Michael Kaiser is so hit or miss. Last week he published this truly unfortunate commentary on the slow death of professional arts criticism, and the rise of citizen critics as a result:

[T]he growing influence of blogs, chat rooms and message boards devoted to the arts has given the local professional critic a slew of competitors….Many arts institutions even allow their audience members to write their own critiques on the organizational website.

This is a scary trend.

He goes on to add:

Anyone can write a blog or leave a review in a chat room. The fact that someone writes about theater or ballet or music does not mean they have expert judgment.

But it is difficult to distinguish the professional critic from the amateur as one reads on-line reviews and critiques.

No one critic should be deemed the arbiter of good taste in any market and it is wonderful that people now have an opportunity to express their feelings about a work of art. But great art must not be measured by a popularity contest. Otherwise the art that appeals to the lowest common denominator will always be deemed the best.

Responses are all over the original post and the blogosphere; Andy Horwitz has one of the best over at Culturebot. You don’t need to think too hard to guess at my reaction; after all, I’m on record as saying that I think citizen critics (though I prefer the term “curators”) are the potential saviors of the artistic marketplace. However, that’s not to say that everyone’s opinion matters equally in every context. I believe in experts, I just think that newspaper editors shouldn’t be the only ones who get to decide who the experts are. Much more on all of this here and here, but in the meantime try the short version below:

What we need…is a way of broadening out the selection and adjudication process to a greater number of people without sacrificing the qualities and expertise that make professional program officers [or critics -IDM] special. To do this, we’ll still want to access the crowd, but rather than treat everyone the same, we’ll need to differentiate between good members of the crowd – the ones who are generous with their time, consider differing viewpoints thoughtfully, and demonstrate personal integrity – and bad members of the crowd – “one-issue” voters, poorly informed fly-by commenters, and vendetta-carriers. Put another way, we want to give anybody the opportunity to participate meaningfully without having to give that opportunity to everybody.

In other words, we need to curate the curators – something that, gee whiz, it turns out the internet is pretty good at.

Many have already pointed out the irony that Kaiser wrote his commentary on a website, the Huffington Post, that relies for much of its content on unpaid bloggers (of which Kaiser is one, I can only assume). But I also found it ironic that Kaiser’s post drew an approving twopart response from Rocco Landesman, who cites the NEA’s recent collaborative grant program with the Knight Foundation as a positive example of bucking the trend. Rocco writes:

Very often there is no one even vestigiall­y qualified as an expert and what little opinion we get is from “cost effective” freelancer­s or a gaggle of blog posts. […]

Here at the NEA we are trying to do something about this. In partnershi­p with the Knight Foundation­, whose domain is both journalism and the arts, we have made grants in our new Knight/NEA Community Arts Journalism Challenge. Each of the winning grantees (in Charlotte, Miami, Detroit, Philadelph­ia and San Jose) has presented a sustainabl­e business model for a new way of delivering arts criticism.

And yet one of the projects (out of five) awarded a grant in the first round of the program is the Detroit iCritic van, which parks outside of arts events and offers exiting audience members the opportunity to record a video about their experience and share it with the world. Several of the other initiatives also afford citizen journalists a prominent role, with few restrictions on access. If this isn’t the democratization of arts criticism, I’m not sure what is.

Following the field dialogue on participation is so interesting. I really do think people want it both ways: they want the good things that can come from decentralizing power, access, and speech (thoughtful praise and constructive criticism, freeloading on volunteer labor, the moral high ground of inclusiveness) without having to accept the accompanying challenges (mindless or malicious attacks, declining revenues, having to listen to people you didn’t really want to invite to the table).

That particular drama has played out for centuries, really – it speaks to the fundamental dilemmas of collectivism. But the difference now is the way in which recent communications technologies, and the cultures that have built up around it, make everything more open by default. The social web connects strangers to each other around shared interests and foments dialogue, dialogue that filters down into everyday practice and informs collective actions that previously took place in isolation. And so you have these formerly untouchable institutions who are all of the sudden the ones asking for a place at the table…because the conversation is happening, and the world is moving on, with or without them.

I think what sometimes gets missed by those who lament our shifting reality is the inexorable fact that there’s no going back. There just isn’t. Newspapers are never again going to be a dominant force in our lives, and the bizarre economics that briefly made it possible to subsidize full-time professional arts critics via want ads and real estate listings are not likely to return. It’s like complaining about the oversupply of artists – y’all had better get used to it, because it’s not going away. I’m confident that our emerging content delivery systems will figure out ways to match up the opinions of smart people with the consumers who demand them. But I doubt very much that it will look anything like the models of the past. I suggest that rather than pine for the good old days, we instead consider what kinds of systems and structures can accept these new voices as a necessary input and still produce meaningful guidance for consumer and society alike.

  • James Pell

    Critics as well as bloggers are just fine, one paid and the other from some type of “expertise” (performer or avid fan) giving their opinions however they form them…. The most important opinion, I think, however, is the BEHOLDER, him/herself.

    What touches the heart cannot be criticized.

  • FCM

    This country is finding it quite difficult to have a dialog (about anything, really, but also) about the value of certain services in light of capitalism. Arts are the favorite whipping boy for die hard capitalists, but even they find it hard to say that this country doesn’t need journalism, especially investigative journalism, to balance the activities of our elected officials. Which is nice, because it sheds some new light on the music/IP/money issues that go in circles when discussed in a vacuum.

    The problem is, the free market that ‘supported’ arts criticism, wasn’t ever REALLY supporting arts criticism, per se. Arts criticism, financially speaking, was just a byproduct of, among other things:
    1. advertising
    2. the one-way broadcast/print paradigm of a physically mediated information culture
    3. the emperors clothes of cultural respectability

    We are now smack in the middle of a *virtually* mediated information culture, hence all the reshuffling, etc.

    I think what is most disturbing about Mr. Kaiser and and Mr. Landesman’s comments is that the implication that this previous arrangement should be viewed as completely naturalized, let alone resurrected as limbs of it are dying off. They imply that it was meant to be this way, and always has been this way, and this is the most logical, natural way to disseminate opinions about the arts.

    In their stances, there is no questioning about the gradual move from music from the uses of religion, to aristocracy, to bourgeoisie, to the recent public, and the resultant POWER structures that have lingered on. There is no contextualizing music criticism in a historical progression — it simply was always there, a deo et rege, and should continue to be there.

    There is no consideration given to the histories of oral cultures, non-literate cultures, and how their diasporas might correspondingly benefit from something OTHER than the hegemonic norm.

    “Hegemonic norm???!!?? WTF?? Some academic creep is in the room!! ”

    That’s right, motherfuckers! The composer>performer>critic>audience hierarchy, deeply imbedded in these arguments is a nasty little thing, that we don’t like much to talk about in classical music, because it’s a tad bit uncomfortable to consider that maaaaaybe there are other ways of thinking about musics of the world, and that maaaaaybe there are unfortunate byproducts of our imperial past lingering on in our cultural present.

    I’m sorry to be the first one here to mention it, as it somewhat of a sucker punch. But critics are sometimes very wrong, in ways that would even insult the very high-nosed values being trounced about thus far in the original blog post and ensuing response. Do we need any more example than Slonimsky’s instructive tome? Or has criticism matured to the point where it simply wouldn’t make such silly mistakes anymore? (along the lines of thinking that all the best music has been written in the last 40 years)

    With my high and mighty education, I am well-enough credentialed to “write with the best of them.” But when I’m really enjoying music, I’m loving it with the same balls that I fuck with, I’m being hurt in the same heart that I love with, I’m looking with the eyes that I lust, leer, cry, apologize with.

    Not with my stupid, expensive education.

    When you consider the perspective behind these sorts of comments, and realize that these people are at the TOP, it’s not hard to imagine just why classical music institutions fail at maintaining broad appeal.

    (well, that and apparently PARKING issues, if we believe Wymann and Knight)

    “let them eat cake”


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