The demise of arts and culture critics
This story first appeared in Crain's Detroit Business.
When I started at The Detroit News in 2002, the paper employed a dedicated restaurant critic, a dance critic, two film critics, a couple of music critics, a theater, jazz and classical music critic, a fine/visual arts critic, a TV critic, a book reviewer, and an abundance of freelance arts critics and generalists, at least.
By the time I became arts and entertainment editor the next year, three critics retired and a music critic/musician went on tour and never came back. However, because we understood that readers looked to these paragons of criticism for unbiased, enthusiastic (or skeptical) and educated observations of a show, we found capable freelancers to carry on and trusted heavily on wire copy by capable critics at other newspapers.
Sometimes readers attended shows based on a reviewer’s recommendation; sometimes they went in spite of it, because reviews — good criticism written by experts in music, theater, visual arts, dance, film or opera — don’t just sell tickets. They attract populations of people to communities, jump-start conversations, enlighten and draw attention to cultural shifts.
If the newspaper didn’t run a review, my phone rang with readers demanding our critics’ views. If I directed them to a review online, older readers took offense; and rightly so, they did not have the internet or sometimes a computer, and as far as they could tell no one seemed to care.
What happened at The News is not unlike what has happened at the Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times, Los Angeles Times and at other major newspapers across the U.S., most of which have been plagued over the past 15 years by the rise of the internet and decline of print advertising — and, therefore, a business model that doesn’t work. The result has been a re-evaluating of priorities that for the most part kicked arts coverage to the curb. Even wire companies began laying off arts and entertainment critics.
Leah Smith, marketing and development director for Detroit Repertory Theatre, echoed my thoughts when she said, “It’s the way the world is going in general. … We’re being told art is not as important for quality of life as other things are.”
By the time I left The News in 2014, event listings ruled over actual event coverage. I had only film, pop music and visual arts critics left on staff. We freelanced TV and restaurant reviews, periodically persuaded someone to cover classical music and opera, and relied on wire and our ever-dwindling features staff to preview shows instead. At the same time, diversity of those previews steadily shrank, decreasing coverage of little-known performances and exhibits in favor of stories about trendy events.
Is there anything else you need to know about Harry Potter? We can all hop on the train to Stratford, Ontario, for Shakespeare, but how many know about the summer Shakespeare Royal Oak performances or Detroit Repertory Theatre’s new playwright productions?
Vince Paul, president and artistic director of the Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts, agreed. “The bigger picture is that we’re leaving our body politic in the dark as to the cultural options available to them, or removing that as critical thought or discussion for the performing arts that are on display,” he said.
In the early 1990s, when I was publishing an arts and entertainment magazine called Surreal, then Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer invited me and several other Detroit-area arts writers, photographers, musicians, painters, theater owners, etc., to his office to discuss the needs of the city. He recognized, as does anyone wanting to recruit highly sought-after white-collar workers or retain recent college graduates, that a great city needs a strong cultural foothold. So Archer looked for ways through the arts to boost Detroit’s flagging downtown, because, “You want to share the talent and beauty of the art with everybody,” as David DiChiera, founder and artistic director of Michigan Opera Theatre, has said. DiChiera effectively compared the dearth of reviews to “the proverbial hiding your light under a bushel.”
Reviews bring cultural institutions to light for generations of readers; and losing them doesn’t just save space in the newspaper, it does a disservice to older readers and the community at large, especially in this age of social sharing.
Imagine now, with Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, Periscope, Twitter, et al., the attention Detroit-created, curated, produced and staged performances and exhibits could garner nationwide. Here, we have the only Arab American museum in the country, but no one (that I know of) is reviewing its exhibits. There are at least 80 theaters in Michigan, but only a smattering of reviews can be found, most on EncoreMichigan.com.
Nevertheless, it’s not just about letting people know the event is happening, it’s about creating conversation.
“Competent critics provide a constant commentary on the arts scene,” said Lawrence Johnson, theater, jazz and classical music critic for The Detroit News for 20 years before he retired in 2006. During his 50-year career, Johnson also has written for the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Opera News, various music magazines, and “Classical Voice North America.” He and his wife, Nancy Malitz, founding music critic for USA Today and former cultural columnist at The News and freelancer for dozens of well-known publications, now run a classical music and theater review website, “Chicago on the Aisle.”
“I have always been convinced the number of people who read reviews far exceeds the number of people who see the given event,” Johnson said. “I write a review to try to be evocative of the experience as I witness it for anyone who might be interested in the topic.”
I’m looking forward to the Fisher Theatre’s production of “A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” based on the Mark Haddon novel with the same name. The story is difficult to explain: It’s about an awkward boy — in the novel he had autism — who is trying to solve a mystery. However, it’s much more than that. A review by an experienced critic could clarify things for would-be patrons, book lovers, and those just wanting to know how theater and the world have changed over the years.
That’s the thing about true critics, not bloggers (of which I am one), they are skilled at drawing on historical knowledge of performances/exhibits to draw comparisons to new works. Perhaps a critic would contrast the treatment of the innocent Lennie in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men to Haddon’s Christopher or to someone in modern day politics. Regardless, I’d like to know.
While I could likely search online for a review next spring when the play is staged, I’d prefer the conversation one gets from the oft-opposing viewpoints of critics at different publications, as when The News‘ (fill in critic’s name here) skewers a show and the Free Press’ (fill in critic’s name here) praises it, or vice versa. In the midst of this conversation, these critics are educating readers.
I think Lawrence Johnson’s point is solid reasoning for more arts reviews. He said, “Good criticism sheds light and stimulates readers to think.” Considering all the bad news happening in our town, our country, and our world, we could use a little more thinking.