Thursday, July 26, 2007


The proper attitude of a superior person on the rez is “You do something and I’ll tell you what’s wrong with it.” Presumably, if you are doing something really good, you’ll already know it; or maybe it’s its own reward; or maybe I shouldn’t tell you good stuff about your ideas because you’ll get the big head and you might leave. I thought this was a reservation attitude until I began running into it all the time in the white small towns around here. And then my doctor took that attitude... disaster.

A school aide was telling me about the best English teacher they ever had at that school, a model I should emulate. The woman’s chief virtue was that if anyone at any time made a grammatical error or mispronounced a word, she was able to set them straight. No one LIKED her, but they all respected her enormous knowledge and English was assumed to be the sort of thing that no one ever got quite right. This is what many people consider to be good criticism of any kind, a kind of scourging of error, and the snarkier the better because that’s more fun to read.

Often breaking down a larger category into a little typology turns out to be revealing, so I tried that with arts reviewers, but not quite from the point of view of attitude, i.e. those who like everything that's put before them versus those who are never pleased. See what you think of this list.

1. Those working for an institution, such as a newspaper or a TV station. This topic started out talking back to journalists who were asked to review art. They are either salaried or working on a per-piece basis, but in the end they are at the mercy of an editor who is exposed to the pleasure of his advertisers and readers. They are also vulnerable to tradition: what has “always” been considered admirable or “done” in the past. One would expect that to have a suppressive effect on reviewers, though some editors are really quite supportive so long as they aren’t subjected to libel suits or accusations that they don’t support family values. Of course, it varies what one can say in a tabloid versus what one can say in “Vanity Fair” versus what one can say in a small town weekly newspaper. The point of view of the artists themselves is not necessarily noted.

One of the problems of a small-market journalist is to understand local “values” and customs. Since many journalists in “flyover country” come from someplace else, are not paid much (so can’t drive far or network through hosting), and might be too young to have kids in the local schools (thus having a family critic on board), this can present some problems. I’ve known them to form little claques who interact only with themselves and begin to feel more superior than connected, “us” against “them.” An editor might then have to suggest this is better suited for free-lancing.

2. Public relations/promoters. I myself have a tendency to be a promoter, esp. when reviewing community-based arts like school products. If it’s really awful, I just don’t say anything about it. Who wants to crush some kid just starting out and doing their best? This has a dark side among journalists, the suspicion that every bit of information they get from the public is tainted by over-promotion, the shadow of promotional reviewing. On the other hand, there are forces in the commercial world that can crush any journalism that damages their sales, not necessarily just through pulling advertising but also through community pressure and reputation. (I’ve mentioned the Industrial Cowboy Art Cartel who would like to think of me as an hysterical and thwarted ex-wife.)

The original reputation of reporters in other fields was that they were tough, I’ve-heard-everything, Studs Terkel people of the masses. Now I notice that esp. arts critics tend to be nice grad school folks who dress well, read the right books, take the right attitude towards cable TV, and somehow expect to be treated like gentry. If people get angry with them, they’re shocked and appalled. In short, they interpret art criticism as an easy field where they can continue their grad school lifestyle in coffeeshops, discussing abstracts. Call the editor.

2. Peer review -- like writers reviewing other writers. (Maybe you’ve had this visited upon you in your job. Ugh.) The New York Times is often accused of making trouble by assigning reviews to known competitors, dissenters or enemies of the author of the book in question. Knowing the inside background makes that sort of maliciously intriguing, but the newspaper always professes innocence, surprise, and hurt at the accusation. (Lie down with artists, rise up with bastards. I wonder if the converse is true.)

4. Mandarins: academic reviewers. Perhaps this developed in imitation of scientific reviews where the idea is to challenge the integrity of the scientific method and the validity of the evidence. Of course, a lot of science, esp. medical science, these days is paid for by pharmacy companies and the like, which skews the results. But I’m talking about arts reviewers. These art mandarins often speak from under the umbrella of the university, invoke “theory” and are used to the coerced agreement of their students. They invent terms and principles that no one else can understand, a secret language.

Story Corps” a project that gathers up people’s personal stories by erecting recording booths where individuals or couples can go in and talk privately, was heavily criticized by anthropologists who said that the organizers “weren’t doing it right.” The protocol, the “structure of analysis” etc, was all wrong and didn’t conform to the scientific standards of the discipline. Oral historians, a totally different and rather more arts-focused discipline, didn’t have qualms about that, but wondered about whether it would cut in on their careers, suggesting that anyone can tell a story. In the meantime the stories that the people told, now archived and accessible through public radio, are so powerful that people sit listening with tears streaming down their faces, tell them to their friends, and never forget them.

5. Unreliable reviewers, perhaps disguised or anonymous, are always problematic, because we judge the validity of the criticism according to the source. On blogs, where the writer is unknown or psuedononymist, the effect is either God speaking from the clouds or a mouse squeaking in the corner -- we don’t know which. No one is omniscient enough to tell us who is authentic, and maybe the argument has enough integrity or resonance that it doesn’t matter. The solution that has evolved is the capacity to respond in kind through comments, which generally set the blogger straight in a hurry, though all parties have the ability to knock out offensive comments. (Joe Nickell has asked me not to comment further on the supposed “banning” of Tim Barrus from “Flyover Country,” esp since I didn’t ask his permission to discuss it in the first place, so I won’t.) Anyway, painters, sculptors, contemporary musicians, and particularly actors are prone to playing with their identities as a sort of adjunct art-form.

6. Visionaries. Some people have an idea of where an art form should “go,” what it could be if properly shaped, and therefore make an effort to bring about that effect. For instance, a critic who strongly believed in the value of repertory theatre might reward with compliments all movements in that direction, while blasting Broadway road companies. Art critics of this type have a particular obligation to state their case clearly and openly, rather than engaging in subterfuge -- not for moral reasons, but because people can’t really sign on to help if they don’t get what the agenda is supposed to be. Visionaries become a kind of artist themselves, as well as being culture critics.

7. Underground, counter-establishment, and alternative newspapers give their arts critics much more elbow-room so long as they stay within the context of the publication. They can review X-rated material, use “bad” language, blast sacred cows, and explore ideas that the larger community would reject out of hand. But in small communities there might not be enough critical mass to support such a paper. The exception is university towns but also publications that rest on dedicated individuals or groups. For instance, the “Canyon Country Zephyr” in Moab, Utah, has persisted a long time in the face of the commodification of natural wonders, mostly through the courage of Jim Stiles. It’s not obscene itself (which is kind of a cheap way to attract an audience anyway), but devotedly uncovers the obscenity of "development" for the sake of profit. Again, though arts criticism is often included, the real criticism is of the culture itself.

Maybe you can think of other types.

1 comment:

Bitterroot said...

Mary, you never cease to amaze me. I love your categories and your assessment here.