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Professional critics perform a role that, in most aspects, is impossible to defend. Where does one start? With the arrogance of setting oneself up as a public judge of other people’s creative endeavours? With the inevitable superficiality of one’s responses, as one lurches from one subject to the next? Or with one’s repeated failure to get the tone right, to find the right combination of sympathy and discrimination, enthusiasm and intolerance?
The psychodynamics of criticism are easy enough to nail down. Just as children attracted to the police force are, naturally, weaklings desperate to wield power and exact revenge, critics are bookish nerds with bullying instincts.
“Just doing the job,” we tell ourselves as we pontificate from the safety of small, booklined studies in the suburbs where no one can disturb us, let alone take issue with us.
And, of course, we’re hobbled by jealousy. Don’t doubt it for a second: critics envy artists. Inside every critic is a painter, photographer or sculptor fantasising about the opening of their own sell-out show.
In light of this, no one should be surprised that critics are rumoured to be losing their clout. Entertainment has ousted serious writing about the arts in all but a handful of newspapers and magazines. Criticism has given way to profiles, interviews and all the vapid paraphernalia of publicity.
Marketing and PR, says the prevailing wisdom, have eclipsed the influence critics once had over the reception of books, films and exhibitions. And reviewing on television — the only medium that can hope to compete with the spin machine — has been reduced to “I liked it”, “I didn’t”, with star ratings attached. Meanwhile, blogs are supposedly diluting the power that well-known critics once had.
If all this is really happening, what is the loss to our culture? What use, really, is criticism?
The great British theatre critic Kenneth Tynan once described the critic as “a man who knows the way but can’t drive the car”. It’s a neat and typically brilliant formulation, but to my mind a little generous. Often critics don’t even know the way.
But perhaps this matters less than people think. There are two assumptions about critics I think we need to jettison if the good name of criticism (and I use the phrase with irony) is to be salvaged.
One is the assumption that critics need, as often as possible, to be right. “To be right,” the painter Franz Kline once said, “is the most terrific personal state that no one is interested in.” The other is that they need to educate and edify their readers.
Of course, rejecting the first assumption — the importance of being right — is dangerous, because it sounds suspiciously close to insisting that critics don’t need to make judgments. But that’s preposterous: of course we do. It’s part of our contract with the reader. Making a negative or positive judgment may not be the most interesting thing a good review does. But it remains fundamental. From it, most of the truly interesting and fun aspects of criticism arise.
Many critics — perhaps out of politeness or timidity — don’t seem to want to admit this. A study conducted by the national arts journalism program at Columbia University in New York a few years ago came up with some sobering facts. It asked how much critics earn (most make less than $US25,000 a year from critical writing), who they are (most are over 45 and white, and about half are female), how many are also practising artists (44 per cent), and who their favourite artists are.
Most astonishing of all was that only 27 per cent of those surveyed said they placed an emphasis on forming and expressing judgments. Of the five aspects of reviewing queried in the survey, making judgments ranked last.
So what exactly do critics think their job entails, if not criticism (which, in case you suddenly doubted it, is the judging of merits, faults, value and truth)? The answer is education. Art critics believe their job is primarily to educate their readers about art. An extraordinary 91 per cent of those surveyed by the Columbia program said their role was not just to inform their readers but educate them.
“The goal sounds benign,” as Christopher Knight noted in the Los Angeles Times at the time, “but its courtly arrogance is actually astounding. When a writer begins with the presumption that the reader is uneducated about the subject — or at least not as well educated as he — be prepared to be bored silly by what is written. Worse, a creeping tone of superciliousness is almost impossible to escape.”
Those who are made nervous by the business of expressing judgments often express the belief that criticism should be about contextualising. In other words, rather than merely telling readers whether Dirty Sexy Money is worth watching, critics should be explaining what the show means, what it says about our culture right now.
Again, this sort of thing is fine in theory. But in my opinion wisdom of the where-we’re-all-at kind is overrated and usually unreliable. Teenagers and merchant bankers are more savvy about what’s really going on in society than people who read books and go to art galleries. They have to be; for them, it’s a question of survival.
I’m not suggesting that critics should offer opinions and nothing else. Facts, too, are important. It’s fun to find out what Titian’s friends thought of him, or what Damien Hirst gets up to in the commercial sphere, or that Mogul artists obtained yellow from the urine of cows fed on mangoes.
But critics need to police their tone when imparting facts. If they affect the tone of a professional lecturer — or, just as bad, a street-smart stylist — they are asking for trouble.
For more than a century, the majestic Brooklyn Bridge has straddled the East River, linking the piers of lower Manhattan to the brownstones of Brooklyn Heights.
Now, under the hand of the Danish-born artist Olafur Eliasson, the national monument is passing into a second, and temporary, phase: that of hulking, stone-and-steel canvas.
Beginning this month, the Tishman Construction Corporation will install four electrically powered waterfalls, arranged on skeletons of exposed scaffolding and ranging in height from 90 to 120 ft. One installation is scheduled for Governors Island in New York Harbor; two more will sit on either side of the East River, in Brooklyn and Manhattan. The fourth will be mounted on the underside of the Brooklyn Bridge.
In an e-mail message, Mr. Eliasson said he hopes the scale of “New York City Waterfalls” – among the most ambitious projects in recent memory – could help spur a revitalization of New York’s waterfront.
There “have been attempts, of course,” he says, “but I want to push that further.” If it is a triumph, “Waterfalls” could prompt tourists – and hardened New Yorkers – to reengage with one of the world’s most iconic skylines.
“Waterfalls” also ushers in deeper questions about the role of public art in urban life. Apart from the inevitable flood of media attention, how do we judge whether a public project has been successful? The ultimate test, experts say, may be a work’s ability to forge connections – by reaching out to its viewers and engaging them in their environment.
Historically, public art has forced “you to reconsider your relationship to that site. It shocks you out of your complacency,” says Noah Chasin, assistant professor of Art History at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y.
Rochelle Steiner, director of New York’s Public Art Fund, a major backer of “Waterfalls,” hopes Eliasson’s project has precisely that effect: “People will think about the city, the East River, and nature – particularly water as a natural resource – differently after having seen them…”
For a city, of course, success is often gauged in more tangible terms: Public-art projects can generate an incredible amount of community revenue.
In 2005, for instance, the European artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude erected more than 7,500 saffron-colored nylon banners across Central Park for two weeks. According to Kate Levin, commissioner at New York’s Department of Cultural Affairs, “The Gates” generated approximately $254 million.
“New York City Waterfalls” is expected to bring New York roughly $55 million over three months – a figure based on tax revenues “that the city would not get otherwise,” says Ms. Levin. The figure includes tourism-related spending and income from increased use of public transportation near the site.
Eliasson and the city are also hoping to usher in long-term financial benefits that may be harder to quantify. Consider: The stretch of Manhattan abutting the East River has historically been thought less desirable than the opposite bank of the island. A waterfall constructed on Pier 35, near Rutgers St., will, Eliasson hopes, prod visitors to contemplate the developmental viability of the area.
“New York City is an island city, and our waterfront has for a long time been neglected,” Levin says. “Waterfalls,” may help pull foot traffic toward the East River.
“Waterfalls are spectacular in themselves. In that way they suit the skyline,” Eliasson says.
The next question: “Can we go beyond the spectacle?…”
But Janney [“public art” artist] and others are quick to point to the ways in which public art can be unsettling or disruptive. Many art lovers remember Richard Serra’s infamous “Tilted Arc,” a magnificent wall of undulating steel that bisected Federal Plaza in lower Manhattan. Almost immediately, office workers were in an uproar. In 1989, eight years after its installation, the $175,000 commission was removed and junked. Serra had intended the piece to be permanent.
“That really marked a sea change,” says Robin Cembalest, executive editor of ARTnews magazine. “Even though it’s understood that you’re not going to find a piece that all people will like, there’s a real sense of trying to make art something the public can connect with – even if it might have some kind of edge.”
Acknowledging the complexities a public artist must navigate, more art schools, such as USC’s Roski School of Fine Arts in Los Angeles, are offering programs in public-art studies and practice. “They recognize it is a discipline that requires special training,” says Janney.
Public art is markedly different from a private gallery show, admits Steiner, since it can “make ripples in the life of a city and impact people who see it.”
One of the intentions of “Waterfalls,” she says, “is to intervene in the city such that people are inspired to reconsider their environment, both built and natural.”
Matthew Shaer and Teresa Méndez
Christian Science Monitor
As the political theater season kicks into full swing in Iowa tonight, I’m struck by the pervasiveness of contrived events — events designed and delivered specifically to be reported on and YouTubed and blogged. Way back in the 1960s, historian Daniel Boorstin labeled these as ”pseudo-events,” voicing concern even then about their impact on our collective experience of community. As Boorstin defined it, a pseudo-event had the following characteristics (from The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-events in America):
1. It is not spontaneous, but comes about because someone has planned, planted, or incited it. Typically, it is not a train wreck or an earthquake, but an interview.
2. It is planted primarily (not always exclusively) for the immediate purpose of being reported or reproduced. Therefore, its occurrence is arranged for the convenience of the reporting or reproducing media. Its success is measured by how widely it is reported…
3. Its relation to the underlying reality of the situation is ambiguous. Its interest arises largely from this very ambiguity. Concerning a pseudo-event the question, ‘What does it mean?’ has a new dimension. While the news interest in a train wreck is in what happened and in the real consequences, the interest in an interview is always, in a sense, in whether it really happened and in what might have been the motives. Did the statement really mean what it said? Without some of this ambiguity a pseudo-event cannot be very interesting.
4. Usually it is intended to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. The hotel’s thirtieth-anniversary celebration, by saying that the hotel is a distinguished institution, actually makes it one.
We can all wring our hands at the fact that pseudo-events now comprise the large majority of our media experiences. But the more compelling question for me (at least for this blog) is how cultural managers should respond to the dominance of false reality. We are, after all, purveyors of contrived content — often meticulously planned, scripted, crafted, practiced, and delivered to exacting standards. What distinguishes our work from the larger social theater of politics, of marketing, of media?
Back in a 2000 essay in the New York Times, playwright Tom Donaghy called this very question for his peers in the live theater. In a world of reality television and ”realness” in the commercial media, what’s the unique and powerful role of live cultural experience? Thankfully, he answered his own question:
[It is theater’s singular power] to contemplate our collective reality; as audience, actor and story engage in an unspoken discussion of what reality is, how definitions of reality can be broadened. Theater affords this opportunity like no other medium, as actors and audiences breathe side by side, together engendering the spiritual and meditative power that that shared experience implies.
In the end, we’re all wielding the same tools to construct the experiences and events we offer to the world. The difference is in the intent and purpose with which we wield them.
The Artful Manager
Messages sent into space directed at extraterrestrials may have been too boring to earn a reply, say two astrophysicists trying to improve on their previous alien chat lines.
Humans have so far sent four messages into space intended for alien listeners. But they have largely been made up of mathematically coded descriptions of some physics and chemistry, with some basic biology and descriptions of humans thrown in.
Those topics will not prove gripping reading to other civilisations, says Canadian astrophysicist Yvan Dutil. If a civilisation is advanced enough to understand the message, they will already know most of its contents, he says: “After reading it, they will be none the wiser about us humans and our achievements. In some ways, we may have been wasting our telescope time.”
In 1999 and 2003, Dutil and fellow researcher Stephane Dumas beamed messages in a language of their own design into space. Now, they are working to compose more interesting messages.
“The question is, what is interesting to an extraterrestrial?” Dutil told New Scientist. “We think the answer is using some common ground to communicate things about humanity that will be new or different to them – like social features of our society.” Fortunately those subjects are already being described mathematically by economists, physicists and sociologists, he adds.