Wednesday, April 08, 2009

metaDRAMA: Doin' What We Do (Part Two)

Earlier this week I spoke briefly about Andrew Haydon's post on The Guardian website, but neglected to reference the one he was referring to, Matt Trueman's. (And why does the New York Times's not have anything similarly provoking? Their ArtsBeat is nothing more than a poor, POV-less agglomerate. I'd rather read Vulture for that stuff.) In any case, here are my thoughts on Trueman's article (and for more, you can see Leonard Jacob's response here).

It begins with the question: "Where are all the young critics?" reminding us that while Kenneth Tynan and Michael Billington were 25- and 26-year-old first-string critics in 1952 and 1965, respectively, that sort of elevation would never happen today, because "in contemporary criticism, authority is everything, and it is nothing without both expertise and experience." This is true to an extent, but it's naive to expect that everyone will have the "10,000 hours supposedly required to achieve expertise," a figure that translates, very roughly, to either 5,000 shows (which, at my exaggerated rate of 200 shows a year, would still take me 25 years), or to 2,500 shows (and 12.5 years), if we add in the time spent actually writing the review. (You can shave off 1.5 more years if you include the time spent reading reviews, but that's a poor man's apprenticeship.)

I like numbers, so let me dwell on this point for a bit, especially since, as a blogger unattached to the mainstream media, you will not be getting paid. That's a generous 12.5 years if you can do all of this reviewing while you work a full-time job (or worse, struggle to make ends meet by freelancing). I can write something like this during a lunch break, and I can work on a review after hours, but people desperately seeking the next paycheck are probably not going to have that same luxury. And let me tell you, doing this will make you burn out and, sadly, shortchange certain things. I wouldn't publish my reviews if I didn't think they were up to a minimum level of quality (and apologies to anyone out there whose show I saw and did not write a review of, all three of you). But how frustrating it is, both to me and any readers, to run into a wall of "minimum level," at any point. No wonder some people turn off, and why the field is shrinking. (This phenomenon, I suspect, is even more frustrating to small companies with budget problems, as their first-time audiences probably won't be coming back.)

Just this March, I wrote 19 reviews--roughly 10,000 words--and I'm sure I made some mistakes along the way. I understand now why there are editors and first-string critics who attend shows and do not write about them, though it's a luxury I--without a major publication behind me--do not have, nor particularly want, considering that I'm seeing these shows to write about them and because I want to. It's really just the time that's a factor. If you take last year, when I reviewed 250 shows--125,000 words--it's more or less the equivalent of writing two works of non-fiction . . . in my part time.

So Trueman is right to ask where tomorrow's critics are going to come from. The ones coming out of graduate school are likely to be in debt, which means they'll have to pander to whatever style the newspaper wants--i.e., less critical, more general. (These people are also likelier to be less creative--no offense--as they'll have "book" smarts as opposed to "street" smarts, that irreplaceable understanding, appreciation, and (yes) love of new trends. We have to be careful of the sort of critic we create (something Haydon was getting at), and more so, of the sort of respect we bestow upon "the greats." Does every review of a modern playwright need to refer back to a classical source? It was Taylor Mac ("Who?" asks the graduate student) who begged his audience of potential critics to simply describe, without comparison, what he was doing. (This is not to say that context isn't important, but more that there are layers.)

Part of the answer to this problem is one that some theaters have already addressed by inviting bloggers--often "young critics with new platforms"--to write about their work. Any theater with a blog or a website should, on some level, be looking to do this. MTC, MCC, NYTW, and Playwrights have all experimented with this, and hopefully they'll continue to do this, especially when premiering work that they write about on their own blogs as being "groundbreaking." It trickles down, too: individual directors, playwrights, and even actors have sent out blogger invites. Granted, they're often looking for honest coverage of an unpublicized show in a loft somewhere, but there's no reason why that can't help to grow critics, too.

What's really needed, then, are agglomerates that help theaters figure out which bloggers to contact. If standards and accredatation are needed, all we can really do is create them ourselves, as with Show Showdown (the validation of which I'm sure was helped by being mentioned in the New York Times). Instead of requiring 10,000 hours, perhaps it would require a blog to review 30 shows before adding their feed to the aggregate. And on an even lower tier, group blogs might require even fewer prior standards--say, one sample review--that would allow individuals a platform with which to be seen in the first place. In this way, the wisdom of the masses would help to identify the voices that would represent them--sort of like the way our government is supposed to work--and in this way the mom-and-pop blogger could stand on level ground with the corporate critic (I am exaggerating these terms for emphasis).

Let's get back to the reality of Trueman, who worries that "a total lack of payment reduces young critics to amateur enthusiasts," and it's true. While the above may help to identify qualified people from all backgrounds, it doesn't actually help to support them, and believe me, I'm frustrated that I have so little time to "broaden [my] perspectives by engaging with other art forms and the world beyond." (That's why I'm thrilled by festivals--not just the Fringe, but also the stuff at 59E59 and Under the Radar--as they help me keep my eyes open.) Again, the masses could help: rather than advertise, perhaps we could prevail upon communities to contribute--a dime from every reader, a dollar from every theater? Of course, NY theater coverage is a niche--it can't be transported (like TV, music, movies), so you're unlikely to get the sort of numbers you'd need for that to support a full-time interest.

What that leaves, as Trueman susses out, is subsidization by the same organizations that send grants to emerging artists, on the grounds that critics "are considered paramount to the overall health of the arts." Well, that's the big question at the end of a long ramble, then. Are we?

1 comment:

E. Hunter Spreen said...

One of the things I find compelling about Haydon's article is where he talks about "the proper review" and the question of what a review might look like if we chose to explore different modes of writing about the arts. Taking the conversation that far back - questioning the current model of construction and exploring ways of responding to what we see, being willing to fail - well, blogs provide a great place for that. And it strikes me as odd that given that there are no space constraints or editors to impose standards, that I don't see more experimentation.

It's the direction I'm headed in as a blogger.

If you look at blogs as an entirely new sort of medium instead of as an extension of journalism, then all sorts of opportunities open up. I'm not saying any of them will lead to making a living doing this, but it might broaden the scope of what we call criticism. If we could stop thinking within the framework of journalism and relying on journalism to provide legitimacy (authority) for the art of criticism, maybe criticism could someday stand on its own as an art form.

Look at rock criticism for example. When the likes of Lester Bangs and crew appeared neither rock music nor criticism of it had any legitimacy at all. That gave them a lot of room to write - sure some of it was terrible, but then there was Lester Bangs, Greil Marcus, etc who really pushed the boundaries of what a review might look like and how you might discuss a work of art.

Thoughts are kind of flying right now because this is the right conversation to be having now and I'm excited to see it happening.