Is Everyone a Critic?

Arts Criticism versus “User Comments” in the Blogosphere

Who do you trust more? A professional critic or a fellow audience member? Which do you now read more — and pay more attention to — in deciding which play to see: a printed review in a newspaper or a “user comment” on a website or blog?

We now buy everything online. Cars, books, electronics, major appliances. Before clicking “submit payment” and buying the product yourself on a site, don’t you first read the “user comments” from other buyers who have purchased the same product and are now using it? To get their opinion of the product, their experience using it?

Is it now the same thing when buying a ticket for a play or any arts event?

One of the substantial changes in the arts environment that has happened with astonishing speed is that arts criticism is no longer a spectator sport. It is now a participatory event. Everyone can now be in on it.

A good thing or bad? One thing is certain: there is no going back.

Every artist, producer or arts organization used to wait for a handful of reviews in newspapers to determine the critical response to a particular project. But in the vast immensity of today’s Web Universe,  a larger portion of arts projects today have become somewhat immune to the opinions of any one newspaper journalist.

Even in New York and Los Angeles, one “make or break” review from “The Theater Critic” in the major newspaper  in each city — while still important — is losing its power and relevance to box office sales and popularity. The mega-hit musical Wicked got a bad review in the New York Times: “Wicked does not, alas, speak hopefully for the future of the Broadway musical.”

Why are newspaper critics having less impact? Three reasons.

First, far fewer people are getting their news from print media. There is a reason the newspaper industry is in trouble. Advertisers are spending less in print media because fewer people are reading hard copy newspapers. And for those arts projects aimed at younger audiences, hard copy newspapers are no longer a central element of a marketing strategy. Younger people get virtually all of their information online, through news web sites, social media and chat rooms. And older people are increasingly getting their information online as well.

Second, because serious arts coverage has been deemed an unnecessary expense by many news media outlets looking to pare costs, there are fewer critics and less space devoted to serious arts criticism. The Los Angeles Times’ arts section is dominated now by features and reviews of popular entertainment — television, movies and pop music — rather than serious opera, dance, music or theater.

And third, the growing influence of blogs, chat rooms and message boards devoted to the arts has given the local professional critic a slew of competitors.  Locally, the theater site Bitter Lemons lists 63 blogs devoted to theater coverage in Los Angeles alone. Many arts institutions even allow their audience members to write their own critiques on the organizational website.

The result is a double-edged sword that cuts both ways.

One side:  Anyone can write a blog or leave a review in a chat room. The fact that someone writes about theater does not mean they have expert judgment. It is difficult to distinguish the professional critic from the amateur as one reads on-line reviews and critiques.

No one critic should be deemed the arbiter of good taste in any market and it is wonderful that people now have an opportunity to express their feelings about a work of art. But art must not be measured by a popularity contest. Otherwise the art that appeals to the lowest common denominator will always be deemed the best.

The other side: People now have the opportunity to interact with their art experience. Tweet, text and blog about it. Going to the theater has always been a shared experience between actors and audience. The blogosphere has taken it a step further.  It is now a shared experience between actor and audience — and the audience’s electronic web network of online friends.

The magic of live performance – even the most traditional forms – is that the audience is never really a passive watcher – they are engaged and their response informs the performance. The internet as a forum for authentic feedback and reaction is vital to the growth, development and continued relevancy of the discipline.

Anyone can create art. And now, anyone can comment on it.

The audience for the arts – and the people who are passionate enough to frequent cultural institutions, comment on their sites or start their own blogs – are frequently educated, knowledgeable, committed individuals who, you know, have actual jobs. They are artists and former artists, they are friends and families of artists, they are people who grew up or into an appreciation of the arts for any number of reasons but because of the necessities of making a living are relegated to “amateur” status. Sure there are some ill-informed writers and commenters out there, but arts writing on the internet has evolved over the years. The quality of writing, the knowledge of the writers and the vitality of the discussion can sometimes be  invigorating, stimulating and exciting.

Newspapers are never again going to be a dominant force in our lives. And the economics that made it possible to subsidize newspapers (and full-time professional arts critics) via ads and real estate listings are not likely to return. The speed of internet/blog/tweet comments and reviews is instant.  Hundreds or thousands of audience members can now post their comments on a play seconds after seeing it. A newspaper review can take days, sometimes one week, to appear in print.

Like it or not, our Smart Phones and the internet are fast becoming our new content delivery system and our primary circuit of commerce and communication (about the arts, and everything else). Theaters and arts organizations that don’t recognize that the internet train left the station years ago — and don’t get on board — are being left behind on the platform, by themselves. Alone.

What do you think? Care to “leave a comment”? Blog about it?

One response to “Is Everyone a Critic?

  1. Pingback: The Lemon gets a Mention on the Fountain Theatre Blog : LA Bitter Lemons

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