But this is no time to sing the blues. While the traditional media, blinded by fear and nostalgia, flounder in the La Brea tar pits, a growing number of sites and e-zines are bringing wit, intelligence, high standards, and editorial independence to critical coverage of the arts online.
By Bill Marx
Recently, The Mirror up to Nature lamented the demise of WBUR Online Arts, which I helped create and edit.
WBUR pulled the plug on the award-winning zine a year ago. I am proud of what was accomplished during the publication’s five years: if nothing else, the attempt suggested ways in which the Internet can enrich cultural coverage of the fine arts by combining the best of the old media and the new.
But this is no time to sing the blues. While the traditional media, blinded by fear and nostalgia, flounder in the La Brea tar pits, a growing number of sites and e-zines are bringing wit, intelligence, high standards, and editorial independence to critical coverage of the arts online. In this blog I will note critics and commentators who use the point of their pens rather than the feathers. And I will castigate those who claim to serve up attitude. I will also be describing (further) signs of the demise of arts reviewing in mainstream publications as well.
Mirror Up to Nature is right about the decay of theater coverage in Boston’s mainstream media. Like many arts critics around the country, our theater reviewers are speeding their extinction by writing bland criticism. Non-stop praise may comfort advertisers and companies, but it fatally undercuts authority. Why read boring reviews? The irony is that Boston’s theater reviewers — believing their survival is on the line – assume that means making sure naked emperors sport fig leaves, even if that means planting acres of foliage in their reviews. Negative is bad for box office and spineless editors, but it is essential for the credibility of criticism. Reviewers are buying time by lining their coffins with puff.
Years ago, the small to medium-sized Boston theaters were dependent on reviews and publicity pieces in the major newspapers. But these companies are now posting original content on their sites: interviews with artists, background pieces, statements by directors and performers. That doesn’t mean the quality of their theater productions are better (or worse), only that troupes are fashioning more effective ways to sell their productions and create a vibrant community. As their web pages improve, companies will have no need to pray for features or reviews in the Globe or elsewhere. The powers of the mainstream media are firmly rooted in their status as monopolistic bulletin boards. There are more ways to get the word out these days and arts organizations and institutions know it.
I agree with critic Tom Garvey’s comment that the future of serious theater criticism will be on the Web. I also think that features on theater and other fine arts will migrate to the online world as well. And that is to the good. Truth is, theater writers can’t say anything negative or thoughtful about a show in a preview article. The companies themselves can do a better job of offering up detailed information about a production. They can also interact online with audience members, answering questions and dealing with concerns.
The Web is where serious theater criticism will not only survive but also thrive. The Internet allows for different voices to hold contentious but respectful conversations. Isn’t that what dialogue about the arts should be about? No more cowardly mainstream muck-a-mucks cuddling up to power brokers and blurbing from on high. It means theater-reviewing will no longer be a 9 to 5 job, but that is not too high a price to pay. Why hand checks to critics for not doing their job well?
What’s more, the Web encourages meaningful criticism of the theater because critics can offer disinterested evaluation — free of the worry that editors and theater companies will try to influence their decisions. Some charge, rightly, that this freedom is abused online. Critics point to the disgraceful lack of editorial and ethical standards on Amazon.com and other sites. There is no way to know on Amazon if an author’s mother contributed a positive review or a rival author posted a pan. My feeling is that those who want credible criticism (and aren’t interested in wasting their time wading through junk) will seek out review/commentary sites that champion transparency and intellectual integrity. The catch is that these high quality reviews won’t be tossed on your doorstep every morning – you will have to seek out superior critics online and bookmark their sites.
Unlike the Olde Mainstream Media Club, whose members keep mum about each other’s ethical peccadilloes because it is in everyone’s interest to keep things placid, the Internet polices itself. If there are critical conflicts of interest, readers on the web will hear about them from interested parties. It will make it harder for critics to claim to be independent as they smooze with, even work for, companies they review.
So don’t worry about Boston’s newspapers and magazines axing theater reviews – they are often shadows (at times parodies) of what incisive criticism is supposed to be. The real thing is slowly but surely establishing itself 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.