Camille LeFevre on teaching and writing arts journalism

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