel or graved the gem.” — OSCAR WILDE 1890

In preparing my syllabus for a new semester of JOUR 4171 Covering the Arts: Backstage at the Guthrie Theater, I’ve decided to focus more firmly and thoroughly on criticism (reviewing the arts is always part of my curricula, but I feel a new urgency to intensify the critical thinking component). Here are some reasons:

* While teaching last semester, the boundaries between pr and journalism further dissolved before my eyes. Arts journalism is seemingly more concerned with entertaining and enticing (and sometimes educating) the consumer with previews (whether of blurb length (100-250 words) or 700-1000 word “advancers”), which is what I’m advocating arts organizations need to do via their own digital platforms as an integral part of their marketing and pr efforts. Already, media outlets produce such advance stories in order to solidify partnerships with arts organizations and secure their advertising.  Arts organizations consider previews an essential part of their pr plans. The critic, meanwhile, an integral part of a community’s arts ecology, moves to the endangered list as fewer readers understand the differences between preview and review.

* A considerable portion of the arts-consuming public still wants, needs, craves arts criticism that’s clear and concise, provocative and well-substantiated, professionally crafted and contextual. (During a panel discussion on arts journalism sponsored by the Weisman Art Museum last year, we panelists were asked where to find arts criticism other than the lone voice at the Star Tribune. Go online, we emphasized over and over (!), citing such local resources as mnartists.org). At the same time, working arts journalists and educators, like myself, are charged with formulating a methodology for crafting and teaching arts criticism that encourages and empowers students to develop a point of view;substantiate it with description, interpretation, context and evaluation; and acquire the flexibility and adaptability to write (with a strong sense of style and voice) for a variety of media and word lengths.

So I was heartened after reading the Sunday New York Times Book Review, on January 2, which published a series of essays on literary criticism, one of which I’ll be using in my class: Katie Roiphe’s “With Clarity and Beauty, the Weight of Authority.”

Starting with a hilarious and self-effacing historical caveat about how we critics are always bemoaning the demise of critical thinking (so true!), Roiphe then confirms what my colleagues and I have repeatedly argued as our culture sags under the saturation of digital opinions, instantaneity, and the attention-grabbing proliferation of screens:

If the critic has to compete with the seductions of Facebook, with shrewdly written television, with culturally relevant movies — with, in short, every bright thing that flies to the surface of the iPhone — that’s all the more reason for him to write dramatically, vividly, beautifully, to have, as Alfred Kazin wrote in 1960, a “sense of the age in his bones.” The critic could take all of this healthy competition, the challenge of dwindling review pages, the slash in pay, as a sign to be better, to be irreplaceable, to transcend.”

My heart leapt; my resolve quickened; my commitment to continually improve my own writing returned.

“….critics must strive to write stylishly, to concentrate on the excellent sentence. There is so much noise and screen clutter, there are so many Amazon reviewers and bloggers clamoring for attention, so many opinions and bitter misspelled rages, so much fawning ungrammatical love spewed into the ether, that the role of the true critic is actually quite simple: to write on a different level, to pay attention to the elements of style.”

So simple and so difficult.

As my students delve into writing from a critical (the meaning of which includes absolutely necessary or essential, as well as expressing or involving a detailed analysis of the merits and faults of a work of art) point of view, I’ll be advising, correcting, cajoling and questioning them as they strive to “write on a different level” than they’re used to reading or writing. To give Roiphe the last word:

More than ever, critical authority comes from the power of the critic’s prose, the force and clarity of her language; it is in the art of writing itself that information and knowledge are carried, in the sentences themselves that literature is preserved. The secret function of the critic today is to write beautifully, and in so doing protect beautiful writing.”

January 14, 2011 Posted by | From the Classroom, On the Media | , , , , , | Leave a comment

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 | 4 Comments

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

Final Projects: Inspiring Innovation in Arts Journalism

People truly want to engage with ideas and ways of synthesizing their arts experience and their lives.” Steve Winn, from “Taking the Tweed out of the Arts Journalism Wardrobe,” http://www.poynter.org/content/content_view.asp?id=54887

Last week, I left my students with that inspiring quote from an article they’re reading for discussion on Monday.

Two weeks left of JOUR 4990: Covering the Arts: New Media, New Paradigms from Criticism to Communications. And the students are crafting their final online projects. To further inspire them, I’ve invited Alan Berks (playwright and originator of mnplaylist.com) and Scott Stulen (project manager of mnartists.org), to visit the class and discuss how and why they started their sites, the kind of content they have, how their sites fill an important niche in arts coverage, and their demographic.

I’m eager to hear how the students have honed and focused their project proposals! And how Alan and Scott’s insights and experience will provide them with new ideas and/or content!

December 5, 2010 Posted by | From the Classroom | 1 Comment