The critics panel last week at undercurrents Festival had some interesting discussion about the future of arts journalism. I am going to take this opportunity to further flesh out some of the emerging trends that were discussed at the conclusion of the panel. Principally, I want to talk about our long-form brand of criticism, in contrast with the future of legacy media arts coverage that Ottawa Citizen’s Lynn Saxberg foresees (I just learned the term “Legacy Media” this week from a great CanadaLand Commons podcast. It basically means “types and styles of media that existed before the internet got useful”).
Ms. Saxberg envisions more generalists writing shorter pieces about the arts as legacy media continues to evolve. She also (somewhat jokingly) suggested that she might be looking for a job with NOC in the next 10 years. There is a lot going on in these statements, and I think it pertains to our project with the GCTC, and further into the future of the NOC. This is about differentiating ourselves from traditional media. Clearly, we think our way is the more interesting and sustainable way, or we wouldn’t be doing it. Just as clearly, legacy media believes it is doing it more sustainably for the long term, or is trying to phase it out without us noticing. Only time will tell which approach is better (and only if longevity is the measure of success).
More generalists. I love generalists. Generalists are great for writing for a general audience and relating the experience of the general audience member at events. This is useful for certain things, like promotion. These people are skilled at putting on a bunch of different hats, and experiencing a wide range of life and telling people what they saw. It’s a good reporting toolkit. The generalist tries to be the every(wo)man. They get better and better at standing in for the audience as the practice. This is about reviewing what you saw.
The thing about arts criticism is that it is not a job for generalists. Each time I engage with a piece of theatre and write about it, I am becoming more specialized in this process. I have discovered that I am getting better at it. Less afraid to say the hard thing. More willing to take chances. More skilled at identifying the nuances that make me feel how I feel inside of the piece. (Maybe you disagree? Let’s talk about that.) I am not trying to turn myself into everyone. I am trying to show you the inner workings of my head as I lived through an art experience. And more importantly, I am trying to tell you why I felt the way I did. I am not trying to turn myself into anything, I’m trying to share something as close as possible to who I am in a given moment, not become something else. You get to watch me see this piece, and stand in for me in your own mind. This is about reviewing what you saw, and critiquing it in the larger cultural context.
Shorter pieces. I have a long list of problems I could unpack about this (irony!), but instead I’ll keep it brief. Past a certain point, shorter pieces make a smaller impact. As we relegate arts coverage further to the margins of the media in terms of size and its physical location in a physical paper, it will move further away from the centre of our awareness and our culture. It will be more difficult for artists and audiences and presenters to all find one another. There will be less community engagement, because there is less substance to engage with, and more difficulty finding what little does exist.
Clearly, we don’t write short pieces. If anything, they’re too long sometimes. No matter how long or short a piece is, the point is to gain your interest and sustain it to the end. It’s much easier to say something interesting when you can explore things in depth than it is when your job is first to report what happens. You could do that for ever, and by the time you’ve written something that does a passably adequate job of reporting, there’s no room in your column (or day-timer) left to talk about why it matters. It’s hard to argue with (or invest yourself in) the simple facts presented in a short piece, despite #alternativefacts becoming a thing somehow. The secret is that the long form piece can tell you both the what and why of an event from the perspective of the writer, and (if it’s done well) develop your interest to find out if you agree or disagree with the writer. When that happens, you have something at stake in our relationship.
Arts and culture are paired together in legacy media because they are nearly inseparable in our present understanding of the world, but if media coverage of “arts and culture” stops, it doesn’t mean that culture stops. It means that legacy media believes that art no longer has a place in culture. Business sections and sports sections grow proportionately larger because of the vibrancy of business and sports cultures. This trend will continue forever until someone takes measures to move against it.
One of the other things I noticed in Ms. Saxberg’s discussion is the trend-chasing mentality of her paper. The NOC don’t set out to chase trends. We intend to make them. There is a void in our culture: we don’t talk enough about art and its impacts. We are making an impact and talking about it every step of the way. We put the focus where we think it belongs and draw your focus there as best we can.
As for Ms. Saxberg being employed by the NOC in the future, there is one very serious obstacles.
I’m not sure how we are going to exist either in 10 years, given the present outlook of funding opportunities. I’ve been arguing that criticism is art for weeks now, but it seems like granting bodies haven’t had a chance to update their qualification policies yet. Even creative collaborations between critics and presenters don’t seem to make us into artists of any description. Media grants want to fund film projects and video game development, not something they consider a personal journalism project. Arts grants only think you’re worth funding if you get on stage or hire other people to get on stage. (Incidentally, I contend that we do help people get on stage, though not by hiring them directly.)
Our conception of theatre criticism falls in large part outside of the way this artistic discipline has been practiced for more than a century. We envision our work as a creative collaboration with the artist across time through the documentation of their art, and our experience of it. It is not just a review, it is a constructive part of the process of art making. I wonder how many times I’m going to have to say “critics are artists,” before someone with their hand on the “grant” button is willing to even entertain my argument. A few more probably.
So this part is a bit of self-promotion, because someone has to do it. If you think our work ought to be considered as artistic (or at least an “artistic service” by funding bodies), write us a letter to that effect. Or better yet, write them a letter. If you like (or hate or care about at all) anything we’ve written about your work or other people’s work, or the world in general share the article. Our greatest assets as humans are our attention and intention. I urge you to give yours to projects that matter to you, and spread the word accordingly.
And if Ms. Saxberg (or anyone else for that matter) would like to begin her work now, to continue or redirect the discussion, proposals and submissions are open: newottawacritics613[at]gmail[dot]com.
Editor’s Note: you can support the NOC and our continued arts coverage by becoming a subscriber at www.patreon.com/newottawacritics for as little as $1/month.