Saturday, April 26, 2014

Ramblings on Arts Criticism, Or, A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Hashtag...

You'll need a little background to understand what follows. Short version: In its season finale, "Parks & Recreation" showed a mocked-up edition of The Indianapolis Star with a review of Tom Haverford's new restaurant. I wrote a snarky Tweet about it. Then I made a Facebook post soliciting feedback on if said Tweet was overly nasty. A wide-ranging conversation started. Then this happened:


Thanks for the thoughtful comments, all. This thread has turned out to be a lot more interesting than my original intent, which basically was just to point everyone to Twitter and solicit feedback on my off-the-cuff quip. The fact that the OP seems to have taken it in stride ameliorates any concerns I had about having been too harsh with my jab.

The association of the word “utility” with arts criticism vexes me almost to the point of becoming physically ill. One could very well try to employ the same phraseology with art itself. What is the utility of arts and entertainment? It’s certainly not an answer you’ll find on any spreadsheet, from a focus group or in Google Analytics. It’s the very spirit and essence of a community, the things that make a place and a people special, and bind them together in ways beggaring description.

Arts journalism is about spreading knowledge and, especially in the case of criticism, starting conversations. In that way, people become more excited and interested about what’s happening in local theaters, art galleries and cinemas. In turn, artists rewarded by this attention are prodded to do more and dare more. That gives those covering the arts a richer landscape to traverse, report back on, and offer their opinions about. It’s an interconnected cycle of engagement, a continual feedback loop. Remove any one wellspring, and the other parts wither.

And then, after years of forcing audiences and creators to back-channel between themselves, we propose to be confounded when there’s no shovel-ready market clamoring for news and views on the A&E scene. Having told readers they don’t want criticism, we have the audacity to act surprised when they eventually agree with us. Sow, reap.

So again: What is the value of the arts, and criticism of it? Really, the question becomes: are you adding to the collective richness of the local tapestry, or are you letting it fade away by turning your back on it? For a journalism outlet, do you want to be a thought leader, a follower or an agnostic? Worthy newspapers, magazines, shows, etc. have always sought to position their critics as indispensable voices in their area of expertise. To be the ones folks turned to for a recommendation, condemnation or just a good argument. In other words, it’s one of the ways they strove to be special.

This indescribable quality is the difference between a news operation that sees itself as a commodity and one that is inextricably bound to the community, and vice versa. One obsessed with click-through rates instead of making connections.

It is, in fact, exactly the sort of thing that inspires the creators of a very funny TV show to mock up a fake restaurant review, because they assumed that’s a vital function of any real newspaper worth its ink. Little did they know the actual paper has written off such things as trifles incompatible with the new metric.

So really, the joke’s on them, and us. And me, especially. Because in whipping off my cheap little Tweet, I gullibly thought the lack of criticism in the Indy Star was something about which people would be ashamed.


  1. "Spreading" knowledge ????? I thought one "acquired" knowledge or "sought" knowledge or "deepened" knowledge. How does one spread it? With a butter knife? No, I'm not being glib for the sake of it. I just find that rather vapid metaphor an apt illustration of why contemporary criticism is of little value to me. It's all about stringing together the latest trendy phrases or concepts, sprinkling everything liberally with irony and posting it within five minutes.

    1. I object to Mr. Ashe's literalism. Of course one can 'spread' something besides food stuffs! What a strange choice of argument you make, based on an assumption that the word, 'spread,' refers only to something done with a butter knife! You object to glibness in reviewers, a complaint I share, by the way, but I suggest the author of this piece is not being glib, has an important message to communicate and that you are using this article to air your personal grievances, regardless of the inappropriateness of their application to the content of this article.