Michael Kaiser, the president of Washington D.C.’s renowned John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, wrote an article today for the Huffington Post in which he decries the prevailing availability (and encouragement) of amateurist criticism on the internet. The age of the blog, it seems, has co-opted professional critics to the point where they are being pushed out of a job, and the opinions of said critics are rapidly being eschewed by the public in favor of an unprofessional lot of bloggers and pseudo-journalists with a casual interest but not a professional interest in whatever art form they encounter. He is specifically referring to theater criticism, referencing many Broadway-centric blogs of which I wasn’t even aware, but it’s easy to extrapolate his point to other blogs — Gorilla vs. Bear, Slashfilm, Pitchfork, and others, the combination gossip/news/review sites that dot the internet, and realistically have since its inception. The internet is, after all, a media of opinion.
As he puts it, “arts criticism has become a participatory activity rather than a spectator sport.”
- Every artist, producer or arts organization used to wait for a handful of reviews to determine the critical response to a particular project. And while very few critics for a small set of news outlets still wield great power to make or break a project (usually a for-profit theater project which runs longer and therefore needs to sell far more tickets than any other arts project), a larger portion of arts projects have become somewhat immune to the opinions of any one journalist.
While Kaiser’s point is well-made and cogent — and he actually cites examples, though nothing textual — it ultimately amounts to little more than an attitude of sheltered generational protectionism, which I suppose is his prerogative. It’s an attitude born of the same sympathies and fears with which the recent concern for the death of the newspaper industry has been cultivated, and while it’s true the system of criticism as it has existed for more than a century is being threatened, its “death,” as Kaiser so fear-mongeringly puts it, is being far overstated.
Call it Ivory Tower Syndrome. Kaiser, as the president of one of the most upper-echelon, aristocratic arts organizations in the entire country (if not the world) has a certain universe to protect, one to which he and very few others are privy. Like the New York Times, the Kennedy Center is one of the guiding lights, in theory and principle, of the American media landscape, and only Carnegie Hall (a much older facility) ranks above it in terms of prestige, which unfortunately means that Kaiser’s ivory tower, well, towers over most others. That’s not to say the opinion is his alone, nor that it only exists within the walls of his confine of prestige, but Kaiser’s affluent protection of the idea of an aristocratic style of criticism, one in which the opinions of art (if not the art itself) are reserved only for a brand of elite America, is outdated enough that modernity and change could punch him in the teeth and he would refuse to acknowledge its existence. He’d probably blame ghosts.
To begin with, we have to get to the heart of what constitutes “criticism” and what consititutes “review.” There’s a big difference, one that can sometimes be difficult to define. The determination of whether an art form is good or bad based on a set of objective rules, guidelines and circumstances can fall in either category. But a critical appraisal is a little more deep than that, and requires vexed, complex, knowledgeable, and introspective analysis of the art. It’s the difference between the lengthy and marvelous Film Crit Hulk blog — it’s exactly what it sounds like — and Talkin’ Broadway, which Kaiser himself references in his post, which is apparently based on reader submissions like this one, an off-Broadway review of a play called Milk Like Sugar.
- Malik is into telescopes, which he uses to look into the sky at the planes he’s positive are full of people staring down at him in disapproval, but that he’s sure will be his ticket out of his ghettoized existence? Huh?
The problem that Kaiser and other media doom-sayers have with the prevalence of criticism blogs is with their sheer enormity, but that’s the wrong angle to take. As Kaiser puts it, “the growing influence of blogs, chat rooms and message boards devoted to the arts has given the local professional critic a slew of competitors.” “Slew” is a bit of an understatement, no? More like millions, Michael Kaiser, MILLIONS. But if there is a problem with the massive abundance of competitors to the throne of arts criticism, it’s not with the number by itself, it’s with the fact that their lack of art education and serious, institutionalized studies leave them incapable of the sort of in-depth analysis that a professional, theoretically, understands. In the case of cinema, they know nothing of mise-en-scene, line, technology, or, like Milk Like Sugar’s reviewer above, fail to actually probe what something means and discard it without understanding it because they don’t understand it. That’s the real virulence that is infecting arts criticism; not the abundance of it, the vacuousness of it. It’s certainly not aided by abundance, but as Kaiser rightfully points out:
- 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.
People aren’t drawn to internet criticism because there’s just so much content available to them; people are drawn to the internet because it’s the internet. The fundamental mistake that Kaiser and other print doom-sayers make is the assumption that the newspaper industry can’t survive without paper, which is flagrantly false. If the New York Times were to figure out a way to systemically reduce the number of its print issues, merge most of its content to the internet, and find ways to make both subscription fees and advertising expenses coexist nicely in paying for its online content, it would be wildly successful. If people aren’t reading print, stop printing. That doesn’t mean that your content must suffer, of course; it’s just taking the form of a new medium. Simple concept.
THE CURIOUS CASE OF PITCHFORK
The problem, ultimately, is the lact of proactivity. Long before most people had thought seriously about the threat the internet represents to print media, a small website had sprouted up in 1995, launched by a teenager named Ryan Schreiber in the belly of his mother’s basement. Schreiber had a fierce interest in music, especially artists signed to independent labels, which he felt the mainstream media — magazines like Rolling Stone especially — were ignoring in favor of larger recording artists. The internet (as a public entity) was just four years old at the time, and now-retro-glamourous content publisher Geocities, a relic in internet terms, had launched only the year before. Advertising was impossible to figure out; even the modern internet can’t quite determine how to effectively disseminate its ad content in the post-popup world. But in spite of all of that, in spite of the youngness of the medium and the confused disorder that prevailed, Schreiber launched Pitchfork.com anyway, just a shitty teen with a hobby.
Pitchfork (Media) is now one of the most influential music publications in the world, akin to Rolling Stone in its late-60s era of self-discovery. It profiles heavy-duty major-label rappers like Drake and Kanye West alongside unknown indie quantities like Perfume Genius, in a lot of cases — just ask Lana Del Rey — helping launch careers in the process. It sponsors a yearly music festival in both Chicago and Paris, and has significant presence at every other major United States music festival. And its ratings — on a scale from 0 to 10, often hilariously, exaggeratedly swung one way or the other — can come to define an artist’s career, often out of political intent on the part of the publication. Pitchfork’s famous 10.0 for Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy shot through the internet like a cannon blast, and certainly provided a publicity boost for what’s now come to be known as a magnum opus. Which was part of the point.
Pitchfork is both influential and insanely profitable, which is helped in large part by the fact that the number of its salaried employees is actually quite small. Pitchfork is almost entirely supported by freelance work, writers who put in hours worth of effort on reviews that push 1000 words to not get much out of it at all. The fact is, however, that these writers are willing to put in all the work for not much pay, and their content is distributed to a massive amount of eyes. Pitchfork, in short, is driven as much by passion (as well as the desire to be a part of the Cult of Pitchfork, which is another subject) as much by sound and cogent business decisions. But what draws people to Pitchfork in enough numbers to support a website that has so little ad content that it’s actually quite baffling? Why has Pitchfork become so influential? The answer, I think, lies in a surprising source: Roger Ebert.
The visage of Roger Ebert, noted film critic, historian, scholar, and schlup, has never struck many people with an air of media keenness or technological savvy, but few human beings have adapted to the changing face of media as well as Ebert has, and nobody — absolutely nobody — has carried a comparable foresight into its development. With his famous partner Gene Siskel — together representing the two sides to the Chicago newspaper coin, Tribune and Sun-Times — Ebert launched the long-lived television series Sneak Previews in 1975, appearing on the show until 1982, when its fabulous success resulted in the still-airing At the Movies. Sneak Previews began as once-monthly local Chicago operation before expanding to a national audience, airing biweekly, then, eventually, every seven days. It was also, surprisingly, the highest-rated entertainment show in the history of Public Broadcasting.
The leap from paper to television was at that point a risky one, especially for something like film criticism, which had earned its legacy in philosophical texts, history publications, newspapers, and magazines like Cahiers du Cinema. But Siskel and Ebert’s experiment paid off, the two of them eventually becoming the godfathers of modern film criticism. It was not (and, in some circles, still isn’t) a popular medium among the old guard, who felt the thumbs-up/thumbs-down method of critique was oversimplistic and cheapened a complex art (an argument that ignores the three-minute, intelligent, often famously divisive discussions the two carried prior to each final judgment), but Ebert’s foray into the then-new world of television was a resounding triumph. It’s only now, in the age of computers, that At the Movies — which Ebert, due to his cancer troubles, no longer hosts — is being seriously threatened with extinction. But Roger Ebert is a brilliant man.
A few year ago, the still-ugly website of his underwent a bit of a renovation. It had been years since Ebert had begun focusing his attention more and more on his internet content, launching his ever popular Great Movies series of essays — real theoretical essays, not judgments — but his struggles with cancer left him bedridden and reclusive. It was then that he contracted his web editor, Jim Emerson, to begin taking over more and more online content, while he investigated the fabulous new world of the blog — something Pitchfork is still considered, and certainly could have been from the start — which began to take a more and more prominent role in his web presence, as did his growing following on Twitter and Facebook. Emerson himself is a brilliant film critic with a tremendous blog, which features long-form, incredibly specific film analysis, itself a part of Ebert’s website. It’s arguable now, with his jaw surgically removed during his cancer treatment, that Ebert has a more profound and omnipresent impact on American culture than he did when he was a distinctive weekly voice on PBS that had so firmly infected American culture that he himself was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one he didn’t get because of his newspaper reviews or his work as screenwriter for a cult classic.
It’s not a coincidence that Ebert’s website has become the preeminent internet source for film while Pitchfork has become one of the two or three most important music publications in the world, so much so that founder Ryan Schreiber was once nominated as a finalist for the Time 100, a list of the world’s most influential people. It has to do with content. Roger Ebert’s ascension to internet superstar directly correlated with his website’s newfound emphasis on diversity of content (along with an element of sympathy for his failing health), and there’s not a website on Earth that has a more diverse lineup of content than Pitchfork — with ongoing features like Pitchfork.tv (a video series), interviews, Guest Lists, Why We Fight, and its recently-launched Kill Screen, a video game blog. And while Michael Kaiser might not refer to Roger Ebert with the same lamenting crowdsource disdain with which he refers to small-time Broadway review blogs nobody’s heard of, there’s no question that Pitchfork, which operates (unlike fellow media-driving site The AV Club) without any print presence at all, falls under the parameters of Kaiser’s criticism obituary.
But Pitchfork does engage in criticism, not the wearying, edifice-obsessed value judgments of Peter Travers or the film critic for Podunk Newspaper X. Whether you agree with their determinations is ultimately irrelevant. Pitchfork manages to be a web publication that shatters both of the online trepidations that color Kaiser’s death sentence for real criticism — it is not uneducated, and it manages to be smart and profitable in the same breath that it rebukes the print medium. It is simultaneously a competitor to professional criticism (like the AV Club) and a culture-shifting professional force. In doing so it laid the foundation for how quote-unquote “real” arts criticism — university-educated, elitist, secluded — can survive in an era that it thinks has destroyed its natural habitat once and for all. Just look at Roger Ebert’s gloriously diverse website, which lacks only video content. The key to survival is to emulate not the tradition of the newspaper, but the tradition of the magazine instead — but with far more constantly updated content that surpasses even the ability of the once-daily broadsheets.
If the death of real criticism does occur, it will be only because the ivory-towered cultural and media elite fail to see the path to their own salvation, and fail to adapt to the very idea a shifting media culture that’s been in constant motion since the 1950s, allowing the truly stupid critical community to fill the void they leave. If people like Kaiser see the end of print as the end of arts and news media (disregarding the fact that punk zines are absolutely flourishing right now, another subject that 1000 words could be spent on) then the burder of its death will be on them, because they failed to see just how easily it could be saved. But the beauty of media is that young people can be rather intelligent, and maybe a changing of the guard might be in order.