Wow is the internet beating up on Michael Kaiser today.

I think the backlash is a little harsh, but I also think the piece in question does really miss the mark. (Do I actually need to link it? Here ya go. As Amanda Ameer pointed out, it’s ironic that it’s on HuffPo.) It looks to me like he’s decrying the demise of arts criticism jobs, and over argues the defense. Result? Apparent arbitrary elitism.

Is the demise of the professional arts critic unfortunate? Yes. Obviously. It’s a job in the arts. Be happy for anyone making any money in the arts. All of us have less than we deserve.

My main problem with the piece is that it falls into the alarmingly large category of pieces about how the internet is changing our lives that merely describe the problem rather than suggesting what we do next. It’s 2011, and I’d like to be playing for slightly more marbles.

Arts journalism is, like all kinds of professional journalism, exploding. This is obviously a bad thing. A professional free independent press is pretty vital to our society. Did you see 60 Minutes on Sunday? They did some incredible reporting. Apparently members of congress are exempt from insider trading rules and don’t have to put their stocks in a blind trust. So they can (and totally do) trade on obviously market moving information that’s remarkably privileged. Shady! And without a professional press, we wouldn’t know about it.

The same applies to the arts world. Do you trust both sides in the million orchestra/union disputes going on right now to be fully transparent? I don’t, and I’m glad we have a professional press covering the issues.

Journalism vs. Criticism

This brings me to the distinction between criticism, writing about the content of a piece of art aesthetically, and arts journalism, writing about the whole enterprise, from content to production to business and leadership.

Would we think a sports journalist had done their job if they just watched the game and told us about it? No, we want information we can’t get for ourselves that colors the game: injury lists, coaching plans, did the Patriots pull the fire alarm in the opposing team’s hotel again?

The function that the ‘citizen critic’ is taking on is the criticism function, not the journalism one.

Patchy History!

Why did newspaper critics start existing in the first place? Why was it a profitable thing for a newspaper to print? Because people wanted to know about shows they couldn’t get to. If I lived in a mere 25 miles outside Milan in the 1820s and wanted to know how a big Paganini performance had gone, I had very few options. Word of mouth wasn’t going to cover even that short distance. But I still care about the big musical events. That’s a great business opportunity – if I’m a newspaper I can be the first on the scene with good information from a critic and charge for it.

Now, by the time the newspaper review is written and available, even online, I’ve already read five blog posts, seen a dozen twitpics, and probably listened to other music by the performer on their website, or Spotify, in advance of the show I couldn’t make it to. There just isn’t a problem that that information in that medium solves anymore.

Okay, so that’s the problem…

But what do we do about it? Well, I personally think the changes to our field are going to come from individuals in the next fifty years, not organizations. Individual arts entrepreneurs are going to be ones to sort out the new business models, not Sony or the Kennedy Center.

I think individuals are going to figure this one out. Look at Wikipedia. People who write for it have a lot of responsibility to keep the public informed (responsibility which used to live in VERY few hands). Similarly, the people who read it have a responsibility to be skeptical about their sources of information. They’re responsible for demanding citations, detecting authorial bias, and the rest of it. They always had this responsibility, but the job is much bigger now.

The same thing applies to arts criticism. The answer isn’t to tell newspapers to turn back time, it’s to teach everyone serious media literacy. If you’re a capable and critical reader the fact that all your information about the arts is coming from a dozen unvetted sources isn’t a problem. (Also, a lot of them are vetted. Hi Frank, Molly and Alex G.! Hi Alex R.!) You as a reader have to be equipped to evaluate the authors, compare the piece with other sources, contextualize, and form your own opinion as best you can. Really, I’m a bit of a radical on this. I want media literacy to be a core subject taught in high schools.

But what about arts journalism?

Yeah, we still need paid professionals for that, just like everyone else. I say we watch to see how the mainstream journalists figure it out and copy that into the arts. In the meantime, thank god so many people are working on this problem!

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