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Posts Tagged ‘art critics’

Michael Fallon, from The Chronicle of Artistic Failure, has an interesting post at mnartists.org about the new generation of artists emerging and their reactions to critics and to just about anything that questions their artistic authority.

I thought his observations were interesting, albeit slightly inflammatory at times:

“First, it was odd that these students from blink-and-miss-it Carleton were, for the most part, calmer and more relaxed—smug almost—than any twenty-year-old has a right to be in front of such a large audience. This is especially true considering the event, a notable international film festival, was older—at 26 years—than these kids were. But then, this may not be so unusual after all, given the numerous reports from those in-the-know which suggest that most kids of this age—those of the so-called Generation Y, born after about 1980—have come to believe that attention and fame is their very due. According to a 2006 survey by the Pew Research Center, 51% of 18- to 25-year-olds identified “to be famous” as one of their top two goals. This was above “to help people who need help” (30%), “to be leaders in their community” (22%), and “to become more spiritual” (10%), but behind the number one choice (“to get rich,” 81%).

Finally, it was clear to me that the abundant self-confidence on display by these kids wasn’t necessarily evidence of skill or achievement. The film they made was actually not all that good; it was not revealing, not at all introspective, and it made little logical sense.”.

He brings up many valid points and confesses that on occasions, he has found himself at the receiving end of unjust irate reactions from those artists whose works he criticizes.

From the article:

““Young people today,” writes Twenge, “have been consistently taught to put their own needs first and to focus on feeling good about themselves.” She further claims that, despite what you might expect, such self-pampering has done the group nothing but harm. Twenge cites numerous studies which offer evidence for a host of problems among her generational cohorts: a decline in manners and regard for social rules; a disengagement with civic concerns; a tendency toward cheating and an antipathy toward authority; a strong sense of entitlement and inability to take criticism; high levels of drug use; loss of faith in the rewards of responsibility and hard work; increasing sense of loneliness and an inclination toward shorter relationships and sexual promiscuity; rising levels of depression, anxiety, panic, and nervous breakdown; and suicide rates twice what they were in 1950.

Despite its myriad problems, this young generation also has—tellingly, and incongruously—a remarkably high sense of self-regard, or what Twenge calls a “cotton candy sense of self with no basis.” In psychological terms, according to Twenge, her generation is afflicted by abnormally high rates of “clinical narcissism,” a pathology with numerous manifestations (many of which are listed above)”.

I immediately remembered another article I read this week, in “Psychology Today” about The Plight of the Little Emperors, on the subject of China’s “only child” culture. These Chinese children who are now coming of age and, in the author’s words, “expect the world”.

“Chinese parents bemoan their only child’s desire for instant gratification, excessive consumption, and a life free of hardship, but such complaints are just proof that the policy worked: The children are like little Americans.

and

“Since the policy’s inception, the Chinese have worried that the extreme combination of discipline and indulgence would result in maladjusted kids, self-centered brats who can’t take criticism and don’t understand sharing. Asked if he wished he’d had siblings, one 22-year-old from Sichuan province replied, “Does this mean everything I have would have to be cut in half or shared? No, I don’t want that.””

These two articles, discussing two seemingly opposite cultures, actually highlight rather similar phenomenons within the same generation, namely the apparent sense of entitlement, hedonistic approach to life, difficultly dealing with criticism, etc. I cannot help but wonder if this is the result of globalization and the marketing approach we’ve seen for the past 20 years or so. Generation “Me” is not the result of a vacuum, an isolated development but rather, the result of many external influences, amongst which might be consumerism and the social aspiration of consumption as a defining factor of our personalities. Such trend has not emerged only in the western world, but on a global basis, with brands released everywhere simultaneously and campaigns only slightly tailored to local cultures. Also, worth noting, is fame as a social aspiration. Is this related to small/ local communities losing appeal and the appearance of the “global stage”? When we grow up with the impression that the whole world is a village, how could we possible aspire to less than global recognition?

It will be interesting to see what happens in the next decade or two, as this generation matures and actually exercises leadership and drives the decision making process.

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I know this is not an art critic’s blog, but this article at The Guardian upset me enough to have to comment on it.

In it, Peter Conrad sets to more or less smash the books of former collaborators and friends Edward Said and Daniel Barenboim. What bothers me is not that he dislikes the books. After all, taste is well, subjective. It’s the personal vendetta-like tone that he employs throughout the whole article what bothers me. There isn’t an ounce of objective criticism in his piece:

“Beyond expressing pious hopes about Utopia, Barenboim has little progress to report. Anecdotes are tediously recycled; the title of his book should have been ‘Everything Is Repeated’. An insubstantial volume is filled out with a random sampling of interviews and journalistic articles, which supply inadvertent glimpses of the man behind the missionary. The conductor is more than an evangelist”.

and then this:

“Barenboim, who says that he reads Spinoza in his dressing room during intervals, worries about ‘musical ethics’ and fusses over ‘the moral responsibility of the ear’. I’m not sure that a sense organ can carry such a burden; we don’t ask our penises to possess a conscience”.

Now, I cannot believe a critic could be so daft as to ignore the power of metaphor, but he gets even more juvenile by attacking Said on account of bad orthography! If anything, shouldn’t Said’s editor be held accountable for that?!

And then he gives away the true reason behind the trashing:

At least he commits no orthographic error when he casually refers to ‘the egregious Peter Conrad’. I guess he intended to insult me, but I’m happy to bask in a cack-handed compliment, since the dictionary says that the adjective means prominent, distinguished or, at worst, outrageous. No argument backs up the animadversion, so who can tell? If I’m on Said’s shit list, the company I keep is melodious; he considers Verdi to be a bad composer, sniffs at Bartók, patronises Alfred Brendel as a ‘decent, earnest’ dullard and derides Pavarotti as ‘a grotesque’. Said’s sloppiness matters because he enjoys pretending to be holier and higher-browed than the rest of us.

So, it is personal after all, isn’t it Mr. Conrad?

Perhaps art critics should no longer wonder why their positions are disappearing. The should look no further than Conrad’s pieces to understand why people might not be interested in what they have to say.

On an unrelated note, I will also be (cross)posting every now and then at NewInnergy, my business partner’s blog. Unlike Conrad, I’ll try to keep it civil, on topic and objective.

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Perhaps it’s been a synchronistic event, but in the past couple of days I’ve come across several articles and blogs that deal with “the death of the art and cultural critic”.

Art critic Jonathan Jones at The Guardian wrote about it in a blog post:

“What has passed away is a certain kind of revered and influential critical voice, it is sometimes said: where are today’s equivalents of the poet and critic William Empson, the art critic Clement Greenberg, the critic of the novel FR Leavis?”

Daniel Wakin also wrote about this for The New York Times back in June:

“Classical music criticism, a high-minded endeavor that has been around at least as long as newspapers and reached an English-language peak with George Bernard Shaw has taken a series of hits in recent months.

Critics’ jobs have been eliminated, downgraded or redefined at newspapers in Atlanta, Minneapolis and elsewhere around the country and at New York magazine, where Peter G. Davis, one of the most respected voices of the craft, said he had been forced out after 26 years”.

James Seaton at The Wall Street Journal also regales us with his opinion on the matter, and gets bonus points for using technology as a red herring: 

“It may be hard to imagine — given our current obsessions with television shows, movies, instant-messaging, Facebook and blogs — but literature was once at the center of American cultural life. In the middle of the 20th century, novels and poems, of varying quality and aspiration, were widely read and widely talked about. And literary merit was discussed and hotly debated by critics whose essays, in Garrick Davis’s words, “courted the educated public with their elegant prose.””

More musings on this topic can be found herehere and here.

There seems to be an undercurrent, declaring the death of the critic as a profession, as an art form in itself. Newspapers and media outlets are eliminating the positions, moving the topics to the entertainment sections or just doing away with the theme altogether. James Seaton goes as far as tangentially placing the blame on social media and technology for this apparent demise. He does not, however, elaborate on the incendiary statement that opens his piece, leaving the exercise of linking the two any further to the reader.

In their paper “Conversations with the Field”, published in 2006, the Association of Performing Arts Presenters formulated some valid points on this tendency. (I am not linking to the paper because I couldn’t find it in their website and I am unaware if it is available, so I am quoting from my copy of it):

Decline of Effectiveness of Traditional Media

Some audience challenges are the result of long-term trends such as a continuing decline nationally in the space and attention devoted to the performing arts in the print media, especially in the newspaper category – traditionally a medium noted for its public relations and marketing effectiveness. In an effort to boost readership and to protect advertising revenues, most newspapers have adjusted their readership development strategies and editorial focus to reflect popular culture, morphing tastes, and emerging media options. Concurrently, the ranks of feature writers, critics, and reviewers are shrinking, even among category leadership newspapers, like The New York Times.

As ink and attention dedicated to the live performing arts has diminished, not only is it more difficult to engage audiences with the prospective and exciting new-next-thing, informing audiences about artists and events in which they have typically shown interest is also challenging. Every event within a newspaper’s circulation geography competes for space and attention. Reduced space translates to fewer stories and greater risk of low event awareness among audiences.

Radio, like newspaper, is also a far less effective news, informational, and advertising medium than it once was. Disruptive technologies like the iPod have transformed radio into one of many audio content providers. It is inconceivable to many younger audience members that anyone would allow some stranger to dictate a music playlist. Nor are they willing to tolerate commercial message interruptions of their music head-space. Radio’s once-powerful channel to audiences trapped in traffic during drive time is not entirely a thing of the past, but its effectiveness is fast diminishing”.

And then, they hit the nail on the head:

“While presenting organizations might be characterized as real-time engines of social aggregation, many younger audience members are meeting their needs to connect and communicate in virtual counterparts like MySpace. The internet is not only a channel for information and entertainment, it is an interactive forum within which participants are socialized and acculturated in addition to being informed and entertained. Many presenting organizations are novices at encouraging or facilitating these virtual networks to cross the chasm from the virtual to the real – to move from the electronic to the analog experience of the real, in real time – and together”.

It seems that art critics are disappearing, and recommendations are being made on social networks instead, with audiences themselves filling the vacant position, using word of mouth as an effective form of advice. Art, it seems, has not been immune to the foils that plague other means of production. Corporations have long ago spotted this trend, rewarding product reviewers, consumers and bloggers, directing their marketing efforts to attract those who have a substantial readership and followers.

What do cultural institutions do in view of this new and pressing reality? Mainly try to remain unaware of it. Alternatively, just pretend it’s not happening and hope it will go away. You know, ignore the elephant populating the living room. The always brilliant John Rockwell says it better than I could:

“Junior critics and reporters, or those working for marginal outlets (like, now, the blogs to which I contribute), can expect dismissive treatment from most press agents, who spend much of their time fending off requests for free tickets”.

I paused for a moment after reading the statement above. I cannot wrap my mind around it. Agents must be aware of this decline in art criticism in traditional media, at least, they should. Still, they are ignoring the one source of dissemination that would compensate for this apparent loss, treating bloggers like an annoyance, less than an afterthought. Fear of the unknown seems to be leading their strategy.

Corporations are doing their best to lure bloggers, showering them with expensive gifts, hoping that these bloggers will write good reviews. Marketeers know the value of user generated content and word of mouth publicity. The future of many arts and cultural enterprises may very well depend on “getting it” as well.

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