“I think that newspapers that are shrinking their arts pages are hoisted on their own petard,” says Alisa Solomon, director of the Arts and Culture Program at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism (where I teach). “Because so many of them have made criticism merely consumer reporting, they’ve made their arts pages obsolete. Consumer reporting—reviewing that readers would look at the same way they would look at a report on which refrigerator to buy—is very easy to do in listings publications or on the Web.
“This isn’t just a crisis in arts criticism,” Solomon continues. “This is a problem in the culture at large, and it has been, certainly, for the last eight years, when some basic principles have held sway that are inimical to serious criticism in all spheres. Those are ideas about the ‘ownership society’ and about the free market—the idea that anything that’s worthwhile has to pay for itself. In an environment where there’s disdain for expertise, and where intelligent conversation about a topic is considered elitist and therefore oppressive, critics look not only dispensable, but somehow evil or wrong. Our attitudes toward the arts have been framed within this notion that they have to have some kind of utilitarian or commercial value, and we’re losing our ability to talk about them in other terms.”
If intellectually engaging criticism, as opposed to reviewing with a service function, has been on the wane, so has the audience for that criticism. “If there is no audience for serious criticism, then that criticism won’t sustain itself,” says Sam Tanenhaus, editor of both The New York Times Book Review and the paper’s Week in Review section. “Trilling was read because, however small the circulation of The Partisan Review, it was dedicated enough that it could be an ongoing concern. Even more important was the fact that his ideas could filter out through more prominent publications into the culture. There used to be room for a very idea-driven critical journalism. Now what you get is a lot of opinion, especially but not only on the Web. There’s not time enough today to think, let alone think and read carefully, so serious criticism doesn’t have the same place in the culture. Very little writing today generates the kind of dedicated scrutiny that serious criticism once did.”
It is almost twenty years, and seems much longer, since the day when six prominent movie critics for mainstream magazines and newspapers would give a cheery holiday-season hit like Home Alone near-failing grades. Among the earmarks of consumerism in writing on the arts, particularly the popular arts, is its resolute positivity.
“The problem is that a lot of editors see criticism as an adjunct of marketing. They’re happy only when it’s a positive review, because then you have a writer who’s with the program,” says Charles Taylor, a critic of film, books, and music who until recently contributed to the Newark Star-Ledger on a freelance basis. According to Taylor, he nearly lost one of his gigs (not his gig at the Star-Ledger, which was eliminated in a mass purge at the paper last year) because he wrote a critical review of a popular movie. “There’s a common point of view,” he explains. “You don’t assign a review to someone who doesn’t like the work. Oh, really? That’s publicity; that’s not criticism. There is a pressure on the critic to be positive, and, in terms of print, at least, it’s tied to advertising dollars.”
Indeed, the Seattle-based critic Tim Appelo, a blogger (for flixter.com), TV critic (for film.com), and art and drama critic (for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer), was once told by an advertiser in his former paper, The Oregonian, that each star Appelo assigned to a movie was worth $5,000 in ticket revenue.
Music critics, too, feel the pressure to make nice. In an era in which home-studio software and social networking sites have greatly simplified the production and the distribution of popular music, the sheer quantity of new releases by unknown artists has, among other effects, made it more tempting to accentuate the positive. Earlier this year, a critic at a national magazine wrote a capsule review of a new release from a suddenly voguish, previously obscure young singer-songwriter—and when pressed by a fact-checker, the writer admitted that he hadn’t listened to the whole album. What was the harm, the critic asked, as long as he was being positive? (Thanks to the fact-checker, the review was not published.)