Reactor

Why Fewer Arts Reviews Might Not Be So Bad

by Jillian Steinhauer on August 12, 2013

A few weeks ago, the news broke that British newspaper the Independent on Sunday was cutting its cultural critics. Not just visual art, mind you: theater, music, TV, etc. The paper would lose all of its professional critics, and the arts section, until then called “The Critics,” would be renamed. The paper initially declined to comment.

A short while after that, Independent on Sunday editor Lisa Markwell broke her silence by sending a letter to writer Norman Lebrecht, which he posted on his blog, Slipped Disc. In it, Markwell confirms that the layoffs are the result of cost cutting, in particular, the goal “to drive down contributor costs.” The arts critics, then, were contributors, presumably ones with contracts, as opposed to staff writers, whom Markwell mentions separately. The Guardian confirms in its report that the critics laid off were “mostly freelance.”

Markwell continues with these interesting passages:

… calculations proved that it was no longer possible to continue with reviews in the way they have appeared – and the challenge for me and the art critics’ main editor, Mike Higgins, is to find a way to cover arts in the Independent on Sunday that satisfies the readers and provides a showcase for terrific writing about the different disciplines. …

I can see that for lovers of the arts, a newspaper without critics is a puzzling and perhaps unwelcome development but I believe that it is still possible to write exciting essays, interviews, comment and so on that challenge and delight the reader and showcase talent with just as much space as before. I have no doubt that you and other commentators will let me know whether we have been successful or not.

My first thought, of course, was to scoff at the suggestion that the paper was really committed to “terrific writing about the different disciplines” when it was laying off all of its critics. How can you have expertise without experts? But something about what Markwell said has resonated with me, namely the phrase “exciting essays, interviews, comment and so on.” There seems to be a shift in priorities happening here, from regular weekly reviews to other types of art writing. And that, I think, may not be such a terrible thing.

I began my art-journalism career with reviews, and I still consider them a foundation of learning to write and think critically about art (or any given subject). But there came a point when writing them went from a challenge to a rote exercise. I wanted to get out into the world more — talk to artists, profile them, start conversations, have thoughts and then change my mind. Often, reviews don’t seem to offer the space for that in the way other forms of writing do. I find more use in bringing the intellectual rigor of reviews to bear on these other forms.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting we do away with reviews all together. When a major show opens, I want to read what certain critics have to say, and sometimes, a smart review of a show I’ve never heard of will lead me to an exciting discovery. But there are so many bad reviews out there — merely descriptive, overstuffed with jargon, written to sell ads — that reviewing as default, and the default style of reviewing we often get (introduction, description, idea, revelation, kicker), seem like a stale premise. All too often, reviews become a way for critics and journalists to avoid real engagement.

Does it suck that seven critics lost their regular freelance gigs? Absolutely. And I’m worried that the Independent on Sunday will instead resort to fluff pieces and/or drop its rates, making it even harder for arts journalists to live. But do I automatically assume, as some others have, that their arts section will turn to shit? No. Maybe I’m naive, but to the section formerly known as “The Critics,” I comfortably say, RIP.

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  • pwlsax

    90% of everything is shit, and 90% of the remaining 10% turns to shit.

  • Jason Foumberg

    “…reviews become a way for critics and journalists to avoid real engagement.” That’s some provocative bait you set out for us, but you’re going to have to actually define “real engagement” for us to jump onboard with you. Is “real engagement” the “conversations” and “thoughts” you have? I wonder, will Hyperallergic pay you to stop writing and simply have conversations and thoughts?

    • Jillian Steinhauer

      I think they definitely can be, and I’m glad to hear that you have confidence in your writers. But I’ve read so many reviews that feel like they’re not actually engaging with the art—more with theory or language or subjects the writer wants to discuss. Of course this isn’t the case with all, but I do feel it’s the case with some.

      • Jason Foumberg

        Can’t the same be said about artists and artwork?

        • Jillian Steinhauer

          Sure/maybe? But does that mean we shouldn’t talk about it as an issue in arts journalism?

  • Jillian Steinhauer

    I fear you’re right but hope you’re not. Markwell’s words sparked some thoughts in me and became the jumping off point for this post, but I’m in no way certain (or even confident) that the Independent isn’t just trying to save money by running fluff pieces. That said, there are definitely are publications moving into the opposite direction! As far as I can tell, most of them are online.

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