Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Nat Hentoff has died ... and a semi-related link on arts critics positions withering away in newspapers

Well, as arts news goes 2017 started off with ... basically the death of Nat Hentoff.  Perhaps not a name that would jump out or ring bells for readers, but it's a passing that deserves to be noted.  If people were unhappy at so many artists and such dying in 2016 losing Hentoff at the start of 2017 hardly seems like an indication that this year will be "better".


So thematically it would seem that we're witnessing the death of the era of arts critics in mainstream and local newspapers.  Thus ...


Blogs and niche arts websites thrive (if not economically, certainly in terms of traffic). But they can do great work, gather thousands of readers and still not plug the hole newspapers have left by pulling arts pages. Niche sites cater to niche audiences. They ghettoize content and normalize the notion that a story about a tremendous new rock act doesn’t belong between a report about a corrupt city council member and a recap of a Cleveland Cavaliers game.


“Newspapers are where most investigative journalism originates from, so it’s scary,” music publicist Jim Flammia of All Eyes Media says. “But it’s also scary for me professionally because I need places for our artists to get covered. My artists make their money on the road, so regional coverage is more important than national coverage, and that regional coverage comes from newspapers.”

There's a strange and not necessarily delicious irony reading this kind of stuff.  The irony is that when I started blogging back in 2006 what I was aiming to do was write about chamber music; classical guitar involving musical traditions that were not the usual suspects of Spain and Spanish-speaking traditions (I'm fond of stuff more from central/eastern Europe, Japan, and elsewhere, though I'm a stereotypical guitarist in that I do admire Sor and Villa-Lobos); animation and other things.

It was only when local and regional media, to say nothing of national press institutions, seemed to be systematically failing to cover what I thought needed covering about the history of Mars Hill that this blog took what was arguably the largest half-decade detour a would-be arts blog could take.  The blog came to be so utterly defined by investigative journalistic blogging about Mars Hill that when I saw a friend from the Mars Hill days a few months ago he asked if the blog was retired.

Nope, it's finally getting back to arts stuff.

But the ghettoizing effect of blogs is not merely a function of writing, it can be a function of the reading tendencies readers bring to their web experience.  Traffic to the blog is a tenth what it once was, which is fine.  The number of people who read the extensive series of posts late in 2016 I did on recapitulatory tendencies in early 19th century guitar sonatas is a mere fraction of the people who read about that memo proposing Driscoll get a raise.  There are times when investigative journalism is more important than arts coverage.  Ideally we can have investigative journalism and arts coverage.

But back when I was a student journalist I realized that a lot of what constitutes even the best arts coverage is still, in the end, advertising copy in a lot of ways.  Take any article in The New Yorker about this or that book or author that allegedly "predicted" Trump and what have you got?  A book of the month style advertisement for a book that the staff of The New Yorker imagine you either haven't bought/read yet or that you should read again.  Now there's a great deal of value in arts criticism precisely when you don't intend to watch or read any of the stuff being discussed.  That's not to say you want to be like Tom from Metropolitan, reading criticism rather than the books themselves as though you've read both.  :)

So in a way this blog is a reflection of my intermittent feelings and thoughts that we could have more academic discussions of guitar literature.  Those discussions are out there, to be sure, but they're not always easy to find. 

And what we're really lamenting when we lament a decline in critics is institutional endorsement.  The problem with a blog is that no matter how prestigious the author or content of a blog, it's not usually an example of the institutional press. 

It's hard to forget that in the last six or seven years what ultimately shook the foundations of Driscoll's empire here in Puget Sound was not exactly mainstream press coverage, at least not by itself.  Negative press coverage played a role but by no stretch of the imagination did Warren Cole Smith count as a liberal/secular journalist.  Neither could that be said of Janet Mefferd.  Driscoll's empire crumbled because of intra-evangelical, intra-Reformed critique.  Had things been left up to the left (religious or otherwise) Driscoll's brand might be even more powerful now than it was in 2012.  It may well be that a variety of the alliances of convenience through which different people who had criticisms of Mark Driscoll have withered away.  That's probably as it should be. 

An arts writer can make the difference between me reading a newspaper and not.  I basically stopped reading The Stranger for the most part after Chris DeLaurenti stopped writing for them ... unless something unusually pertinent showed up in the paper's pages. 

But my feelings about arts criticism and arts critics are profoundly mixed.  I wrote a haiku a while back ...

every arts critic
must consecrate consumption
to live with their craft

isn't exactly an upbeat message.  Given the failures of the Fourth Estate to anticipate the recent Electoral College decision (never mind the small lake of post-mortems) the press may need to ask itself whether or not we're going to miss the freedom of the press in a post-Hentoff media or not. 

To put it another way, from where I've been blogging in the last ten-ish years, arts critics can have a comparable well of self-aggrandizing self-pity that north American Christian intellectuals can sometimes have.  We've got folks who are sad about their declining influence in society while we don't always seem to have the most airtight case as to how much influence we had to begin with. 

Some of my most persistent critical interests (i.e. what I've written criticism about) have been on subjects that I have rarely seen mainstream arts critics even bother with.  Yeah, yeah, maybe Richard Brody will vent about childrens' movies and cartoons for kids being all moralistic.  So what?  How much mainstream coverage is there of animation as an art form?  Not a ton, except in the comics scene, perhaps.  We'll get coverage of stuff considered "grown up" enough to count, so we'll get stuff about The Simpsons, South Park, or Family Guy, or Archer, or maybe sometimes The Venture Bros.  The pending Ghost in the Shell remake makes "some" headlines.  Ghibli makes some news for people already dialed in.

But arts criticism tends to ignore animation as a medium because of stereotyped associations with kid stuff.  One of my pet projects has been to occasionally write about cartoons and take them as seriously as I would novels by Dostoevsky or Camus or poetry by Levertov or Eliot or Stevens.  Part of the fun of criticism as a discipline and an art form is that you can write about the stuff that interests you.  I would propose that if you want to get a clear sense of where a society is at look into the stories a people considers safe enough to share with children.  What ideological and metaphysical perspectives are endorsed in kid tales?    If I were to take Batman stories more seriously than stories by Hemmingway that could be a reason why.  Arts criticism can travel about in the things people want to watch and discuss and not just the stuff academics have decreed we have to discuss in order to graduate from high school.  When the director Satoshi Kon died it was hardly news over here but it was sad news for me.  More people noted the death of George Michael than Roland Dyens, I suspect ... .

and so then there's music, and if there's a topic that could be said to interest only academic sorts, the evolution of sonata forms in solo guitar literature would be such a topic. 

All of this is stuff you can write about as much as you want at a blog.  You could do it for a local newspaper but ... really ... could you?  I can hardly think of more than maybe five articles (all reviews) discussing any of the music of Ferdinand Rebay.  Now, sure, maybe his music isn't your bag and that's fine.  What the role of arts criticism can play is in catalyzing conversations and debates.  I'd like Rebay's guitar sonatas to get quite a bit more exposure because even though I actually do admire Ponce's guitar sonatas they're in danger of being overplayed lollipops, to borrow some phrases Matanya Ophee has used.  Now perhaps Rebay's sonatas are lollipops but there's something to be said for sucking on a new lollipop once in a while. 

I haven't even gotten around to discussing contrapuntal cycles by Kapustin, Shchedrin, Shostakovich or Henry Martin yet ... that's stuff I want to get to.  You may be getting the idea here that what a blog has the luxury of providing is extended arts criticism that does not have to worry about a fiscal bottom line.  Newspapers may have less and less ability to provide that platform for arts criticism.

It might be a good thing if arts critics have to have other jobs with newspapers.  In the last few years of trying to catch up on arts criticism and the arts scene I've sometimes been discouraged and a little depressed at the solipsistic tendencies in arts criticism.  The idea that someone like A. O. Scott can make any defense of the art of criticism by saying in any way that it's "the art of the voice" seems ridiculous.  If I've never had confidence that art for the sake of art was ultimately a compelling life-long reason to make art that seems even more true about criticism for the sake of criticism if by criticism we mean the literary art form.  The problem with the art of the voice is that you have to be willing to say something.  Hentoff, it hardly needs to be repeated, was willing to say something. 

One of the more memorable reviews of Scott Timberg's book Culture Crash was at Arts Fuse, where the author dryly observed that it could seem as though Timberg only thought the seismic economic changes that slammed the working classes across the United States over the last thirty some years were a big deal when he lost his job as an arts critic. 

But then it seems the older I get the more I get the impression that writers in the United States by and large don't want to talk about the infinitesimally small odds that you or I can "make it" as a writer; it was illuminating to read that Sor had a desk job in the military while he was alive and doing his guitar composing thing.  It was interesting to read that Wenzel Matiegka was a clerk in a law office for a while.  To the extent that arts histories and arts coverage discuss the "what" of the finished products and not the possibility that very, very few of these people paid all their bills (or maybe any in some cases) doing what we remember them for ... it'd be nice if I could feel it was terrible that arts coverage has been declining in the last fifteen odd years.  But for some reason I'm just not feeling that heartbroken about it this week.  The art of criticism can withstand all this and the role of the vocational critic in the arts may e precarious as the role of the vocational artist.  It doesn't seem those institutional jobs or that institutional clout is coming back any time soon ... if ever ... so what alternatives may emerge?  Sometimes it seems the blog will have to do.  It's only a small part but it can still be something. 

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