How to be a critic? Just do it

A critic’s voice is not the voice of God. It is human, and fallible, and individual. It will sometimes please you, sometimes amuse you, sometimes infuriate you.

I told a friend the other day that I was working on a talk to be titled “How To Be a Critic,” and when she asked me how it was going I said, “Well, I hope I figure out the answer before Tuesday night.”

Truth is, there are about as many ways to be a critic as there are critics. If you’re looking for a decoder ring, that’s kind of annoying. Nevertheless, it’s true. Critics are writers, and writing is more art than science. It has rules, but they’re bendable. And all critics will bend them in their own peculiar ways.

A critic’s voice is not the voice of God. It is human, and fallible, and individual. It will sometimes please you, sometimes amuse you, sometimes infuriate you. Always, it should engage you. You should find critics who speak to you, one way or another, and stick with them as long as the conversation stays interesting. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t disagree or argue with them. Most critics argue with themselves quite a bit, and are plagued by second thoughts.

A critic ought to stimulate you, and get you to thinking in fresh ways, and open new windows for you to look into or out of. A good critic helps frame a conversation. She opens sometimes unexpected views to the subject at hand. She helps you see things in different ways. Good criticism is informed, but it’s also open and curious. It’s an exploration. It’s quite possible that the critic’s got to where she’s leading you just a couple of steps before you. I once ran across a description of the beast that I haven’t been able to track down since: “A critic is someone whose education takes place in public.”    


This essay was delivered on Sept. 17, 2019, as a speech for the Artalk! series at the University Club of Portland. Sections of it are adapted from “Three Hands of Art,” a December 2014 speech delivered to the art-book publisher Pomegranate Communications.


Working artists, as you can imagine, often have different definitions. Picasso framed the difference between critic and artist as the difference between theory and practice. “When art critics get together they talk about Form and Structure and Meaning,” he said. “When artists get together they talk about where you can buy cheap turpentine.”

The actor Eli Wallach was a little more pointed: “Having the critics praise you is like having the hangman say you’ve got a pretty neck.”

Or the poet Robert Burns, in rhyme: “Critics! Appalled I ventured on the name. Those cutthroat bandits in the paths of fame.”

Oscar Wilde, on the other hand, saw something of a collaboration, if not quite an equal one: “The critic has to educate the public,” he wrote; “the artist has to educate the critic.” I like this, and find it true. I’ve learned about art through the grace and good will of many artists who have introduced me to their work, shown me how they do it and talked about why, trusted me enough to take the chance that if they open up to me I’ll get it right, or mostly right, and pass along what I’ve learned. Sometimes, I imagine, they find it vexing that I skew the view toward my own.

I have informal guidelines to how a critic should or shouldn’t go about the task. I’ll get to those later. And as an aside, I’d like to say that I don’t really much care for the word “critic.” I’m not overly fond of the word “art,” either. Both are reductive and limiting, and prone to serious misinterpretation, but we use them because they’re quick and handy. I think of myself as a writer first, but the phrase “writer who is writing today about the theater” doesn’t fit very well in a byline. The pieces I write, as a cultural journalist, I like to think of as engagements in a continuing conversation. I once mentioned to Libby Appel, when she was artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, that I didn’t think of myself as a critic. She rolled her eyes. “Oh YOU’RE a critic, all right,” she said. We liked each other, but on that point she was firm: I was an inevitability.

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Honoré Daumier, Walk-through of an influential critic, from ‘Sketches from the Salon,’ published in ‘Le Charivari,’ June 24, 1865. Lithograph on newsprint, second state; image: 9 7/16 x 8 9/16 inches. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Rogers Fund, 1922.

CRITICISM, OF COURSE, CAN’T EXIST WITHOUT ART. A good critic should never forget this. However creative your process may be, what you practice as a critic is a secondary art form. And you can’t – or at least, I can’t – talk about art without also talking about its social context. So let me observe that our culture is schizophrenic on the subject.

On one hand, our opera and ballet companies and symphonic orchestras are spiraling toward perpetual poverty and even bankruptcy, victims of high inherent production costs and a shifting culture that just isn’t all that interested in such art forms anymore. The National Endowment for the Arts is a battered political Ping-Pong ball, surviving on what amounts to table scraps from the smorgasbords of Wall Street bonus babies. Theater companies scrape by on the backs of their performers, who are all too often the last and least to be paid, but, hey, the show must go on. And while few visual artists starve or live in actual garrets, a lot are spending more on supplies than they make in sales, relying instead on outside jobs or gainfully employed domestic partners.

On the other hand, it’s possible that no culture in history has been as saturated in art as ours is. Culturally and anthropologically, if not always aesthetically, art is everywhere. Movies and television and Facebook and YouTube streams and on-demand delivery systems and probably someday soon little cranial implants that will allow us to simply “think” the feeds we want to see and feel are 24-hour-a-day preoccupations. We use art to keep our hypercapitalistic economic engine humming: An astonishing percentage of the time, the commercials on TV are more entertaining than the programs they break up. Every time I hear some pop singer mangle The Star-Spangled Banner before a ballgame, I’m reminded of how completely the arts and sports megaliths have merged into one giant entertainmentplex. It’s the fusion of the Homeric tradition and the Roman gladiator ring.

You might be thinking, But that’s pop culture, that’s not art. And I agree – partly. But pop culture and art casually and easily cross each other’s borders, and both are built on story. They might fulfill a basic human urge in different ways, but they’re responding to the same desire. And they bleed into each other.

It’s good to remember that the ancient tales of Homer and the other Greeks were popular entertainment as well as a kind of philosophy and religion and science, an attempt to explain the universe and humans’ place within it. The gods were frightful and petty and powerful and they were also great entertainers: People hung on the stories about them the way we hang on reports of the misdeeds of celebrities. We’re suckers for the wayward cavortings of our media stars. How is a pop star shaking her booty or a Kardashian baring hers different from Zeus chasing down Leda for a little roll in the feathers, or Narcissus drowning in a pool of self-idolatry? The Greek heroes and deities were undeniably great and they were also raffish and lowbrow, like Shakespeare’s pantheon after them.

I believe that if we pay attention, art is everywhere. I believe it happens early and often, and that it doesn’t really happen, though of course it’s made; it simply is. We live it, we breathe it, all the time, and the more we live and breathe it, the more it defines us, the more it becomes a part of us. It is astonishing for its diversity, and for its ability to unite – or if not unite, at least connect. “Only connect!” E.M. Forster famously wrote in his novel Howards End, anticipating both our electronic microchip lifestyles and our need to see ourselves as individuals within a vast human context. “Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height.” That, I believe, to put a utilitarian twist on it, is one crucial purpose of art: to help us be whole, as individuals and as a species.

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BESIDES HAVING A SENSE OF HISTORY and the cultural shifts that give rise to art, a critic should also call on his or her own story. How did I reach this point in my understanding of culture and art? What are my touchstones? My spot on the map? From what angle do I see things? What have I learned? How am I ignorant? How do the particulars of my own story influence the view of the universe that I’m propounding in print? As a critic one strives for balance and objectivity, understanding that neither is possible – that how we interpret what we see depends on what we have experienced and who we’ve become. As with any writing, criticism is partly a self-reflection, a shifting ground, an act of learning, an integration of the past with the present, a reassessment of life. Where have we been? What shaped us? How does what shaped us also shape what we think and what we write?

Little occurrences of art inhabit my memories, and I imagine yours, too. As an early grade-schooler in the 1950s I remember going to a neighbor’s house and seeing a portrait of a person I didn’t recognize, hanging in a prominent spot on the wall. “Who’s that?” I asked the woman of the house, the mother of a friend of mine. “That,” she replied solemnly, “is the greatest man in the world.” I was thunderstruck. To think the world’s greatest man was right here, enshrined, in my neighbors’ living room! Later I learned it was a portrait of Dwight Eisenhower, and maybe not art as most people think of it, except that in that household, it served both an artistic and an almost religious function. A few years later, as a young adult, I visited another house, as the guest of a very young couple who had recently married. They proudly, sweetly showed me an embroidered cloth framed on the wall of their tiny living room. In it, the young woman had stitched the words “Home Sweet Home.” And I realized that in that house, THAT was art, a living relic that echoed the commitment they had made to making a life together. In their household, that embroidery was more valuable, and certainly more personal, than a Jeff Koons sculpture. It connected. It dawned on me that people make art – not just in the ordinary sense of artists crafting objects that we call art, but more elementally and democratically: Individual people, no matter what their stations in life, invest objects and ideas with artistic purpose.

I remember, from as far back as I can remember, books. The stories, of course, but also the heft and feel of them, the crinkle of pages, the gentle creasing of the spine, the texture on my fingers as I turned the page.

And the pictures. So often, the pictures. As a child, when the world was fresh and my perceptions were more vivid than they’ll ever be again, books truly were magical, and much of the magic was transmitted through the pictures, in which an illustrator gave recognizable form to the abstract and wondrous stories that authors transmitted to my mind. Alice followed the rabbit down the hole, and that was novel, but Tenniel gave the image life. I devoured fairy tales, like the wolf I suppose: Perrault, Andersen, the Grimms, the Russians; and great illustrators like Arthur Rackham and Kay Nielsen. I recall particularly a set of books that included the old tale of Snow-White and Rose-Red, and which was illustrated with silhouette drawings that created a beautiful, dreadful double world. Many years later, when I first encountered the work of Kara Walker, I responded to her racial and cultural satire but also felt a little shiver at the memory of those childhood images still lurking patiently and indelibly in some small corner of my mind.

There’s a children’s tale I haven’t read, but I’ve seen the movie version which is quite good, called “The Never-ending Story.” And the gist as I understand it is that story itself creates the fabric of reality, and that if we allow it to be nibbled away, by the earnest Gradgrinds or more brutal forces such as Stalin or Hitler, who banned certain types of art as “degenerate” and elevated sentimental and propagandistic images in their place, we put ourselves in danger of being swallowed by the void. Not just Stalin and Hitler, by the way. The war against independent expression and quality of thought is very current and raging all around us. And not just here, but around the globe. The Chinese government three or four years ago announced a plan to send wayward artists to the hinterlands to learn from the people and gain a “correct view on art.” This was shortly after that same government banned punning in television broadcasts and advertisements: So far, it seems, you’re still free to engage in wordplay in the privacy of your own homes. Apparently, the freedom to think playfully leads to disasters like Hong Kong and Ai Weiwei. Our own government, learning a lesson from the power that images held to sway opinion during the Vietnam war, does not allow photographers to shoot pictures of body bags coming home from the battlefields of Afghanistan and the Middle East. If that’s not official recognition of the power of art, I’m not sure what is. So, we tell and retell and reinvent stories, because through stories we exist.

Art is important because it provokes and challenges and upends attitudes. A good critic should never forget this. As I grew older and moved beyond the illustrations to folk and fairy tales, which had their own savagery, I discovered the prints of Kathë Kollwitz, which held a mirror to the brutality of her relatively recent time, and Goya’s grotesque and angry images of war, and the strangely fevered visual creations of Bosch and Blake, and the satires of Daumier and Hogarth, and through them gained a sense of the psychological reality of what we so often confine to the tidy little corner of academia that we call history: Such things really happened to actual people. Art preserves and transmits such knowledge. When I look at a painting of village life by Breugel I understand something about those people that I couldn’t understand in any other way.

In the end, none of us owns art. Not the critics. Not even the artists who create it. And yet we all own it, and it shifts as we shift, and meanings shift according to who we are at any specific moment in time. And that’s a marvelous thing. I’ve come to appreciate the idea of the mosaic, which is at least partly an Islamic concept, in opposition to the arrow, which I take to mean the Western myth of constant progress toward something new and different. The view of the mosaic is rather one of interlocking pieces, interconnections, a pattern that can’t be seen in its totality from any single spot but which does exist.

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Honoré Daumier, The Print Lover, ca. 1860, oil on panel, 13.4 x 10.2 inches, Philadelphia Museum of Art.

I TOLD YOU A WHILE BACK THAT I’D GET AROUND to telling you about my guidelines for writing a critical essay or a review. This is the time. And I want to introduce them by quoting briefly from Tom Stoppard’s play The Real Thing. In this scene the character Henry, a playwright, is explaining why a heartfelt but ham-fisted script by a young writer is unfixable.

Here’s Henry: “What we’re trying to do is write cricket bats, so that when we throw up an idea and give it a little knock, it might … travel … ([He] picks up the script.) Now, what we’ve got here is a lump of wood of roughly the same shape trying to be a cricket bat, and if you hit a ball with it, the ball would travel about ten feet and you will drop the bat and dance about shouting ‘Ouch!’ with your hands stuck into your armpits. (indicating the cricket bat) This isn’t better because someone says it’s better, or because there’s a conspiracy by the MCC to keep cudgels out of Lords. It’s better because it’s better.”

In other words: Quality and craft matter. It isn’t enough to have an idea. You have to know how to express it and what to do with it. What and how do you build from that beginning? Is it sound? Is it dynamic? Does it have propulsion? Will it send the ball sailing? Such questions are crucial to the formulation of a review.

Here then, a few of those guidelines, which I put together for some university critics-in-training at a workshop:

What do you know?

Know what you know and what you don’t. Research and reporting are important. If you can find out what you don’t know, do. Don’t pretend you know more than you do. Even opinion writing is based on a clear grasp of facts. Don’t be afraid to admit that you’re unsure about something. Don’t try to bluff your way out. Write from your strengths, not your weaknesses. In the meantime, try to work on your weaknesses.

What’s the context?

You’re watching a play, or a dance performance, or a musical concert. It exists within its own universe onstage. It also exists as a fragment of the larger world – of the history of its art form, or of its author or performers, or of the world outside the theater’s doors. How do you want to connect it to those larger things? Do you want to at all, or do you want to write strictly about what you saw and heard in real time? There’s no right or wrong answer. But you should consider the question.

Are you being fair?

You’re writing a review or a critical essay, and you have a strong point of view. That’s good. You want to persuade your readers. Are you being fair to the people and ideas you’re criticizing in the process? Are you taking cheap shots? If the case you’re building is a good one, you don’t have to stack the deck. And you don’t need to make someone else look bad to make yourself look good. Vanity and careerism are the worst reasons to do this thing.

Are you opening doors?

We talked about this earlier. In writing about any work of art, you can’t replicate the work: It’s already there. A good goal is to try to give it a frame that will help your readers view it in a way they might not have thought of otherwise. You can open a window or door on the artwork that will provide a perspective (the view changes depending on where you put the frame) and begin, or continue, a conversation about the art, which the reader will then carry on in her own head.

Are you willing to learn in public?

Again, we’ve touched on this. Any kind of writing is an act of learning, even a private journal. But there’s nothing private about reviewing a show. Once you’ve published it’s out there, with your name on it. It sticks to you. You’ll make mistakes, in fact and judgment. If you’re like me, some of the things you’ve written will make you blush at their wrong-headedness or fuzzy thinking or just plain ignorance. You’ll have to live with that. On the flip side: writing that is filled with the spirit of discovery is exciting, and engaging, and can be a joy to read. For you and for your readers, it can be its own reward. But you have to commit to it. Like the performers and composers and playwrights whose work you’re writing about, you have to take a chance.

Open eyes, open mind?

It’s a good thing to have a broad knowledge of the art world, and to take that knowledge with you into everything you see or write. There is also a danger that knowing too much, or thinking you know everything, will blind you to other possibilities. The best critics approach the task in a state of suspended judgment, willing to look freshly and stay open to new ideas and new ways of seeing. That doesn’t mean you’ll end up liking everything you see. But you should give everything an open shot. Be a skeptical optimist. Always go in hoping it’ll be good.

How far afield?

I bring this up again because I think it’s crucial. Every writer is different, and almost every writer takes a different approach at different times. But there are broad questions. Do you want to emphasize aesthetics, technique, historical context, performance quality, social issues, entertainment value? What’s important to you in the interaction among performers, writer, and audience? My own training in cultural anthropology and interest in history, environmental issues, and politics sometimes leads me far afield in making connections as I write. So do my background as a musician and my interest in dance, visual art, literature, and film, all of which I’ve also written about. A lot of people know me as a theater critic, but I’ve always thought of myself as a generalist – a writer who happens to write about theater and other arts. That’s just me. Every writer is independent. Find out who and what you are as a writer, and develop that.

How important are you; how important are they?

What balance will you strike among what’s important to you as a writer, what’s important to the production and the art form, and what’s important to your readers?

Made for today; made for next century?

Some art is very much of its time. It addresses current issues, current complaints, current realities. Its point of view can be very specifically political, its humor steeped in current events or tied to the pop culture of the day, with references that inevitably will fade. Other art is in it for the long run: Shakespeare, Charlie Parker, Charlie Chaplin, Rembrandt, Mozart, Jane Austen, Hiroshige; the ones you go back to again and again. Is the “great” art more important? Is the topical art less important? Can a play be excellent for its given time and cultural situation, even if it’s destined not to last? How do you sort this out? Is it important that you sort it out?

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Honoré Daumier, The Amateurs, 1865-68, black crayon with watercolor on paper, 12.75 x 12.2 inches, Walters Art Museum, Baltmore.

SO FAR WE HAVEN’T TOUCHED ON SOME OF THE EXISTENTIAL ISSUES that criticism as a minor art form faces. Let’s take a look at a couple. I’ll start by quoting the Philadelphia theater critic Wendy Rosenfield, from a 2014 essay in the Broad Street Review:

“Theater critics have responsibilities that may or may not align with those of artistic directors,” she writes. “You want butts in seats? Not my problem. Pull-quotes for your marketing material? Good luck with that. Theater that widens and deepens the scope of our regional scene? Now we’re talking.

“If I, Ms. Theater Critic, attend your theater and see a good but traditional production of The Odd Couple, or maybe Glengarry Glen Ross, or especially Lend Me a Tenor, I am obliged to explain how and why this production works. However, as a critic tasked with analyzing the work in its larger sociopolitical context (Why this play? Why here? Why now?) I am also obliged to wonder, in print, why you’re producing these old ringers, and how, in the case of the third example, you can in good conscience, in a city whose population is 58 percent African American, present a farce whose conceit relies on blackface and an Afro wig, unless you are deliberately thumbing your nose at the neighbors. (This last example refers to a production in Wilmington, Delaware, but I’m not picking on anyone; that was only one of three Tenors this season alone.”

Rosenfield raises a crucial question: How does the art you’re writing about fit into the world at large? In a world as angry and fractious and crisis-driven as the one we’re living in, it’s a question you can’t, and shouldn’t, dodge. You might make an excellent case for The Odd Couple or Glengarry. Circumstances demand that if you can, you should.

And that leads to another crucial question: Who gets to write criticism? Who, in the mainstream press world, nabs those rare and powerful gatekeeper positions, the ones that have sometimes make-or-break influence over what gets attention and what doesn’t, what’s considered important and what gets ignored?

A couple of months ago, in an opinion column in the New York Times titled The Dominance of the White Male Critic, Elizabeth Méndez Berry, a director at the Nathan Cummings Foundation, which supports social justice causes, and Chi-hui Yang, a program officer at the Ford Foundation, challenged that dominance, and argued passionately for a massive rotation in the critics’ chair.

Writing about mainstream critics’ responses to this year’s Whitney Biennial, which focuses strongly on the work of African American woman artists and others outside the established white elite, they declared that too often, when white reviewers write about the art and culture of communities of color, they fail because they simply don’t know the territory.

“The problem is not that these critics lack some essential connection with the work of artists of color,” they quote the art critic Aruna D’Souza. “It’s that many of them simply are not familiar with the intellectual, conceptual and artistic ideas that underlie the work.”

Later they argue that the answer is a shift in who’s doing the writing, to reflect the realities of who makes up the cultures and communities being written about.

“Think of cultural criticism as a public utility,” they write; “civic infrastructure that needs to be valued not based just on its monetary impact but also on its capacity to expand the collective conversation at a time when it is dangerously contracting. Arts writing fosters an engaged citizenry that participates in the making of its own story.

“Culture writers are often unpopular, and critics of color doubly so: Marginalized by mainstream outlets, they’re sometimes viewed with suspicion within their own communities when they challenge a beloved artist. At their best they are unbought and unbossed, which makes them difficult to employ, and doubly necessary.

“We need a rigorous, rollicking culture coverage that’s uncoupled from class and credentials. Mainstream and independent outlets must pay critics a living wage and reject business models that don’t. Outlets led by people of color should get the venture capital and philanthropic support they have always deserved but rarely received.

“We should move away from anointing a talented two or three critics of color and toward kaleidoscopic ecosystems of ideas and taste.”

Then they get down to the nitty gritty.

“Old-school white critics ought to step aside and make room for the emerging and the fully emerged writers of color who have been holding court in small publications and online for years, who are fluent in the Metropolitan Opera and the rapper Megan Thee Stallion,” they write.

“We need mainstream newspapers and their culture departments to hire people of color as assigning editors and critics. Equally necessary is to then support them with mentors, resources and management buy-in to create genuine shifts in power, not just different bylines.”

It’s a fair point. The critic’s seat HAS been a white and mostly male domain for a very long time. That isn’t an accurate reflection of the makeup of the culture, and it means inevitably that our frame of artistic reference skews strongly white and mostly male. If art is story and story reflects culture and criticism reflects art within a cultural context, and criticism is dominated by one narrow category of practitioner, something’s very wrong. And it’s not only a racial imbalance. It’s a gender imbalance, too, in both the making and the criticism of art. Women’s stories often don’t get told, and when they do they’re often discounted. Even the ways that women tell their tales are often condescended to. In the visual arts, a lot of women artists work in textiles, soft forms, that are often dismissed as “craft” while the boys make their marks with big bold slashes of statement. All the more potential disconnection when the difference is cultural and racial.

White critics CAN, of course, write perceptively about art by people of color. Friderike Heuer, a Portland writer and artist who was born and raised in Germany, recently reviewed the Whitney Biennial for Oregon ArtsWatch, and she largely agreed with the critics of the critics, praising the liberal use of “codes” in the work of black women artists in particular. “And this is where the power of the exhibition kicks in,” she wrote: “demonstrating the brutal division between those of us who are clueless about what many of the artworks imply, and those who get it in the blink of an eye, being familiar with the expressed contents via the reality of one’s daily existence. We might share the same space, in world and museum alike, but we surely do not share a language or the experiences eventually captured by that language when it relates to race, gender, disability, and access.”

Over the years I’ve written a lot about the art of nonwhite cultures, from the plays of August Wilson and Ping Chong and Octavio Solis and Suzan-Lori Parks and Nilo Cruz and Lynn Nottage and David Henry Hwang, to the work of African American and Asian American artists in Portland such as Arvie Smith and Roberta Wong, to a good deal about the art – visual art, mainly – of artists from America’s indigenous nations, which I consider both the historical starting ground for any discussion of art in the Pacific Northwest and one of the most vital, challenging, and interesting channels in the region’s river of contemporary art. I listened and paid attention and tried to understand the roots of the art I was seeing, and why and how a particular work was reflective of its culture, and tried to open a window for my readers on how they might view it, too. Inevitably I’m an outsider looking in, trying to understand, and I believe there’s value in that.

But it’s not the same as having a perceptive writer from inside a culture write about the art of that culture. I should add, age is a significant factor, too. Old critics may not fade away, but they do lose touch with certain things. A lot of what’s hot and in the conversation among young people now, I simply have no interest in. On the other hand, older critics have accumulated knowledge and experience that their younger colleagues often haven’t. I’ve long held that it’s a huge mistake to condescend to the people of past generations and cultures, to think their lives and beliefs were simple or childlike. Their lives were every bit as complex as ours. They just had different experiences, and thought in different ways. That’s true of young people, too: different experiences, different ways of dealing with them. They need their own voices in response. Across the board we need more, and more varied, voices – and more places where those voices can be heard. As traditional media outlets shrivel and crash, and actual living-wage jobs as cultural writers disappear, that’s a tough row to hoe.

One thing my colleagues and I have tried to do at ArtsWatch is to open our space to more such stories and voices, unfiltered except for normal editing. And sometimes that’s meant being open to different kinds of storytelling.

We run old-fashioned criticism, of course. We also run visual stories, like Joe Cantrell’s two recent photo essays on Beaverton Night Market, celebratory gatherings set up specifically to give a taste of the urban and village markets that so many people who have immigrated to Washington County from so many other cultures have missed and longed for. Is this criticism? Only in the broadest sense of revealing something of the essence of how a culture expresses itself aesthetically. That seems important, and well worth the doing.

We open our space to artists  — sometimes to talk about their own art, sometimes to provide “insider” looks at how art is made. The brilliant Portland actor and director Bobby Bermea, for instance, is a regular contributor who interviews theater people, often artists of color, about the projects they’re working on. Is this criticism? Not in the old-fashioned sense. But it opens windows on the process and nature of art, and isn’t that what criticism’s about?

A year ago I wrote about a startlingly good exhibit at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art in Salem titled Witness: Themes of Social Justice in Contemporary Printmaking and Photography. Its sterling lineup of artists from Portland to Morocco and beyond, all of them artists of color, included a number I’d written about before and a number I hadn’t. The show included Native American artists Marie Watt, Lillian Pitt, Wendy Red Star, Joe Feddersen; African American artists Warrington Colescott, Kara Walker, Loretta Bennett, Mark Bradford, Mildred Howard, Alison Saar, Willie Cole; Pakistani American artist Sabina Haque; Mexican American artist Enrique Chagoya; Moroccan artist Lalla Esaydi; Asian American artists Hung Liu, Dinh Q. Lê, Roger Shimomura. Those are the ones I featured; the exhibition included several more.

Curator Elizabeth Anne Bilyeu had done a superb job of drawing the work of these brilliant artists together into a cohesive show – all of the prints came from the collections of Jordan Schnitzer and his Family Foundation – and she had also, quite brilliantly, used the wall plaques beside each work to quote the artists themselves on their own work. Each of them had insights, I felt, that I could never match. What the artists had to say for themselves was more interesting and revealing than anything I could write about them. And so, with Bilyeu’s assent, I wrote a brief introduction and then ran photographs of each artist’s work, along with excerpts from their own statements. Was this criticism? I don’t know, and I don’t really care. It was a different, and I felt better, way of talking about the art. It opened very different windows for my readers. It gave direct voice to highly talented people not usually heard except as sifted through the standard critical machinery. As traditional media grow more feeble and the world of arts writing grows more tenuous, I believe the people who practice this strange form need to find new ways to present their work to a public that’s largely moved on to other things.

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Honoré Daumier, A Literary Discussion, lithograph published in Le Charivari newspaper, February 27, 1864, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

AND THAT LEADS TO MY FINAL EXISTENTIAL QUESTION: Will cultural journalism as we’ve known it become a rarefied creature, surviving only among renegade bloggers, academic journals, and a few large national outlets like the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times (for the movie industry) and The New Yorker magazine? A few fine national magazines and web sites are devoted to specific disciplines, but their readership is made up mostly of artists in those fields and diehard followers of opera or theater or dance or contemporary art. Just as the world of art is exploding into a thousand fascinating new directions, will the coverage of it shrivel to a few old-guard outlets that manage to survive in the digital world and a few more slick-page, inside-the-business publications of promotional material and self-congratulation?

When I worked at The Oregonian our cultural staff included full-time writers covering classical music, popular music, visual arts, architecture, television, theater, movies, books, along with generous freelance budgets to cover dance and things the staff critics couldn’t get to but were deemed important. We had four editors including the chief literary critic-slash-books editor, an excellent copy desk, fine designers, and acres of space. Today the shrunk-down Oregonian has one full-time cultural staffer, Amy Wang, who both writes and manages a stable of freelance contributors. Amy is excellent at her job and handles the severe limitations she’s been given astonishingly well. But she’s all alone. And The Oregonian is typical of what’s happened to cultural coverage in newspapers coast to coast.

Oregon ArtsWatch exists, in part, to help fill that gap. We are an experiment, like a few others across the country, and something of a curiosity: Journalists and sometimes even artistic producers from other cities get in touch with us to ask how we make it work. We are a nonprofit organization, still a rarity, though becoming less so, for journalism. We exist only online. We have seven editors, an executive director, and a rotating pool of about fifty contributors. Some of them write frequently. Some are very occasional. They include journalists with extensive newspaper background, academics, young freelance writers gaining valuable experience, working artists and musicians, poets, photographers, some people we’ve recruited because we thought they might be good at this thing. Our founder, publisher, and executive editor, Barry Johnson, likes to think of our Web site as a free space for writers interested in the culture to explore what they find topical and important. Nobody makes a living. A very small number of us work pretty much full time, but for most of our contributors, ArtsWatch is a part-time passion – for freelancers in particular, a reliable part of an economic patchwork that keeps them going as they navigate the gig economy. It would be easier if we could pay a small number of writers full-time, which would allow us to develop new leadership. We rely on memberships, sponsorships, donations, and a mix of foundation, individual, and government grants. Our budget is tight, and we don’t spend what we don’t have. With those resources we publish a lot – last calendar year, about 650 stories. We cover the Portland metropolitan area and much of the state, from Salem to Eugene to Ashland with occasional forays east, and with regular columnists in Yamhill County and on the Oregon Coast. In our eight years we’ve helped launch a few careers and graduated a few writers to other opportunities in other towns, from Boston to London to Los Angeles to New York. A lot of what we do falls into the category of traditional criticism. A lot doesn’t – and I think that’s good. The old ways of doing things are dying out. If cultural journalism is to survive and thrive, it needs fresh approaches and fresh ideas. ArtsWatch is just one of many attempts to reinvent the thing. What comes next? I don’t know. It’s going to be up to the next generations, the new faces, the no-longer-outsiders, the fresh blood. They’re smart and talented. If there are answers, they’ll figure them out.

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