So, everyone’s a critic. And the problem with that is …?


This article (which is technically a blog post — ironic, given the subject matter of the piece) by Michael Kaiser, president, John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, has been making the rounds and making waves. Read the entire thing, but I want to draw your attention to this section:

And third, the growing influence of blogs, chat rooms and message boards devoted to the arts has given the local professional critic a slew of competitors. In theater circles alone one can visit talkingbroadway.com, broadwayworld.com, theatermania.com, playbill.com and numerous other sites. Many arts institutions even allow their audience members to write their own critiques on the organizational website.

This is a scary trend.

While I have had my differences with one critic or another, I have great respect for the field as a whole. Most serious arts critics know a great deal about the field they cover and can evaluate a given work or production based on many years of serious study and experience. These critics have been vetted by their employers.

Anyone can write a blog or leave a review in a chat room. The fact that someone writes about theater or ballet or music does not mean they have expert judgment.

But it is difficult to distinguish the professional critic from the amateur as one reads on-line reviews and critiques.

There are a few things that bother me about Kaiser’s reasoning here, aside from the fact that this “scary trend,” as he puts it, is actually reality, and has been for over a decade. To view the internet revolution as merely a trend is the reason people like him are becoming obsolete in the art world. Get with the times, man. Your audience is changing — and rapidly, too.

Anyway.

What bugs me is Kaiser, like many who share this common argument, seems to have very little faith in an audience’s ability to discern good critique. True, there is a lot of crap on the internet, particularly when it comes to opinion-spouting, but I firmly believe we have enough sense about ourselves to be able to cull through the clutter to get to the good stuff.

People aren’t passive drones who merely take whatever anyone writes on the web as expert criticism. If anything, because of the myriad of voices we have out there to turn to for opinion (not to mention our own ability to contribute to the conversation), we’ve grown extremely skeptical and discerning as a society, and take a lot of what we read with a grain of salt — even professional critics.

That said, I also think if our sensibilities seem to align with a writer — be it a paid, professional critic for a national paper or a hobbyist blogger — we will suss out those opinions when exploring entertainment options.

Perhaps the days of paid, professional critic are numbered. Which is sad, because I have a lot of respect for many of them. However, if your goal is to make money as a critic, I feel if a writer keeps turning out unique, interesting and relevant work on a consistent basis and — this is important — engages with their audience through discussion, they will gain a following, resulting in potential to make an income. I mean, look at Yelp. Here’s a site that lets anyone review their experiences, but those Yelp users who have proven themselves with passion and consistency and have received strong feedback from their peers are featured at the top of Yelp reviews as part of the “Yelp Elite Squad.” I’m not sure if they make any money from this, but there is great potential to — they have klout.

Just an example of how critique is changing as a result of these “scary trends.”

What do you think?

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3 Comments

  1. Interesting, Bob! Theatre is struggling to sell tickets and fill houses. The traditional methods aren’t helping connect younger generations or the community at large to theatre. Internet-based reviewers help draw attention to live stage performances. Especially in Chicago! We have massive talented writers, actors and companies but still theatre isn’t as prevalent as NYC. You, me and others want to help introduce theatrical experiences to novice and seasoned theatre goers. It’s not up to a handful of professional theatre educated folks to tell Chicago what to see. It’s up to all of us to actualize the local potential of entertainment in our hometown. Broadway, who?

    • Good point — additional coverage, particularly when done by passionate theatre goers like yourself, can only be good for a town like ours that is teeming with constantly opening shows.

  2. [...] Bullen recently defended the non-critics on his own theatre site called Chicago Theatre Addict in response to a Huffington Post blog that [...]


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