Friday, February 13, 2009

Do We Need Arts Reviewers?

Isaac Butler (Parabasis) asks:

What if the major newspapers and magazines didn't have critics at all? What if instead they printed excerpts of the art critics used to cover?

It's an interesting hypothetical. I responded in the comments section:

I believe excerpts would wind up hurting some forms of art. Sometimes its hard to understand the whole from the part (like a movie trailer that ruins a movie--I've heard good things about Revolutionary Road but I HATE the trailer so much that I'm never, ever going to see it).

Take a play, for instance. Sometimes its very hard to imagine a play on its feet. I wrote a mostly silent, movement based play recently. Clips from a film of the production might work(although expensive to do well and unilluminating if done cheap), but the script would have left out the contributions of the choreographer (which were extensive and crucial to the success of the play).

Some texts are very dead on the page, but when acted by the right actor can leap alive. Things that sound undynamic, things that might be awkward. Literary departments/agents or directors/actors might be good at reading a script and imagining it in its fully realized form, but the public may not have that.

Photography? That might work. After all, each image usually stands alone and speaks for itself, and it can do that in the newspaper (maybe not in Black and White if it's a color photo).

If you have an online publication, movie trailers are quite acceptable! But a critic still gives a lot of context outside of the trailer, about (for instance) whether it's too long or short (there's no such thing as a trailer that's too long or too short, since the length is standardized).

In short: you can get a good look at a bit of the work, but sometimes the critic is there to tell you how the whole works together. There might be an argument for this in fields like sculpture, photography, etc. I don't work in those fields so I hesitate to pass judgment.

This is all, of course, separate from the role that criticism plays within an industry--for investors, for other creators, for the future of the art as a form. But that's often more high-brow publications or theoretical journals, which are sometimes less threatened than the art correspondent on a big city paper.

Still, I do like the hypothetical. I like thinking about it.

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