Arts Criticism for the Millennials
Maura Judkis. Photo by Jay Westcott, Politico
In the last hour on Twitter, I've read that artist William Powhida's New York show is a dud, and that Hugo Weaving's performance as the Red Skull is a high point in Captain America. These weren't opinions from published critics; rather, they were from regular Twitter users with an enthusiasm for art and pop culture. Readers of my generation, the Millennials, are more likely to want to see a movie or play because their friends like it than because a critic does. We're more likely to discover art through our Facebook and Twitter feeds, and to take the suggestions of Netflix and Pandora than to discover new things on our own.
It might seem, then, that Millennials have no appetite for arts journalism, but that's not the case: Younger readers want to read and share stories more than ever. They just want to have a say in what's being read and shared. They want to be the critics. So where do arts journalists fit in?
There is an abundance of opinion on the Internet, but bringing reporting into criticism is what will set the professional arts journalists apart from the amateur. Reporting on process---the behind-the-scenes stories that enable readers to identify with artists---will attract audiences who might otherwise overlook an arts journalist in favor of their best friend's Tumblr. It's something I learned firsthand, both at TBD.com, Washington’s newest online news organization, and a 10-day stint at the pop-up newsroom of Engine 28 for the NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater and Musical Theater.
TBD.com hired me to write about theater and art, not to be a critic. Between legacy media, blogs, and random Twitter followers longing to share their opinions, we decided that Washington's flourishing arts scene had enough critical voices in the mix. Starting a new site with a new critic would have been shouting into a crowded room. So we eschewed criticism, almost entirely, in favor of film, theater, and music coverage that was reported often with a critical voice.
The journalists of Engine 28 came together from different newsrooms to cover three theater happenings in Los Angeles in June 2011: RADAR LA, the Hollywood Fringe Festival, and the Theatre Communications Group's annual conference. As a temporary newsroom, we could be nimble and experimental, and create the type of journalism that might not have a place in our home publications. We wrote blog posts, recorded podcasts, produced a web show, made video postcards, and used Twitter and Wordle and VYou to tell readers about the festivals. Many of us also wrote traditional reviews and profiles and think pieces. But when we debriefed on the last day of our fellowship, our editor, Doug McLennan of Arts Journal, told us that it was our blog posts and our reported feature stories that brought the most viewers to the site. Our reviews---with the exception of two particularly negative ones---had very few readers at all.
Though I can't speak for other publications, this was the case at TBD as well. By reporting on the art-making process, rather than just passing judgment on the final product, we were able to give readers the behind-the-scenes glimpse more valuable to a Millennial audience than a review. Just as this generation is many things---social, savvy, sub in any web 2.0 catchphrase here---it is a generation that derives more value from the arts when they feel like insiders, or can relate to the participants. Look at the TV we watch: American Idol and Top Chef have hooked audiences by showing them the way the sausage is made (quite literally, for the latter), and allowing them to potentially have a say in the outcome. This is not to equate these shows with higher art forms; it's to demonstrate that our interest in process over product is transferable to other art forms, high and low.
Of course, critics will always have a place in our culture. The process-based reporting I've observed is an addition to, not a replacement for good criticism. We need critics to engage with artists, to shape our dialogue about art, and to provide context---but we also need them to recognize that they must broaden their roles as journalism and audiences change.
Media and art are more engaging for Millennials when we can be a part of that process. Life in a Day, the recently-released movie compiled entirely from YouTube clips, or the Smithsonian Institution's upcoming crowdsourced The Art of Video Games show are two examples. On a smaller scale, sites like Kickstarter and United States Artists allow you to invest in an artist's project for the chance to be a part of the process in return. The artists soliciting funds can invite you to private rehearsals or give you limited-edition prints in exchange for financial support. For me, writing about process meant, for example, interviewing actors about their reaction to prop severed heads in their likeness, getting inside a mysterious photographer's head by posing for her shots, or tracking down a long-lost painting, step-by-step.
Of course, for journalists to be able to cover process, they must be given access---something that not every arts institution may be willing to share. But those that do will be rewarded. This year, I chronicled the entire rehearsal process of Washington D.C.'s Forum Theatre's production of Naomi Wallace's One Flea Spare---which was also open to the theater's subscribers. By attending rehearsals or just reading about the show coming together in "Flea Bites," our series on TBD, readers could forge a deeper connection to the work by understanding the challenges in producing it. Process-focused arts journalism is also artist-centric journalism, and for what it's worth, One Flea Spare didn't get great reviews, but audiences---both of the show and the series---didn't seem to notice. (As for TBD---those who follow media news may recall that the site had endured some very public struggles. It lives on as an arts and entertainment site, an area of coverage cited as its strongest in the restructuring).
Critics' words may be powerful, but their influence wanes---and if they want to maintain an audience with a 140-character attention span, they're going to have to change not only how they communicate with their audience through digital and social media, but what they communicate. It will have to happen in a way that doesn't condescend, too: The Millennial audience was raised to consume media this way, and our habits aren't about to change. That means critics must rethink the idea of what a review, a profile, or a story can be---which could be anything a creative arts journalist can dream up, as long as it's engaging. Art is becoming more participatory, and arts journalism needs to follow.
Maura Judkis is a producer for the Style section of the Washington Post. Previously, she was the theater and visual art reporter for TBD. Her writing has appeared in ARTnews, U.S. News & World Report, the Washington City Paper, AM New York, and the Onion A.V. Club.