As I See It: The Problem With Arts Journalism

I don't read the papers much, even though I should. I know it's both artistically and journalistically sound to keep up to date with what people are saying about art in the city, but I just never seem to get around to it. Maybe it's because the environmentalist in me can't stand having to deal with all that paper. Maybe it's that so much of the content isn't of interest to me and I have to wade through pages and pages of crap to get to the three or four pages in the arts section. Or maybe it's because every time I do read them, I end up getting mad. When I read Susan Walker's review of Dancemakers' Double Bill #1 in the Toronto Star last Friday, I realized that it's likely option number three that's the cause of my avoidance.

I think this review is a perfect example of the problem with arts journalism right now.
Walker talks about these two pieces in such an uneducated manner, it's an embarrassment to her publication. I won't take issue with Walker's taste, as it's pretty obvious we're on opposite ends of the spectrum, but I will say that I think her lack of understanding of this particular aesthetic of contemporary dance is upsetting, given the fact that she's a dance critic for one of the largest papers in the country. If Ame Henderson and Michael Trent were creating a kind of work completely unheard of before, I might be more inclined to ignore Walker's ignorance about the aesthetic in which they are working. However there are lots of other choreographers out there who are creating in this manner, though most of them are working in Europe at the moment. Part of your job as an arts writer is to keep up to date, not just with what's happening in your city, but with what's happening around the world, so that you can provide your reading audience with an enlightened and educated view point about the work you are writing about. In this particular instance, Walker has failed at her job.

Art is many things to many people and as a critic it is vital that you learn to understand the difference between a show that is not within your personal taste and that's just plain bad. In this case, Walker simply took the easy way out that so many journalists do; she didn't understand the show and rather than take the time to do some research and maybe even (gasp!) contact the artists to get a bit more information about what they were trying to do, she just gave the show a shit review and called it a day. This is irresponsible journalism.

To be fair, I don't think this type of scenario (which is all too common) is entirely the fault of the writers. When you're reviewing work for a daily publication, your copy is normally due the day after you see the show, meaning there is virtually no time to do any research between seeing the performance and submitting your review. Writing for a weekly may buy you an extra day or two, but it's still hardly any time to process the work you've seen, find out answers to the questions you have, and write an engaging and interesting piece that your editor will be satisfied with. That said, journalists who decide to work for those publications need to take responsibility for preparing themselves as much as possible before they see a show. In the case of these works in particular, just glancing over the program notes that Jacob Zimmer wrote would have answered some of the questions that Walker had. Based on the holes in what she had to say about the performance, I would have surmised she didn't get a copy of the program, except that she actually references Zimmer's notes in her review.

I'm not saying that there shouldn't be bad reviews. God knows there's lots of bad work out there. What I am saying is that not understanding a piece of work because you lack the proper background and context, is absolutely no excuse for giving it a bad review. In an academic context, would it ever be acceptable to submit an essay to a professor about a piece of work saying that you fundamentally didn't understand it and it was therefore intrinsically bad? Of course not. And we need to start holding arts journalists (Critics as they like to call themselves) to the same standards.

I don't intend to harp on Walker endlessly. She and I have a very different aesthetic of work that we like, and it's not fair to blame her for simply not liking these pieces. I do think that this article is a good example of the larger systemic problems that exist within mainstream publications when it comes to arts writing. Most papers employ two or three writers at the most for their performing arts sections. People don't stop to question this, but when you compare performing arts to other art forms the problem becomes obvious.

Let's take NOW Magazine as an example. The performing arts section, has two principal writers and one or two others who occasionally pen things. In contrast, the music section has over a dozen writers, who regularly contribute. The suggestion here is that while music can fall into many different categories, performance falls into only two or three. Another great example it the music blog Pitchfork which employs upwards of forty different writers, even though they are actually very limited in what genres of music they cover. The simple lack of different voices in performing arts writing may be the biggest problem that publications and artists face today.

Most arts writers are trained as journalists, but have no formal training in the arts. As someone who works as both an artist and a journalist, I can say with absolute certainty that having credentials in one area, does not automatically make you an expert in the other. One would hope that over time, writers would take the time to learn about different forms of work, to travel, and to get a sense of the overall context in which the artists they are talking about are working. I don't think any of these writers are stupid. I think a lot of them are actually very good writers. However, I do think that in many cases they have become lazy, and don't bother to educate themselves or expose themselves to a wide range of different kinds of work, or to challenge themselves to expand their personal tastes.

None of this would actually matter except for one thing; artists working in performance rely on reviews as the primary means of marketing their work and selling tickets to their performances, because none of them have enough money for large scale advertising campaigns. Whether we like it or not, we must have our work reviewed, because it's the only way that people will hear about it. Can you imagine the shape that any other industry would be in if it's entire marketing campaign was based around things written about their product by a third party source that was in many ways totally uneducated about their product? The suggestion that companies selling cars or cell phones or big blockbuster films would use only these means to market their products sounds absurd, but as artists we've just decided to accept this. The spirit of the artist is used to being downtrodden, beaten-up, and abused, and I think in some ways that leaves us in the position of not feeling up to fighting against the systems that oppress us and prevent us from creating and showing our work.

I don't know the exact solution to this problem, though if I did, I'm sure I'd be a hugely successful artist by now. What I do know is that it's time for us as artists to start addressing the critical climate in which we work and to start challenging what people have to say about us. We've all had those occasions where we've presented work, gotten a bad review, but known full well that we deserved it. In those cases, the best bet is just to lick you wounds and try to do better the next time. But the next time you create a piece that gets a bad review you feel was undeserved and uninformed, write the publication. Take the time to challenge what the journalist had to say about it and point out the holes in their arguments. Similarly, if you see a piece of work that's great, but gets a bad review from an uninformed writer, challenge them on behalf of the artist getting the bad review.
And don't let a bad review scare you off. If a piece of work seems interesting to you, but got a bad review, don't let that one person's potentially uniformed perspective influence your decision to buy a ticket to the show.

Essentially what I'm saying with all this is that I believe we as artists must create our own critical system within our community. If you see a show you love, take the time to tell your friends and colleagues about it. If you are curious about an artist's work, but don't totally understand it, call them and ask them about what they're doing. Putting the responsibility for understanding each other's work into our own hands won't eliminate the review systems of the mainstream publications but it will allow us to challenge our own assumptions about what we do and how to make our work better. And no matter your perspective, you can't argue that's a bad thing.


Aurora said...

So yeah, that's what we were chatting about the other day. I obviously agree.
Taking matters into your own hands and writing about the things you see is also a huge step in the right direction.

Anonymous said...

i find this blog really hard to read. literally. no issues with your content, which is interesting. but the format, oy vey.

the paragraphs are really long. for comfortable web reading, at this font size, paragraphs should be 6-8 lines max. (especially with the white-on-black color scheme, which is eyewatering at the best of times).

entering more hard returns to shorten the paragraphs would make this much more readable.

Unknown said...

There seem to be two types of "critical" arts writing available. One is actual critique while the other is more of a review.

It seems critics who are actually involved in the industry they are critiquing are far more likely to be interested in improving or exploring the art form being examined.

While others are going purely as surrogates for an audience so that they may simply "tell their friends" whether or not this show is worthwhile for them.

Either form, when weighted with opinion, expressing the authors preferences and measuring the product in terms of likes and dislikes and how much (four stars, two thumbs, "Don't miss it!", "Don't bother", etc)seems to be an attempt to tell the audience what one should see as opposed to what one can see.

Traditionally it seems the ability of the journalist to present a story with as little opinion as possible has been held in most high regard.

What would arts journalism look like without opinion? Is it possible to write about a work of art from a neutral, third person perspective?

SupaB said...

well said Chris. what you're doing here demonstrates how we have a responsibility as an artistic community to recongnize when a good work has been maimed in a review and speak up about it.
No wonder the general public has such a fear/block about modern dance. It seems like articles like this perpetuate inaccessibility of the form to the GP, rather than inform, educate or encourage. That is infuriating to me. All the stuff you've said about Walker needing to take initiative with a complex, boundary-pushing work is bang on.

Toronto: world class city for the arts? Yeah right, that's never going to happen if we don't have a public that understands, appreciates and encourages work like Trent is doing.

Seems to me people are lazy and don't want to bother reading.

We all need to be excited by the fact that being an active audience to theatre and dance means engagement with them outside the performance space as well as within. Research it, read about it, write about it. Arts journalists should be giving more than a play by play of the show in the review. I could keep going, but I'll stop now.

Good job on this blog. Keep it up.

Chris said...

Why bother reading anything written by Susan Walker? The simple answer: Don't.

Anonymous said...

Great post Chris, this is a subject that's at the root of a lot of problems with the respective art scenes in T.O. and in Van. As artists, we talk a lot with each other about how we feel about the work of others and the feedback from the few critics who talk about our stuff (and yes, some should be doing anything but writing about anything), but we hardly ever approach people we don't know to initiate a dialogue, or to discuss the critic's opinion with them. The wheels keep spinning, and we get no further to a viable arts sector.

It starts with discussion, with stirring the pot, mixing it up with the critics, writing our own blog reviews. I get it, it's scary to put yourself out there in the face of potential conflict, I think the trick is to keep it professional.

Do we have the courage to argue for our opinions? Some of us do, obviously, even if all they care to criticize is one's average paragraph length.

Chris said...

What's with the title change of the blog post? Has Walker been been downgraded from the Asshole category? And if so, what is she now?