By Bill Marx
Criticism of the fine arts is dying in regional newspapers, but don’t waste too much time mourning the loss.
Arts blogger and Wall Street Journal theater critic Terry Teachout’s recent article on how arts criticism is vanishing in regional newspapers hits the nail on the head, though he is either too considerate or squeamish to hammer his point home. He is ambivalent about the end of reviewing in medium-sized newspapers, arguing that, in the past, they served “as a training ground for an up-and-coming young critic to learn his trade.” I have no such mixed feelings, because regional newspapers no longer have inspiring lessons to teach budding critics or demanding readers about reviewing. In fact, by putting the putative stamp of editorial approval on mediocre reviews, newspapers are doing the craft of criticism a disservice.
Aside from some impressive exceptions, newspaper criticism — particularly of the fine arts — is going out with a whimper rather than a bang. Shorn of column inches, their clout undercut by bloggers who have the room to explain their verdicts in depth, reviewers are scurrying into oblivion scared. Reviewing is now less about evaluating the local culture seriously and more about pleasing the commercial agendas of editors, advertisers, the arts community, and the local chamber of commerce. Teachout himself admits that much of the arts coverage in regional newspapers “is uneven in quality and not a little of which is pointless.” Why should those who worry about the health of reviewing want this charade to continue? What would turn the devolution around?
Nostalgia for when rookie critics earned their battle scars at local papers is useless. Those days are pretty well gone. Editorial support in newspapers for serious reviewing of the arts is waning. Newsweek book critic Peter Prescott once told me that each time an arts editor left the magazine, his replacement showed less interest in critiquing the arts than the previous honcho. By the end of Prescott’s tenure, the editor no longer acknowledged a difference between reviewing and publicity. That meltdown, which hastens reviewing’s end by undermining its credibility, is wide spread in regional newspapers. What do young critics have to learn from those who have compromised the craft?
So don’t shed too many tears for the end of arts coverage in regional newspapers. The media types aren’t — I haven’t read much from publishers or editors lamenting the curtailing of arts coverage. Ombudsmen and media critics reserve most of their hand-wringing for shrinking news pages. Let threatened mainstream critics, such as Richard Schickel, one of Time’s film critics, scapegoat bloggers as the villians. Those who care about the future arts criticism should bring their ideas and energy to the Internet and fight for standards of disinterested critical discourse. One way is to point out bloggers and zines that post excellent cultural commentary, which Teachout does in his article. When it comes to regional newspapers, almost all the nails are in art criticism’s coffin. But don’t despair – the spirit of cultural commentary is alive and well online.
Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.