I did not originally link to Michael Kaiser’s “The Death of Criticism or Everyone Is a Critic,” which ran in the 14 November Huffington Post, because … well, why link to one more opinion article about how the Internet is the ruination of criticism, among other things, even when it’s written by the President of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts? It wasn’t the first time that this kind of appropriately huffy criticism has appeared from institutional leaders or critics, and besides, a few days later on 22 November Matt Trueman at the Guardian gathered the more or less relevant responses to Kaiser’s piece; and the “dance as old as QuickTime,” as Mr. Trueman put it, was at a halt again.
Mr. Trueman’s deadline, however, was too early to include a response posted to Mr. Kaiser’s piece by Rocco Landesman, the Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, who commented at the Huffington Post in vibrant support of Mr. Kaiser’s view. Calling Kaiser’s piece a “must-read for everyone who is serious about the future of the arts in this country,” he goes on:
Since the time of Plato, informed, expert criticism has paralleled the developing history of every art form. We turn to those, who by virtue of their knowledge, taste and quality of mind, can put our experience of a work of art into context. Whether we agree or disagree with a particular judgment, it is often a critic who makes the case for new work, even new forms, or questions long held received wisdom about the traditional canon.
Before I became the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, and before my career as a Broadway producer, I was trained in a doctoral program in dramatic literature and criticism that was started at the Yale School of Drama by its then dean, Robert Brustein. Bob’s quaint notion was that a critic should have knowledge of the field in which he or she opined. A drama critic, for example, should know, and know well, the whole history of dramatic literature
But now we have reached the point where the financially beleaguered newspapers are not even filling the vacancy, they are dropping the position altogether. Very often there is no one even vestigially qualified as an expert and what little opinion we get is from “cost effective” freelancers or a gaggle of blog posts. The notion of “authority” is either unaffordable, or worse, in the noisy, all-opinions-are-equal cacophony of response, undemocratic, even suspect. Why should your opinion be any better than mine? I am reminded of S. J. Perelman’s pithy remark, “I don’t know much about medicine but I know what I like.”
Here at the NEA we are trying to do something about this. In partnership with the Knight Foundation, whose domain is both journalism and the arts, we have made grants in our new Knight/NEA Community Arts Journalism Challenge. Each of the winning grantees (in Charlotte, Miami, Detroit, Philadelphia and San Jose) has presented a sustainable business model for a new way of delivering arts criticism. It is, of course, too early to know whether any of these will successful
The future of the arts cannot be left only to the forces of the marketplace and the burgeoning blogosphere. I know what I don’t like.
Gosh. Mr. Landesman, a successful commercial producer of plays and musicals, knows something of the forces of the marketplace, of course. He even applied the dog-eat-dog, survival-of-the-fittest social Darwinism of capitalism to the process of new play production, at least as it pertains to theatres, if not plays themselves, at last January’s “From Scarcity to Abundance” conference at Arena Stage:
We’re overbuilt. There are too many theaters dividing [up] too little money and too little in the way of resources. … It’s very difficult to increase demand. … In the long run, I think you also have to right-size the supply to the demand, and maybe there should be fewer theaters. (Cited in the report linked above, p. 10)
In other words, perhaps theatres should accede and submit to the forces of the marketplace. Well, Mr. Landesman, as I said, knows more about that than I do. Perhaps he knows about criticism too, having been a student of Robert Brustein’s. But in supporting Mr. Kaiser’s defense of the professional critic — “These critics,” says Mr. Kaiser, “have been vetted by their employers” — Landesman seems to be contradicting Kaiser when he suggests that instead of “the common practice of assigning the restaurant critic to the drama beat when that job becomes vacant, a newspaper editor might actually hire someone who knows the subject,” these editors supposedly doing the vetting that Mr. Kaiser cites. Well, either they’re vetted or they aren’t, and maybe knowledgeability is not as important a part of the process as style, professional connections, or ideology. Tablet magazine had no problem assigning former New York Times reporter Judith Miller to the theatre beat; Ms. Miller’s qualifications can be found in this article by Scott Brown which ran in New York magazine last September.
There are some things that can’t be solved with money, though that doesn’t prevent people from trying. Not one to rest on his laurels or opinions, Mr. Landesman says that he and the NEA are doing something about this dire situation, citing the grants to the Knight/NEA Community Arts Journalism Challenge. You should really have a look at them, though, before taking Mr. Landesman’s word for it. Whatever training these new arts journalists will get through these grants won’t be about the arts. As I said in my own comment on Mr. Kaiser’s piece in response to Mr. Landesman, “‘A new app,’ ‘iCritic Detroit,’ ‘digital media training’ — while all this is trendy enough, I don’t see how this responds to Brustein’s notion that ‘a critic should have knowledge of the field in which he or she opined.’ None of these new projects guarantees that these new ‘citizen critics’ will have any such deep knowledge.”
Look, I’m not here to defend the blogosphere, or discussion boards, or chat rooms, all of which seem to get lumped together in Kaiser’s essay, Landesman’s response, and even Stephen Sondheim’s recent screed on criticism. I had a brief say about all this a few months ago here, and have recently even done a little Brusteining of my own. But in terms of “scary trends,” as Kaiser puts it, I can see another one — and that is the continuing defense of an insular, so-called “trained” community not only of artists but also of critics to dictate both the production and the discussion of art, centered in an academic/institutional complex not unlike the military/industrial complex that Dwight Eisenhower warned about in a 1961 speech, which includes university and college theatre programs, funding bodies, institutions like Arena Stage, and contemporary mainstream critics. Most theatres dedicated to new work, and even many new play development programs, no longer accept unsolicited submissions, relying instead on this complex to bring new work to their attention. The transparent-but-opaque status of public-but-private events dedicated to discussing arts and their administration doesn’t do much to dissuade me from the view that this complex is already in place and circling the wagons.
This has always been the case in every art form; it has ever been who you know rather than what you know; and no system is perfect. As true as this is, it is a situation that should be resisted, not further exploited — it is not necessarily good for either the arts or for criticism. But the real danger is in formalizing this informal process of inclusion and exclusion. It is to become an exclusive industry concerned with its own perpetuation rather than the creation of new work or the advocacy of more informed criticism. And the best way to ensure that perpetuation is to greet any criticism of this industry or complex with silence — or, better, to dismiss it as irrelevant or uninformed. Just recently, essays by Andy Horwitz and Jeremy Barker in Culturebot and Scott Walters at Theatre Ideas have, at a length and with perspectives unconscionable in the newspapers and magazines that are a part of this complex, addressed substantive issues about theatre with expertise and passion. Agree or disagree with them as you (or I) will, it can’t be said that this discussion is not directly related to the health of the arts in the United States, which is, after all, Mr. Landesman’s and Mr. Kaiser’s supposed concern. And you’ll find this work not in The New York Times, Time Out New York, or even Tablet, but exclusively in the blogosphere.  I would hope that these two gentlemen might encourage this kind of writing rather than dismissing it as “a gaggle of blog posts,” as Mr. Kaiser says. And if he has trouble “distinguish[ing] the professional critic from the amateur as one reads on-line reviews and critiques,” that may have more to do with his own abilities to do this than anybody else’s.
There are of course deeper issues here; the entire text of a collection of Theodor Adorno‘s essays called The Culture Industry, which addresses arts both in culture and as Culture, might be appended to this essay as a footnote. The condition of theatre and drama in the United States is also a matter of aesthetics and what this form offers to the various kinds of audiences that are or are not attracted to it; and these aesthetics have been a concern of this blog since its inception. But aesthetics is one of those things that everybody says they want to discuss but nobody wants to do anything about, mainly because you can’t throw money or institutions at it. I begin to wonder if those who complain about this situation are even capable of articulating their concerns, lacking the attention span or the knowledgeability to do so. Much better to debate the relative merits of Facebook and Twitter in marketing, than to think hard and long about what precisely they’re doing in terms of the status of the art in a consumerist culture itself.
If Mr. Landesman can have S.J. Perelman, I can have Groucho Marx: “I don’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member.” I am not a clubbable man, really, and I would hope that the validity of my art and criticism has very little to do with the circles I move in, whom I know, or what publications I might write for. Of course there’s a necessity for non-profit theatres and institutions; even Adorno was a long-time member of an “Institute for Social Research.” But in the long run, ivory towers do not help; and any attempt to keep artists and critics out, whatever their background, rather than including them in, is not likely to improve anything.
- This kind of writing also goes on in various professional and academic journals, but these are not as widely and freely available to a general audience as this online medium. [↩]