Subscribe to Oregon ArtsWatch 7: Dealing with criticism

At the end of yesterday’s missive, I said that today our topic would be the ArtsWatch “business model.” I’m sure you remember those quotes around the central term!

Well, I forgot about something important I wanted to talk about first, just because during the past five years or so, it has caused so much consternation.


Yes, criticism, as in “arts criticism.”

The scowling stereotype: The Critic, Robert Branston

With the decline of the 20th century’s central platforms for popular criticism, newspapers and magazines, and their replacement by a host of online sites and social media, the practicing professional critics of the latter have reacted with a deluge of columns lamenting the deterioration of criticism or aesthetic standards or the culture as a whole, depending on the writer. And things, they frequently tell us, are only going to get worse. (The most recent spate of self-reflection by critics has focused on negative reviews.)

Although we appreciate many of the arguments that critics make along these lines (we would, now wouldn’t we!), especially their evocations of great critics of the past and the knowledgeability they brought to their writing, it’s all a little baffling. The enemy of the critic isn’t the opinion of the non-critic, whether voiced online or on the bus. No, the enemy of the critic is indifference—to the art in question, to the large culture that holds it, to the sweetness of the well-made argument or the deftly told anecdote.

Critics can’t live with indifference, and the multitude of opinions and debates about books and movies, plays and concerts, art and dance, should give them hope. Many people still care about these things!

And ultimately, what the critic offers is hard to find, and with any luck it will continue to be valuable to the culture. Simply put, good critics offer their formal, considered response to a work of art. That requires some knowledge to begin with, some research, some close observation, the glimmer of a thought (teased, tested and expanded) or two, and a deftness with various story and essay forms so that the knowledge, research, observation and thought coheres into some sort of on-the-page logic.

A more congenial critic: Fujiwara no Teika by Kikuchi Yosai

That’s hard to do, and if it doesn’t combine with some sense of how the art and the criticism fit into the culture, how useful they are going to be, then all of that work will be for nothing.

I think that’s what has critics agitated most of all: They aren’t sure their work is useful, because the platforms that have supported them and broadcast that work are crumbling. Believe me, I know what that feels like. You get defensive and depressed and angry and you want to throw up your arms and leave the field.

ArtsWatch is a knot of various experiments, and one of them is about criticism. Our hypothesis is that the good work of critics (and may I say that this word is an irritating one?) is as valuable as it ever was, maybe more valuable. We think it needs to be more conscious of how it affects both individual readers and the culture as a whole, how it “reads” on the most basic level and how it functions from the more macro point of view. But honestly, a lively intelligence engaged with an interesting topic? Surely, that won’t go out of style.

So, we’ve pushed ahead with the practice here at ArtsWatch. Our reviews don’t really provide consumer advice (that is one thing the Internet and the remaining print publications are awash in); instead, we hope they engage you in a different way, a more reflective way. We have to admit that  sometimes (maybe always!) some of you know more (sometimes much more) about any given topic than we do, and we try to act as a catalyst for your own thoughts about Tomas Svoboda or Beethoven, Rembrandt or CS Price, Balanchine or Mary Oslund. And we’d really like to hear those thoughts, too!

One of our favorite critics

From that list, you can tell that the other thing we want to offer is an ongoing encounter with art made in the Northwest, by the artists who live among us, borrow from us and give to us, who create with us in mind. Because, yes, living here, we rightly should have a good acquaintance with CS Price, Tomas Svoboda and Mary Oslund—and dozens of others. They know us so well; we understand them better than anyone else ever could.

One more thing: We are restless here at ArtsWatch. We know we can do better. We can’t wait for the next time to give it a try, when we can bring a little more to bear on our subject and maybe have that thought that makes you smile a little as you read it.

Here’s the thing, though, and why we’re going to talk about business very soon: The other thing that critics see as they survey the landscape is the collapse in the amount of money and number of jobs that the traditional platforms pay for arts writing. ArtsWatch is an experiment along these lines, too, one we hope has a positive conclusion.

Maybe you’re ready to join up already? And pitch in a small amount of money to keep our local criticism going? You can pick the level that suits your pocketbook below, and that would make us very happy!

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