The artist as critic

It doesn’t take much digging to find that an increasing number of stories about the arts these days are being written by artists themselves. For some, the “arts reporter” gig is a necessary second source of income with compatible hours… for others, the motivation comes from a desire to fill the increasing void created by cutbacks at papers.

Max Sparber, a regular columnist for MinnPost.com and the temporary fill-in editor of Minnesota Playlist, is also a playwright. Earlier this week he wrote about the pitfalls and benefits of being both artist and journalist:

This sort of critic/artist cross pollination can lead to overwhelming conflicts of interests. It does not serve the needs of an artist or an audience to have a critic who is primarily a cheerleader for the local arts community. One of the traditional roles of the critic is to act as an entirely impartial respondent to a piece of art. We may not agree with their opinion, but we know them to be thoroughly scrupulous in expressing that opinion. And, without an impartial response, there is a risk of criticism just becoming a wing of the promotions department of an arts organization. And even the appearance of a conflict-of-interests has historically led to charges of impartiality, which is why some critics will not see their subjects on a social basis.

I’ve wrestled with this. It’s especially poignant now, as I tend to prefer only to write about subjects that interest me, and so it will be pretty rare that I produce a really scabrous review. As I figure it, audiences have no trouble steering clear of bad art, and there is so much interesting art out there that I prefer to point them in that direction. And my relationship with the local performance art community is so thoroughly muddied that I must includes extended full-disclosures in every piece I write. I have been fortunate to land a gig where this isn’t a problem, as my column for MinnPost is built around a conversational, insider’s look at the arts. But, as Mencken once said, in order to maintain credibility as a critic, sometimes you have to raise the black flag and start slitting throats. This can be very, very difficult to do when you’re writing about people you care about.

However, Sparber goes on to argue that artists make for some of the best qualified arts writers:

…Arts writing is at its best when written by somebody who actually knows about the arts. There’s a long and sullied history in the press of sports writers and beat reporters being pressed into arts writing because nobody else will do it. They’ve never participated in the making of a performance, and so don’t know what goes into it. And they often don’t have much of an education on what they’re reviewing. Notoriously, an Omaha critic once left “Waiting for Godot” during intermission, not knowing there was a second act. He wrote a piece about how Beckett’s play has nothing to say to modern audiences. And, who knows, maybe he was right. I like Beckett, but I also like “Auntie Mame,” and that’s a play that genuinely has nothing to offer modern audiences. But his case would have been more credible had he stuck it out for the second act…

For this sort of critic, all sorts of things are important beyond what occurs between the rise and fall of a curtain. The process that goes into making a piece of art becomes very interesting. The social world of the artist becomes quite important. A larger knowledge of genre, or arts philosophy, of artistic movements, becomes vital. And this is a very hard thing for a former sportswriter to just jump into. If you want this “tour-guide” sort of critic, it helps to find somebody whose background is in the arts. They generally can communicate pretty well in writing, as we at MinnesotaPlaylist have repeatedly demonstrated. After all, artists are often well-educated, and, especially in the performing arts, communicating clearly and well is an essential skill.

I suspect we’re going to see a lot more critic/artists down the road as print newspapers keep tightening their budgets and less-traditional online news sources start to come into their own. My suspicion is that the end result of this will be a better-educated and more adventurous audience. I hope this will be the case, anyway. There is, of course, a risk that criticism will become a form of advertising, with critics writing only to promote their own work or their friend’s work. God knows this is a real possibility: If there is one thing the Internet has proven, it is that it is quite good making spam.

That would be a pity. Because we are filling the ranks of arts critics with people who know about the arts, love them, and are skilled at communicating their nuances. This should lead to a golden age of arts writing, instead of a golden age of self-promotion.

You can read Sparber’s full article here. As a reader of arts stories, do you care whether or not the person writing the story is a trained artist, or friends with the subject of the story? How much does the background or training of the reporter matter to you? Trust me, I’m all ears.

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