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Who Needs Art Criticism?

by Martha Hostetter, Feb 04, 2003
 

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.)

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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.

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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.

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