Taking a hard look at the current state of arts criticism

by Emily Whelahan

“Newspapers are dying.”

“Print is a thing of the past.”

“Journalism will never be the same again.”

As a media communication and journalism student, I’ve heard these claims several times from my family members, peers, and even my professors. There is no doubt that the news industry is undergoing a period of immense change, but have we stopped to ask: what does this really mean? Have we thought about the cultural implications of these changes on our society?

I sure had not. That was until I started interning at FAB this winter.

One of my intern duties was to provide event support for one of FAB’s workshops in the Sustainable Artist Toolkit series, Writer’s Circle, led by the accomplished and magnanimous, Eva Yaa Asantewaa. While I was sitting in on the workshop listening to the participants discuss the current state of critical performance writing, I was suddenly very aware of what these implications meant for the arts; specifically for dance.

According to Eva, “Mainstream publications with their large readership just have not kept up with art.”

Everyone else in Writer’s Circle that evening seemed to agree, as they lamented on the current situation and discussed what brought them to the workshop.

Writer’s Circle was created to support artists of color across the spectrum of movement-based arts in the practice of clear, effective writing in response to performance. The group attends free performances and group-writing sessions led by Eva to help develop their critical performance writing skills. Eva, herself, has a great deal of experience writing about dance; with her contributions appearing in Dance Magazine, The Village Voice, SoHo Weekly News, Gay City News, The Dance Enthusiast, Time Out New York, her own blog, InfiniteBody, and more.

In a time where news coverage is becoming less and less focused on arts criticism, Eva’s workshop was created to give artists a space to take agency. It’s also a space to help artists and writers feel capable in their abilities to write arts criticism; something that Eva shared many report feeling intimidated by.

Orlando Hunter, one of the workshop’s participants shared, “I really want to bring clarity for our artists, specifically for artists of color and their work, and giving them a voice, and writing them into history – us into history.”

After sitting in on this first workshop, I was compelled to investigate the current state of arts criticism in news publications further. I wondered, why is criticism of the arts in general newspapers fading into apparent obsolescence?

I had my assumptions, but I decided to reach out to those directly involved with arts criticism before I came to any conclusions.

In addition to Eva and Orlando, I spoke with Martin Wilbur, editor-in-chief of The Examiner based in Westchester, NY. Also, I reached out to Jed Gottlieb after Eva passed along his article, “Curtains fall on arts critics at newspapers,” published in the Columbia Journalism Review.

Through my research and conversations I found that there are a multitude of reasons behind this decline. The three main (and perhaps not all that surprising) reasons are economics, technology, and high expectations.

Jed’s article discusses the decreasing demand for print journalism. “In 2015, weekday and Sunday circulation at dailies fell 7 and 4 percent respectively, according to the Pew Research Center. These are the biggest declines since 2010 and are truly dire when paired with an 8 percent drop in ad revenue, also according to Pew. Papers aren’t trimming fat, they’re amputating limbs.”

And those “limbs” are too frequently arts critics.

“Good journalism is expensive,” said Martin. With layoffs looming, news companies are forced to make tough choices in terms of what goes first. Although each news company makes their own decision, many newspapers choose arts writers and their sections as the first to get the boot.

“Like a lot of businesses newspapers are asked to do more with less all of the time,” Martin added.

Further, with new technological advances there is no longer one way to get news. Society’s reading habits have certainly changed as a result of most embracing the digital age. Despite issues with accuracy and the widespread presence of “fake news,” Twitter and Facebook have become major news sources for so many. Beyond social media, the Internet is filled with a vast number of constantly increasing information sources. This fuels the declining reliance on newspapers, and increases the reliance on social media and other online sources within the general public.

As a result of technological and societal trends, niche arts blogs and websites have become increasingly popular. At first glance, these sites seem to solve the problem of declining arts criticism in newspapers by placing it in another easily accessible location; however, that may not be the whole truth.

While the traffic these sites are able to generate is generally seen as a positive, as they create a place for critical arts writing to flourish once again, there remain some areas for improvement. Issues arise with content accuracy, ascertaining audience’s identities, and the websites’ overall effectiveness. Not to mention, these sites are only moving arts criticism further away from print news publications.

“They don’t convert people into art lovers. Only a mainstream publication like a daily paper can do that,” Jed said as he highlighted the certain strength a newspaper has to bring news from very different areas together.

Eva also discussed the difficulty in assessing who was really reading these blogs, questioned their quality without real editors monitoring content, and said it was too early to understand their full effects.

“The only positive thing, and I think it is still to be developed, is a diversity of voices [available on blogs],” she said.

At this time, it appears niche art blogs and websites are attracting art-lovers a plenty, but whether they are attracting members of the general public and successfully filling the void left by newspapers is still to be determined.

Technology is diversifying how we get our news, but the unfortunate outcome is that it has helped expedite the decline of the print journalism industry by changing readers’ tastes and preferences. In this way, technology and economics go hand-in-hand, as technological advances increase economic struggles for newspapers.

Along with issues stemming from economics and technology, expectations are high for journalists and writers to create quality critical arts writing. For many, the intimidation, or their own feelings of inexperience, hold them back.

“I don’t really feel qualified having people write, or having myself write ‘this actors performance was lackluster,’ or ‘this is a must see,’” said Martin. “I think it takes a certain expertise in order to make those calls.”

However, editors and writers aren’t the only ones feeling the effects of these expectations, artists are, too.  Although some may argue that an artist can write best about their own craft, that may be a common misconception.

“I think we a lot of times as dance artists, choreographers, performing artists, we don’t think that we can write,” said Orlando. “But, your opinion matters, we all have opinions about work.”

As aforementioned, Eva also reported many feel they cannot meet the expectations demanded of them for what they consider to be quality critical arts writing when sharing part of her reasoning for starting Writer’s Circle.

This issue becomes even more problematic when papers let go of experienced arts writers in light of economical and technological trends. If papers let go of these writers, and many artists believe they can’t do this on their own  – who will step up and write arts criticism?

“One person or even a handful of people cannot cover that entire field, or even one niche of that field,” said Eva, discussing dance and arts in NYC, and the lack of writers there to cover it.

At some point along in my conversations, I began to wonder why do the arts suffer so much when sports sections of papers seem to be getting by just fine? It seemed to me that while all parts of newspapers are suffering to some degree, sports sections, which can also be considered niche, are not suffering in the same way.

“You have thousands of thousands of people who watch sports and are knowledgeable about sports, but with the arts I don’t think it’s so much. I think there’s a hesitancy to make critical judgments on art or movies [etc.],” Martin said.

Jed also furthered this point, “Art just doesn’t have the place it once did. But it is also because art can be controversial and complicated to cover. Nothing is as simple and routine to cover as sports.”

When looking at all of the evidence I’d gathered at once, I felt overwhelmed by the factors stacked against critical arts writing in our newspapers. Economical issues, technological advances, high expectations, and themes and contexts perceived as hard to digest seem to be pushing arts criticism farther and farther away from mainstream news. I began to wonder what would happen if arts criticism were to completely vanish from our news publications…

Before I got too ahead of myself, Jed did offer some suggestions for both artists and readers to take action:

“Readers who love arts need to let the papers know. Papers listen to readers but many don’t speak up or speak out. Write and call editors. Tweet at them and tag them on Facebook. For artists, it’s more difficult but they need to make sure that they subscribe to a daily paper. They need to be part of paper’s community. Many paper’s want to get local, and bands, theatre groups, comics, painters, and poets often have deep local roots in communities,” he said.

The responsibility to not let arts writing completely disappear from our newspapers does fall on us.  It begins with raising awareness, education, and working together in creative ways to fix the current situation. For arts writers especially, it means a lot of hard work must be put into their craft.

“I don’t see our coverage of what artists are doing and what is available slackening off at all, but the larger industry I don’t see the same commitment,” said Martin, whose paper does more hyper-local coverage, and thus, still has the ability to include more arts writing.

As a community, empowering ourselves to take agency locally can be incredibly effective, and a good place to start.

Jed additionally shared his concern that this decline is not reversible, but he did offer, “Art will survive no matter what, but I worry it will become niche itself. A healthy culture depends on a healthy art movement to bring us joy and help us contextualize pain and struggle.”

Though the case for print appears bleak at the moment, Eva and Orlando both shared some hope.

“My hope for the field would be that more writers, not only the young ones coming that are still unformed as writers, but the ones that are around, the veterans that are around, that we all become receptive to listening to artists better,” said Eva.

Eva additionally suggested that arts criticism doesn’t have to be in writing necessarily. For example, we can get creative with podcasts; which use newer technology to benefit the situation, rather than perpetuate the problem. Although as mentioned earlier, only time will tell whether all forms of new technology, namely blogs, are truly helping or harming.

She also urged that arts writing, specifically dance writing, needs to become more accessible. Instead of shutting people out by using terms they don’t understand, the goal is to become more inclusive and invite them in through use of a more general vocabulary, or by providing explanation behind hard to decipher terms.

“I will hope that writers have more integrity and do more research for the work that they see,” said Orlando. He additionally highlighted the importance of artists and writers keeping an open perspective when approaching others work that they may not understand or that they may disagree with.

Actions like Eva’s Writer’s Circle workshop are the first step in the direction of a better future for arts criticism. Although a small stone in a large pond, I hope its ripple effect can be felt farther with time.

“I fell in love with dance early on, and I fell in love with the idea to express to people what was important about the art,” said Eva. “If it was important to me, I wanted to tell people about it because it might mean something to them, too.”   

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