Art Works Blog

Why We Still Need Professional Art Critics

August 15, 2011

John Ephland. Photo by Kristin Putney

When approached by the NEA to respond to the conversation between NEA Senior Deputy Chairman Joan Shigekawa and the Knight Foundation’s Vice President for Arts Dennis Scholl about the Knight/NEA Community Arts Journalism Challenge, my first thoughts were about the subject itself: art criticism. What it is, what is it not, and what’s it to ya?

Like most people who write about art, I love the subject matter I write about most: music. As a music writer and critic for over 25 years now, my “scene” has tended to go beyond the so-called community to include the wider “Community,” where geography matters less than the subject being written about. I understand that, yes, everyone to varying degrees has their own opinions on, say, whether Herbie Hancock is really a jazz musician or something else. But without the learned scribe who has made certain choices in his or her life to stay with Hancock’s music and life, and hopefully been changed by it, we are a poorer society. The music community is supported by the communities at large that love music. The connective, literary tissue is, in this case, most often the music writer. And many times, that community becomes something that transcends a particular locale.

I grew up loving to read writers talking about music, and viewed it as a necessary backdrop to listening to the musicians they covered. So it naturally followed that I might become one or the other when I grew up. It was about staying close to something. But even though my case is not typical, and most music lovers are just people who love it, there’s always been a need for places where people can read about this most ephemeral of art forms. And, written as an extension of the music itself (which ain’t no mean feat), music journalism can, like other forms of arts journalism, speak to both the aficionado as well as the expert, the novice as well as the savant. We not only stand between the artist and the audience as critics, suggesting when something miraculous has just happened or busting someone for what is deemed a hack job, but we also celebrate these creative people with interviews and stories about their lives (hopefully good ones), to inspire, inform, as well as to entertain. We can be bridges. And people love writers who do this. It can be like a food for them, feeding their spirits. Think Lester Bangs, Nat Hentoff, Nelson George, Peter Guralnick, and Ellen Willis for starters.

These aspects of arts journalism and criticism then have a great value for the artist, challenging and supporting them, as well as the audience and community at large, informing and providing some hoped-for context, and not a little bit of education as well. By adding insight and relevant background information on someone or some work of art, the arts reporter can build excitement and hopefully add a richer experience for the viewer, listener, and connoisseur.

As also discussed in the interview between Shigekawa and Scholl, and addressed somewhat here, is the role of the arts critic and how it has undergone some changes. Like with any reporting, the arts are just as much fair game for bloggers, tweeters, and the like. The field is more crowded now, and in order to stand out among so many new voices---voices that echo this very notion that people in general do want to talk and think and write about this stuff we call art---professional arts writers need more than ever to find their own voice as they continue to develop their craft. Not that that wasn’t always the case, but to rise above the din, arts writers now need to have familiar platforms and a distinctive style that sets them apart: you read someone not only for what they have to say professionally, but for how they say it. That’s what keeps readers coming back time and again to that writer. Citizen journalists are vital. The Arab Spring via social media is the best current example I can think of when it comes to this idea. But we also want to be challenged, informed, even bathed in the words of someone who clearly loves what they view or hear, as they draw on their own experiences and ongoing knowledge.

What we need, in the end, is someone talking to us who stands apart and can gauge what’s there in a way that helps us make better sense of the world we live in. As C.S. Lewis commented, in his An Experiment In Criticism some 50 years ago, “The supreme objection to this is that which lies against the popular use of all the arts. We are so busy doing things with the work that we give it too little chance to work on us. Thus increasingly we meet only ourselves.”

Letting the “work” work on us, a work reported by one committed over time to its various “uses,” can make all the difference.

John Ephland is a music writer and critic.

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