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 two-part 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 vestigiall
y qualified as an expert and what little opinion we get is from “cost effective” freelancer s or a gaggle of blog posts. […]
Here at the NEA we are trying to do something about this. In partnershi
p 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, Philadelph ia and San Jose) has presented a sustainabl e 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.