Condition Critical

Can arts critics survive the poison pill of consumerism?
January 29, 2009

I saw the future through a two-way mirror in November 1990. I had just started a new job as a senior editor at Entertainment Weekly, a magazine then less than a year old, and I was sitting in a darkened room with nine or ten other members of the staff, watching a focus group. Page by page, an amiable, den-motherly facilitator led half a dozen of the magazine’s subscribers through a discussion of the latest issue, the cover subject of which was John Lennon, on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of his death. (I would like to think of that cover choice as evidence of the young magazine’s mavericky resistance to the forces of hype, though the truth is that the top editors, veterans of People, thought of dead celebrities as good for newsstand sales.) Toward the end of the session, the focus group got to the back of the book, the pages devoted to reviews of movies, TV shows, CDs, and books—my chief area of responsibility—and I flipped to a clean sheet on my notepad.

The group was asked about the lead piece, a movie review by Owen Gleiberman, a transplant from the Boston Phoenix who was the magazine’s sole film critic at the time. I no longer remember what movie he had reviewed for that issue, or what the assembled readers said about it. What I recall most vividly from that day is what most surprised me: how the people in the focus group brightened when they came to a small box of type set in the corner of the first page of Gleiberman’s prose.

Identified as Critical Mass, the box contained a list of ten movies showing around the country, followed by grades (A-plus, A, and so forth, down to F) assigned to those titles by six movie critics polled by the magazine. Typically, the roll call included Gene Siskel, Roger Ebert, Peter Travers of Rolling Stone, a couple of critics from the big-city dailies, and, always at the end of the list, Gleiberman. The grades tended toward the low side, and C’s were not uncommon. In fact, to check my memory for this article, I went through the EW archives online, and I found the grades to be even lower than I had expected. (Home Alone: two Ds, two C-minuses, a C, and a C-plus.)

Readers treasured this little box, because they perceived its bitsy contents as having great value. Here, handily collated for comparison shopping, was a sampling of expert opinion, instead of one writer’s point of view. Even better, the feature presented those multiple judgments as quasi-rigorous data, rather than words and phrases that might call for the application of thought and might allow for interpretation. Critical Mass was something other than criticism for mass consumption; it was an alternative to criticism, and it suggested that popular artworks should be consumed just like any other goods. A mechanism for the aggregation and the quantification of creative judgment, it prefigured Web sites such as Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic, and Critic-O-Meter, which have become the go-to places for countless members of the contemporary pop-culture audience whose older brothers and sisters went to places such as Entertainment Weekly.

From that box tucked under the text of a movie review, the conception of arts coverage as a kind of ineffably digestible, data-driven form of service journalism steadily expanded within the pages of EW, and it has since spread far beyond them. The arts criticism in most national magazines, in nearly all newspapers around the country, and even in the arts weeklies has become shorter in length and lighter in tone—where it has survived at all—and the concerns of much of the critical writing published both in print and online have grown progressively commercial: What to watch? What to buy? Is the movie worth the cost of admission? Is the book worth the cover price?

The expansion of consumerism in arts journalism has occurred in a climate of ingrained anti-intellectualism and laissez-faire economics, which may or may not be curtailed by the fiscal collapse and the elections of last fall. If the cuts in arts and entertainment coverage at print publications represent a crisis in arts journalism, it is one long in the making. It is also one far too easy to blame on the Web, since some of the damage seems to be self-inflicted.

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“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, TV critic (for, 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.)

“It is now the conventional wisdom among music critics that most reviews are three-star reviews,” says Ann Powers, the pop critic for the Los Angeles Times. “Everybody seems to feel like it’s become their job to be positive. There’s so much music being made, it makes sense for people to want to know what’s good so they know what to buy, but I’m not interested in writing that way. I get e-mails all the time from people who read my pieces, which are more essayistic than the thumbs-up, thumbs-down kind of thing, and they want to know if I think they’d like the album. I tell them, ‘I don’t know!’ ”

The culture of criticism in pop, a music geared to teenagers, is functioning more and more like the social economy of adolescence, in the opinion of a longtime rock critic who made the point on the condition of anonymity. “The world of music writing is becoming a lot like high school,” he says. “Writers do not write about music so much anymore. Their job is to look cool and to align themselves with the right albums at the right time so that they’re not belittled or kicked out of the cool club. I think that has really become a problem. People are afraid. There’s this fear that you could hurt your career or your image if you go out on a limb and say, ‘I don’t like The Hold Steady or Arcade Fire.’ So, for various reasons, people have decided to focus on the positive and be of good service to the readers.”

This is a school of critical thought with acolytes of many robes, and slow times in a field can justify overzealous advocacy as much as a boom can. In fact, critics in seemingly endangered areas of the arts (classical music, jazz, dance, independent film) can sometimes engage in boosterism out of a sense of purpose shared with the artists they cover—and, perhaps, a common sense of beleaguerment.

“There’s a great deal of trepidation and defensiveness in classical music writing,” says Greg Sandow, the classical music critic for The Wall Street Journal, who is also a composer. “Everyone’s afraid that they might harm the music, as if it’s a child who requires their protection.” Boosterism, he adds, is endemic: “In one case, I was with a critic who absolutely hated something and didn’t say so in print. I think that classical music sees itself as in some kind of danger—and it suffers from a sense of entitlement, so composers and producers sometimes squeal in outrage that the media is not covering their work. What I tell them is, ‘Go do something interesting. Make news. Then you might have a better claim for more coverage.’ ”

The higher mission of critics in all realms of the arts, formal and informal, popular and not-so, is, of course, to subscribe neither to pro-forma positivity nor negativity, but to confront the work intelligently and honestly, and to stir readers to thought and to feeling.

The point, as Sam Tanenhaus puts it, is the argument. “The Times Book Review publishes a lot of quite negative reviews,” he remarks, “and sometimes we put them on the cover, and people are mystified by this. You want to provoke interest in the reader, and the way the critic does that is to abandon himself or herself to the work. Now, it may not be the happiest abandonment, but the sense is that there’s something serious at stake—that it matters whether this book is good or not. The writing about the book matters. The argument matters.”

From the beginning of 2007 to the middle of 2008, approximately 25 percent of the staff jobs in arts journalism were eliminated, according to Douglas McLennan, the director of the National Arts Journalism Project and the editor of the aggregation site Arts Journal ( The work these critics used to do has been replaced by wire-service copy or by freelance pieces, or it has gone away entirely. “That’s a pretty big hit for a profession, and since then, it’s been getting even worse,” says McLennan. By the end of 2009, he projects, there will be half the number of full-time, paid critics than there were at the end of 2007.

To one-time staffers such as music and film critic Gary Giddins, probably best known for the columns on jazz he wrote during his decades-long tenure at The Village Voice, the transformation of the arts-journalism landscape represents something more than a call to hustle. After all, Giddins left the Voice before the recent layoffs, and he makes a nice living writing books and pieces for The New Yorker and Slate. What’s happening, Giddins says, is a reconfiguring of the complex three-way relationship between writers, readers, and art. “If you can’t make a living writing to one group of readers whom you know, then you write to several groups of readers who are all different, and something’s lost.” He adds: “If Edmund Wilson had to scrounge around to get a piece in print every few months, then he wouldn’t have been the Edmund Wilson we know.”

Further on this issue, Tim Appelo notes, “I’m a mammal. I can adapt. But as critics change, the nature of criticism changes. The less they pay you, the more you’re able to just cover whatever interests you. What that means, though, is that you’re less likely to be forced to immerse yourself in, let’s say, a particular theater scene. If you can’t get a job as a full-time theater critic, as I used to be, then you don’t have to sit through as many plays, and, as a result, your expertise is weaker. You’re less of an expert guide through a particular art scene—in other words, even your value as a consumer guide diminishes.

“Years ago,” Appelo recalls, “Tom Hanks mocked the proliferation of critical voices by saying, ‘Throw a rock, hit a critic.’ Now employers are taking that literally, obliterating staff critics. There’s an increasingly deafening chorus of critics, but virtuoso soloists are falling silent.”

Another point of view holds that those rocks are hitting dinosaurs. To Douglas McLennan, the era of the beat critic is passing for good. “We’re in a period where the old business model no longer works and the new one is not yet capable of supporting the new journalism, whatever that is,” McLennan says.

On the other hand, McLennan isn’t sure that the demise of the old model is a tragedy when it comes to arts coverage. “Traditional journalism has done a crappy job of covering certain kinds of arts,” he says, pointing out that dance, in particular, has been badly served. Nor do readers necessarily get the best deal when a single voice monopolizes the conversation: “If you’re in, say, Kansas City, and there’s a critic writing about an art form, and that’s basically the only voice you’re getting over a long period—well, even if he’s really a good critic and you enjoy him, it’s only one perspective. If there’s suddenly many people talking about that art form in a variety of ways, including online, and they’re debating it and bringing their knowledge, their experience of it, that’s very different. A lot of it is not going to be great. But a lot of traditional criticism has not been great.”

The failings of one school of arts journalism may not justify the failings of another. Yet, as Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic, points out, “Criticism is always in crisis.

“Every crisis in criticism supposes that it is unprecedented, he says, but now there really is a new reason for alarm. Criticism has always been a mixture of opinion and judgment, judgment being something more learned and more seasoned and more intellectually ambitious than mere opinion. But beginning with Amazon, which made anybody who could type into a book reviewer, and now as the Web sites and the blogs have proliferated, we have entered a nightmare of opinion-making. This culture of outbursts, and the weird and totally unwarranted authority that it has been granted, has been responsible for a collapse of the distinction between opinion and judgment. It’s one of the baleful consequences of the democratization of expression by the Web.

“I cling to this very old, sentimental, but not at all unrigorous Arnoldian idea of criticism—that the criticism of art is in some way the criticism of life,” Wieseltier says. “If it’s true that scarcity is the origin of value, then serious, extended, learned criticism is now more valuable, not less, and I have an almost religious belief in its survival, though in this thoroughly un-Arnoldian climate, I sometimes feel like a holy fool.”

David Hajdu is a professor of arts and culture journalism at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism.