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Posts Tagged ‘word of mouth’

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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