Arts Commentary: “The New York Times” — Shouldn’t It Know the Purpose of Arts Criticism?

Based on Public Editor Arthur S. Brisbane’s recent New York Times column on arts criticism, he and others at the newspaper haven’t much of a clue regarding what a serious arts review is supposed to be.

By Bill Marx

Jonathan Landman, culture editor of The New York Times. Arts reviews are both “a consumer service and news.”

One of my contentions about the crisis befalling arts criticism is that it will not disappear so much as mutate out of existence. The traditional understanding of reviewing as substantiated judgment is being replaced by impressionist opinion-mongering, a consumer guide free-for-all without intellectual substance and reasonable analysis. The definition of arts criticism is under siege online (Twitter reviews, anyone?), so when high-level members of the august-editorial-powers-that-be forget what a review is supposed to be, the betrayal greases the form’s slide into oblivion. Based on The New York Times Public Editor Arthur S. Brisbane’s recent weakly argued piece on arts criticism, he and the cultural editor at the newspaper haven’t much of a clue regarding what a serious arts review is supposed to do.

Want convincing evidence that the friends of arts criticism are its greatest enemy? Here is what Jonathan Landman, the Times’s culture editor, told Brisbane was the purpose of an arts review in an e-mail exchange:

He said a review should inform, excite and entertain. “A reader should walk away with a feeling of having learned something; maybe some unfamiliar facts about a work and its creator; maybe some historical or philosophical background; perhaps something about the art form itself.”

He added, “A review should make you want to run out to a play, flip on the TV, wake up to new possibilities. A negative review should be exciting too; why shouldn’t bad art make you angry?”

Reviews, he said, are both a consumer service and news, and ought to be a pleasure to read.

There you have it from an editor for one of the world’s leading newspapers: arts reviews in the Times are “both a consumer service and news.” By its very nature, a review of a new movie or book will be news, while it doesn’t take much for a reviewer to deliver his or her “consumer service,” just wave a thumb up or down in a way that gives the reader pleasure. No substantial American journalistic arts critic or his or her editors would have accepted such a debased definition of the purpose of a review. (“A genuine literary criticism,” argued Edmund Wilson, should “deal expertly with ideas and art, not merely tell us whether the reviewer ‘let out a whoop’ for the book or threw it out the window.”)

What would a real arts review have been to Wilson and other critics of quality? A judgment backed up by reasons, so that the reader can understand (and evaluate) how the critic arrived his or her verdict. After all, this is how reviews “inform, excite and entertain” -— by substantiating their stylish evaluation with evidence. Both Brisbane and Landman confuse opinion with judgment -— anyone can have an opinion, which is often based on whimsically subjective criteria: I don’t like the color red, so if a film has too much of that color it is bad, in my opinion. I am not right or wrong -— it is my opinion. But meaningful judgments about the arts call for rational analysis, so that readers can judge the judge, inviting a civil exchange of considered views rather than a frothing of opinions. Reviews should strive to offer evaluation, not consumer advice.

Granted, the reasons passionate critics use to back up their evaluations should be given plenty of rhetorical latitude (satire, eccentricity, indulgence, inconsistency), but there must be judgment and educated explanation. It is necessary to think about arts reviewing this way, if the publication’s goal is to contribute to a vital public dialogue that takes arts and culture seriously. To turn away from that responsibility is to give into a smallness, to a lack of ambition, to a contempt for noncommercial values that only makes our journalism and culture poorer.

The word “judge” is never used in the article, while the word “judgment” is used twice. At the end of the article, Brisbane refers to “one part of the news operation where firmly stated opinion, in the form of a critic’s expert judgment, can serve to educate, amuse and delight.” There is nothing in Landman’s responses that demand expert judgment. He is consumer oriented, concerned with the bottom line rather than what makes for superior arts criticism. The other use of judgment comes just before the latter.

As for the sometimes perplexing redundancy of book reviews in the Arts section and the Sunday Book Review, he [Landman] explained that these are assigned independently and are not coordinated. Those in the Arts sections “are meant to reflect, in effect, the judgment of The New York Times,” while those in the Book Review are written by “outsiders” and are intended as part of a “conversation about books going on in the wider literary world.

I have no idea what this distinction means. When the daily book reviewer of the Times, Michiko Kakutani, routinely panned the novels of the late John Updike, was she reflecting the “judgment” of the newspaper? Meanwhile, positive reviews in the Sunday Book Review of the same Updike volumes apparently sat in a ghetto, where outliers are allowed to have their say. Are the rules for reviews in the newspaper different than those in the Sunday Book Review?

Perhaps what Brisbane is telling us is that judgment can only be rendered when a writer belongs to the right institution. Others (“outsiders”) only have opinions. Criticism becomes a matter of where your words appear -— not how well you write or reason, which was the democratic impulse that gave birth to journalistic arts criticism in the first place.

Perhaps Brisbane and Landman might want to take a six-week intensive course offered by the Guardian newspaper in London. It costs £449 (inclusive of VAT, booking fees and refreshments), runs from 19 September through 24 October 2012 (inclusive). The limit for the class is 20. (I assume individuals who may be reviewed by these critics will not be allowed into the seminar.)

Drawing on the Guardian’s unparalleled pool of critical practitioners –- including the Guardian’s Literary Editor Claire Armitstead and renowned theatre critic Lyn Gardner –- this masterclass offers a survey of the state of criticism today as well as a unique insight into the nuts and bolts of the job and the distinctive requirements of individual fields.

This tony moneymaking venture — decorated with folderol about ‘education’ — may not be all that substantial, but at least the Guardian says the get together is about learning “the art of being a critic.”

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.


  1. George Hunka on July 17, 2012 at 10:47 am

    I’m not sure that bewailing the myopia of the New York Times when it comes to its cultural and arts perspective since the mid-1970s or so will add much to the conversation about the state of critical inquiry in the US (like the New York Times Critic Watch project that the Howlround folks are promoting, it tells us quite a bit about the Times but not much about anything else, except that many people continue to envy the Times‘ reach, if not its influence). Other newspapers or online news outlets may very well be just as myopic, or worse.

    On the subject of theatre criticism, anyway, I recently came across Harold Clurman’s 1964 list of the “complete critic’s qualifications”. I imagine that a close discussion and examination of these may save the Times‘ editors and critics considerable airfare.

    • Bill Marx, Arts Fuse Editor on July 17, 2012 at 11:00 am

      The point of the column was not to bewail the New York Times, but to assert a meaningful definition of arts criticism. The reach of the Times and its influence means, alas, that its idea of arts criticism serves as a model of the form, not only for readers but for other journalists and publications. Unlike the HowRound folks, who are championing specific playwrights and plays — a power battle, as you argue — I am interested in reminding people of what arts criticism is supposed to do … and how it serves the larger goals of cultural dialogue.

      Granted, the best way to assert the intellectual integrity of arts criticism is to do it right. And I have recognized that as well in other columns. But part of the process of defending the good (or at least what was esteemed in the past), is attack the bogus, which some (who shouldn’t) are taking seriously. It isn’t often that you have editors at the Times say so clearly how little they understand arts criticism. That means those who care have to do better.

Leave a Comment

Recent Posts