Amid much on-going blogospherical discussion about theatre criticism: veteran print critic/blogger Terry Teachout reports in the Wall Street Journal on the ailing state of msm arts criticism in the US. And defends arts bloggers against the usual canards - this time from Time film critic Richard Schickel, who compared blogging to "fingerpainting". (H/t Playgoer). Says Teachout:
So many other papers have cut back on the space they devote to books that the National Book Critics Circle has launched a "Campaign to Save the Book Review." Several major newspapers, including the Chicago Sun-Times and Minneapolis Star-Tribune, no longer have full-time classical music critics. And regional movie critics, like stand-alone newspaper book sections, are fast becoming an endangered species.
What's going on? The answer is painfully simple. Newspaper circulation is declining, driven downward by the rise of the new Web-based media, and many papers are trimming their staffs to make ends meet. Whenever times get tough at an American newspaper, fine-arts coverage gets thrown off the back of the sled first -- and that's what's happening now.
That's a familiar scenario, although I think that - as always - here in Oz we're ahead of the trends. I can't remember a time when a reviewer could actually make a living from his or her expertise on the arts by simply being, a la Kenneth Tynan, one of the pish posh broadsheet crrritics. I remember when I was a tyro critic for The Bulletin, I met one of my colleagues, who sat down cosily and asked me, "So tell me, what's your real job?" Since criticism was my paying gig (I spent the rest of my time being a fabulously well-paid poet) I was flummoxed. And so was my colleague. Aside from my Esteemed Colleague Chris Boyd (of whom more in a moment), I was the only person I knew who was foolish enough to consider writing reviews a real job.
I left The Bulletin, in fact, because I was refused a retainer that I had been promised for two years. After some quick arithmetic, I found that I made more money on a sole parents pension, with the bonus of having fewer abusive letters and more time to write poems. The rest, as they say, is history. But if I had been able to make a living from that job - as, say, a top political columnist would - the story might have been different. (I'm glad I didn't stay - the soul was being leached out of me and I was too young to know what to do about it - but that's another story).
Anyone who thinks this fact doesn't play into the parlous standards of theatre reviewing is kidding herself. There is little material incentive for a critic to be better than mediocre. Those critics who maintain decent standards in the mainstream press by writing thoughtful, informed reviews - and yes, there are some - work, like artists, on their own time, effectively subsidising the arts. In this way, they are no different from any other arts worker. And unless something markedly changes in the structures of the mainstream media - such as when pigs become airborne - this is unlikely to change.
Which brings me to Mr Boyd - whose ancient car alone reveals the myriad rewards to be gained from a life spent in arts journalism - who today reveals the truth about my private life (I have no friends, and am forced to frogmarch my children to the theatre if I want company). It seems that he and I, sitting shoulder to shoulder, had vastly differing responses to Newtown Honey, now on at La Mama; which is, I believe, an excellent thing. I am not Mr Boyd, and he is not me, and life is thereby made richer and more mysterious.
What I might have thought about Adam Broinowski's rather controversial Know No Cure, which received a beating from most critics - aside from the VCA's Spark Online - remains in the realm of speculation, since I didn't get there. Sir Boyd certainly hated it, and if you scan the comments beneath the Spark review, He Was Not Alone. There's no guarantee I would have liked it myself; if the actors indeed seemed lost, there's a good chance I would have had serious reservations. A major reason I enjoyed Newtown Honey was in fact the strange clarity and intense commitment of the performances. But it's worth mentioning for Adam Broinowski's defence of his show (here and here), which I personally find rather cheering. And which also points out a major virtue of the blogosphere - the bitten can bite back.