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Who Needs Art Criticism?

When the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick heard that the New York Times was sending a critic to a preview performance recently, the director canceled the performance rather than submit it to what he felt would be a premature review. In an unrelated incident in Vancouver, four theater critics were gagged and bound and harangued by a group of actors who accused them of crimes including "cruel analogies," "unfair comparisons," and "being mean." (The critics were willing participants in a publicity stunt that ended with their release by a sympathetic actor, who defended critics as serving a public good.)

Cultural critics rarely create such ruckuses. Anecdotally, their role has deteriorated over past decades, so that "criticism" as such—the public acts of describing, evaluating, contextualizing, and discerning—has degraded to the point where the most visible reviews are limited to a simple thumbs-up-thumbs-down vote for the weekend´s entertainment. According to "Reporting the Arts," a new study of national trends in arts coverage from Columbia´s Journalism School, fully 50 percent of arts coverage is mechanically generated listings.

As the cultural capital, New York boasts the preeminent newspaper of culture, the New York Times. In October 1999, intrepid Columbia University researchers counted more then 26,000 column inches of Times arts stories, compared with just 6,700 in USA Today and 2,800 in the Wall Street Journal. Long-time readers complain, however, that the Times´ diet of serious arts coverage has become leaner over recent years, so that discussions of specific artworks are pushed aside by celebrity interviews and other P.R.-driven stories. The economist James Heilbrun found that, from the 1960s to the 1980s, the Sunday Arts and Leisure section devoted more than half its pages to theater, classical music, opera, dance, painting, sculpture, and museums. By the early 1990s, however, he found that the section devoted nearly half its coverage to what he termed the "popular" arts—movies, jazz, television, and radio—and far less to the so-called "high" arts.

This shift may be in keeping with the current intellectual climate, which eschews distinctions between art and entertainment, "high" and "low," elite and popular. In recent years, the Times fielded its first-ever chief television critic, Caryn James, who has proven that it is possible to write about such phenomena as "reality television" in ways that pay attention to the broader social implications while still judging whether or not such shows make for good television. And The Times is still way behind other national papers in terms of its devotion to movies and television (which, the Columbia report did not fail to note, fund the vast majority of arts sections through advertising). In USA Today, movies and television take up fully two-thirds of arts pages—on par with most regional papers. The more conservative Wall Street Journal, however, has taken a stand against Hollywood puff pieces. "We have basically eliminated celebrity interviews," the arts editor told Columbia researchers. "I don´t think it´s journalism. I think it´s falling in with the plan of the movie company."

In New York, as in many cities, alternative weeklies and web journals fill in the gaps left by larger or more mainstream publications. This is particularly true in coverage of a field as diverse and fragmented as the theater. For example, the Village Voice championed the downtown playwright Richard Maxwell early in his career, helping to bring him more attention.

But how do editors and critics choose among the hundreds of performances taking place in a given week? During the height of the theater season, the Voice´s theater editor, Brian Parks, receives about 12 press releases per day. "I try to suss out what´s most important and most interesting, to consider what writers are available and their particular talents, and to make sure that a broad spectrum of New York´s theater is represented," Park says of his editorial strategy.

John Chatterton, founder and editor of the off-off-Broadway Review , takes a democratic approach to covering New York´s fringe theater scene. When he arrived to the city in 1993 as an aspiring playwright, Chatterton became frustrated when no theater producers would return his phone calls. So, with the explicit goal of getting a hotline to producers, he created OOBR. He funded it by charging theaters a $60 annual fee in return for a promise to review their shows. "We´ll review anybody," Chatterton explains, "we don´t guarantee a good review, but we can guarantee coverage." Figuring that some notice is better than none, 150 members have signed up. Originally print but now web-only, the off-off Broadway Review attracts about 29,000 visitors to its site each month. In addition to serving Chatterton´s own ends (he refers to his staff writers as "talent scouts" for the Midtown International Theater Festival, which he also founded), OOBR is meant to be a guide for downtown theater aficionados: Chatterton doesn´t publish "criticism," he says, just straightforward reviews.

Jonathan Kalb, chair of the theater department at Hunter College and former theater critic for the Voice and the New York Press, feels that there is a "vacuum" left by the absence of serious theater criticism in New York. Kalb recently launched HotReview.org, or The Hunter Online Theater Review, which aims to be something more timely than an academic or special-interest publication. Unlike most journals, HotReview publishes reviews of productions that are still running, but the articles provide a depth and breadth rarely seen in, say, Time Out New York or New York magazine. HotReview, Kalb writes, is a form or "resistance to the ubiquitous blurring of the difference between objective commentary and public relations in our time."

The last couple generations of theater critics, e.g., Mary McCarthy, Richard Gilman, and Eric Bentley, wrote expansively about theater for informed and responsive audiences, but today the spaces—and perhaps the audiences—for such discussions have narrowed. Kalb has experienced this himself: after serving as theater critic for the New York Press for four years, his editor decided to suspend theater coverage, having had the revelation that "theater is boring." This may be the opinion of many New Yorkers. Theater lacks the grunge appeal of the contemporary music scene and can in no way compete with Hollywood´s glamour. But, as Kalb points out, thousands of New Yorkers fill BAM´s immense Opera House, or regularly travel to New York Theatre Workshop or St. Ann´s Warehouse in DUMBO to see cutting-edge performance. It remains to be seen if these audiences think theater criticism, or arts coverage in general, matters.

Artists' Visas

"Arts and culture is something that carries with it a patina of goodness and purity, but it can be misused, and it's our job to see if somebody is trying to do that."

So said Stuart Patt, Consular Affairs Bureau, U.S. State Department

New Yorkers tend to take the international arts scene for granted, hardly considering the legal and administrative hurdles that need to be surmounted in order to bring an Iranian film director or a Brazilian dance troupe to our city. Lately, however, producers have had to deal with more headaches than usual to secure visas for visiting foreign artists. The process has become slower and more complicated, which has had a chilling effect on cultural exchange at a time when it is desperately needed.

For foreign artists to work in the U.S., they must apply for s visa. To be approved, they must demonstrate "extraordinary ability in the arts" as evidenced by awards, critical reviews, or professional affiliations. They might also be approved if they are planning to take part in reciprocal exchanges, or if they can be considered "culturally unique," like Balinese puppeteers.

Premium Processing

In response to complaints that the Immigration and Naturalization Service is understaffed and unresponsive -- torn between its mission of enforcing immigration laws and providing services to legal immigrants -- the agency instituted the premium processing service in June 2001. For $1,000, the service guarantees an initial response within 15 days.

The result, however, is ironic. Speedy processing for the few has slowed processing for the rest. According to Heather Watts, director of government affairs at the American Symphony Orchestra League, while normal processing used to take 45 to 60 days, it now takes on average four months, far too long to accommodate many performance schedules. To cope, many orchestras apply as early as allowed by law, six months, and then, if they don't receive an answer and become nervous, pay the premium processing fee. Like most nonprofits, orchestras cannot really afford the added expense, but, according to Watts, "it's the uncertainty that is most frustrating."

In the event of illness or another unforeseen event, a nonprofit can file to expedite the visa process without the $1,000 fee, but they must be able to demonstrate that failure to expedite would result in serious financial harm.

Most arts groups have difficulty proving that a single incident will cause undue harm; the administrative and financial repercussions of the delays tend, rather, to have a cumulative effect. Many applicants also complain that the expedite requests are treated inconsistently by different consulates. Some artists' unions have begun to bargain for lower processing fees for their members, a troubling trend for independent and non-union artists.

Heather Watts and other members of the American Arts Alliance, a consortium of nonprofits arts service organizations, are lobbying Congress to reduce the maximum period of certain categories of visas to 30 days and to standardize the implementation of the expedite rule. However, the concerns of the arts community must compete with larger battles over immigration reform and the Homeland Security Act, which is still deadlocked in the Senate.


The terrorist attacks put the INS on the defensive and further complicated visa processing. After a review of its procedures, the State Department announced this August that increased scrutiny, supplemental applications, extensive background checks, and other measures will slow visa processing in many cases. Applicants from countries considered by the department to be sponsors of terrorism, such as Cuba, will face longer waits -- as in September, when Chucho ValdĂšs and 21 other Cuban musicians missed the Latin Grammy Awards because their visas were not approved in time. A well-known Iranian film director, Abbas Kiarostami, was unable to attend the premiere of his film at the New York Film Festival.

The INS is not targeting artists; there have been similar incidents involving scientists and business executives. But the extra time and costs of visa application are having ripple effects in the small and cash-strapped arts community.

A Difficult Exchange

When the theater director Roberta Levitow became involved in the Three Continents Workshop last summer, which brought together artists from Poland, East Africa, and the U.S., she had "an inkling" that the visa process might be hard. But, she said, she couldn't have anticipated how difficult it would be. Deborah Asiimwe, a Ugandan playwright who was invited to attend the workshop, was denied a visa from the U.S. consulate in Kampala three times. She came to the consulate armed with an invitation from the hosting organization in the U.S.; later she brought a contract from John Hopkins University, which had hired her to write radio plays for its AIDS awareness campaign, and a letter from the National Theater of Uganda, where she was scheduled to direct one of her own plays later in the fall. These documents were intended to show that Asiimwe was financially secure and grounded in Uganda. Long-time INS regulations dictate that, if an individual cannot demonstrate sufficient family, financial, or professional ties to their home country, a visa application must be denied. Asiimwe was approved, on a fourth attempt, after Levitow convinced her senator to call the State Department and threatened to file a grievance against a consular official who had proven particularly intractable.

Levitow points out that the INS regulations, while perhaps grounded in the realities of developing-world immigration, discriminate against artists, who tend to be young, unmarried, and freelance. In order to get a visa for the workshop, Mrisho Mpoto, a member of a Swahili-language company from Tanzania, moved his intended wedding up a few years and made sure to document it. Even so, he was made to sing and dance in front of consular officials to prove he was a performer. Levitow also notes that the workshop's Polish participants, who like the Africans were young and relatively poor, were offered 10-year visas from the U.S. consulate in Warsaw. It's hard not to conclude that Islamic influences in Uganda and Tanzania, memories of bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa, fear of AIDS, and plain-old racism played a role in the experiences of Assiimwe and Mpoto.

One-Way Street?

To add another wrinkle to the visa story, many American artists feel that cultural exchanges tend to be one-sided, so that while international artists of all stripes are hired to perform in this country, far fewer American artists find work abroad. American directors resent, for example, when a production they originate travels to the U.K. but the British producer declines to hire them to direct it. Broadway producers, by contrast, seem to favor British directors. The Actors' Equity Association maintains an exchange program with British Equity to regulate the alien-to-U.S. actor ratios in productions.

If there is an imbalance in cultural exchange, it's too bad; artists are some of our best ambassadors. Apart from the "culturally unique" products emanating from Hollywood, it might help to send some of our talented artists abroad to break down the current climate of misunderstanding, resentment, and fear.


9/11/02: Art And Culture

Before 9/11, few New Yorkers had heard of the Flea Theater, just north of the WTC site; after 9/11, people across the country --teachers, mothers, and businessmen -- knew about this experimental theater space. The attacks shut down the theater for a month, and brought attendance down to five percent through the fall. Then the theater mounted The Guys, written by the journalist Anne Nelson about her experiences helping a captain compose eulogies for his fallen men. The play has been running with a succession of celebrity actors to sellout audiences here and in Los Angeles, and the film version is already in production. On the anniversary, a free performance will occur at Lincoln Center.

The Flea's financial roller coaster -- from financial devastation to unprecedented commercial success -- and its artistic path -- from feeling completely unmoored to creating what has become a ritual of healing -- mark the wide parameters of experience in the cultural community since the attacks.

The first and most far-reaching effects of the attacks were financial: 57 percent drops in earned income; cuts to city and state funding; and tapering off of corporate, foundation, and private donations. A year later, however, it's clear that the events of 9/11 have only sharpened the fiscal picture that has been emerging in the arts economy over the past few years.

Most institutions have recovered from the dramatic drops in attendance sparked by the attacks, yet longer-terms trends show that audiences are increasingly buying single tickets rather than subscriptions or memberships, depriving planners of a reliable revenue base. This has as much to do with lifestyles as it does with the economy. Loyal subscription audiences are aging, and younger consumers tend to be choosy and hesitant to commit themselves to a season or an institution.

The weak economy has hurt arts institutions of all sizes, but the larger institutions with cash reserves and the ability to downsize will be able to weather the hardships. Mid-sized organizations, which like many middle-class Americans bought into the stock market during the 1990s, have had to switch gears from building endowments to struggling to stay in the black. Even during the flush years of the 1990s, many smaller organizations struggled with rising rents and other costs; in the current economic climate, many are likely to close their doors.

Individuals and companies aren't abandoning arts philanthropy in droves, but corporate and private giving are down significantly, and foundations may not be able to take up the slack for much longer. With foundation payouts typically set on three-year cycles, current giving still reflects the late 1990s rather than current trends.

For all of these reasons, and according to recent surveys and anecdotal accounts, arts groups are entering their rockiest period in decades: even if the national economy rights itself by 2003, as some predict, it will take a few years longer to lure back audiences and givers.

In addition to wreaking havoc on the arts economy, the terrorist attacks sparked a year-long conversation about the role of art in what's been called the post-9/11 world. The most concrete discussions have focused on how culture can help rebuild the WTC site and reinvent Lower Manhattan. Over the past 15 years the Downtown Alliance Business Improvement District has encouraged the growth of art galleries, museums, walking tours, and free performances. Arts leaders now want to further this agenda by creating affordable living and working spaces for artists, who have been priced out of the neighborhood over the past decade.

In the weeks after the attacks, cultural activities provided an outlet for emotion and an escape from nonstop media coverage. In arts pages, celebrity profiles made way for articles about the solace of an Auden poem or the serenity of The Met. Mayor Giuliani made a civic duty out of going to Broadway, where audiences cried more easily and laughed harder. In a city suddenly aware of its own fragility, some said, the arts might come to be valued "more than ever."

Artists themselves were torn between wanting to "do something" and feeling queasy about ripping tragedy from the headlines to make art. In the community I know best -- the theater -- friends and acquaintances complained that it felt even more "absurd" than usual to sit in dark rooms and make up fictions. This didn't last for long, however; theater people are used to reacting quickly and moving on. The week of the attack, members of the fledgling Epic Theatre Company went to schools to talk to students about what they were watching on the nightly news. "It was not like 'We've got to save the kids,' but 'We've got to create public forums,'" Epic's artistic director, Ron Russell, recalls. "If Epic had owned a space we'd have flung the doors open: 'Please come in, let's talk.'" The playwright Herman Daniel Farrell III argued in American Theatre magazine that "no one else on the planet is acting with restraint in their responses to this turning-point in time, so why should artists?" (This month, many different cultural events will commemorate the anniversary and several 9/11-inspired books, movies, music, and exhibits will come out. See Gotham Gazette's list of events.

As the country moved toward war, many artists turned to activism. The Refuse and Resist! network of artists staged happenings in public squares, wearing face masks and carrying posters that read: "Our Grief is Not a Cry for War." In November, 900 people gathered at Cooper Union's Great Hall for Imagine: Iraq, a reading of eight plays -- many in development well before September -- about American involvement in the Middle East and the EastÐWest divide.

Occasionally, rhetoric about the value of art lapsed into banalities, as in a School of Visual Arts poster featuring two potted plants in the shape of twin towers and the tag line "Art is. . . Healing." In general, however, conversations about art's ability to create public forums, spur debate, or provide forms in which to pour thoughts were intelligent and provocative. In the months after the attacks, as we returned to our media-and-celebrity-driven culture, at least people were also talking about art.

Brave New World Arts, a group best known for their marathon play festivals, is testing the theory that the arts can heal. For two weeks over the summer, the company led playwriting workshops with teenagers who either lost relatives in the attacks or viewed the attacks up close. The teens' plays will be read at the Public Theater on September 26 in a "Reflections of WTC Children" benefit performance. Producer Daniel Schreibman says that many of the plays are not specifically about the events of 9/11; overall, the project has been about "creating a voice for the kids" and "building community."

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