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Surrounded by blogs, what's a critic to do?

Oct 19, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 05 • By NATALIE AXTON
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Two months ago I had the distinct pleasure of witnessing the devaluation of print journalism. It was a weekend performance of Christopher Wheeldon's Morphoses at Central Park's Summerstage. I was caged in the press section, right of stage and on ground level. Robert Greskovic from the Wall Street Journal was in the cage as well. Seats in front of me were reserved for the New Yorker's Joan Acocella. Every writer brought a boyfriend. It was business as usual.

Usual, that is, until five minutes to curtain, when I saw a harried press agent running with a cup of white wine. Potables being one of the few merits of outdoor performances, I was beginning to think I would like this performance of Morphoses just fine. But the agent passed the critics' section, heading for back bleachers. He took that wine to Tonya Plank, a blogger who calls herself the Swan Lake Samba Girl. He looked nervous.

Previously a thankless job, arts criticism is enjoying a new vogue online. Suddenly, there are thousands of blogs devoted to all matters of arts mania. Want to read about heartthrob baritones, dance on camera, or the politics of the stagehand's union? There's a blog for you. Don't care to read? Highlight videos are delivered via Twitter.

An arts enthusiast has no reason to buy a newspaper, which makes some people angry. Elizabeth Zimmer recently described the blogosphere as a "miasma of amateur expression." The stalwart critic of the Village Voice might be right on that note: In the anti-authoritarian world of the Internet, criticism is laypeople talking to laypeople, who seem to like that just fine.

All the same, the restructuring of the newspaper industry poses real problems for arts organizations. With a diminishing number of full-time critics, defining exactly who is and is not "press" can be a tricky issue. In a field with little monetary reward, artists compete for column space. Any coverage is better than none, especially in a crowded field with many shows playing to audiences of 80 to 100 people and running only three or four nights. Without a written record, what's the point? Bloggers increasingly make the press list, for better and worse.

Arts opinion-writing has a higher barrier to entry than political or financial commentary: Critics need to see the work and be familiar with its history, most of which is never recorded in libraries, real or virtual. Age is an advantage; so is professional association. Professional critics rarely fall under the spell of arts organizations' own publicity, which has been increasing since the 1980s. The pros would never reprint press releases verbatim, as is common among the bloggers, who draw no line between criticism and promotion and don't seem to realize when they're waxing polemical.

Some professional critics have adopted the blog format, with caveats. James Wolcott writes primarily online, yet no one would call him a blogger. Arts Journal, a non-paying arts writing aggregator, has given newspaper critics, both employed and recently laid-off, an online home. John Rockwell blogs there; so does Terry Teachout. There are no hard rules, but I sense a growing pressure on critics to maintain a personal web presence. The New Yorker's Alex Ross has little to blog, yet he does at The New York Times dance writer Claudia LaRocco writes more personally on her blog for WNYC, where she responds to (and usually accommodates) her coterie of "commenters."

This seems like unpaid overtime at its worst, but online writing allows critics to target a more specific audience. A conference of agreeable minds can be quite pleasant, when your interests have put you in a minority. The trade-off is that the tone is considerably sharper, especially when comments are enabled. Add the immediacy of online publication and you have a recipe for highbrow snark and meta-criticism. Straddling formats can be rewarding.

In 1985 when I was nine my grandmother gave me a small clock radio, and at night I would tune in to my favorite program, Karl Haas's Adventures in Good Music. I remember Haas's orotund voice and the show's theme, Beethoven's Pathétique Sonata, second movement. Haas's program wasn't really journalistic; but it was didactic, covering musical structure, technique, and history in happy reverence. (With what regret he would fade out of a passage if it was running him overtime!) The show was also popular, nationally syndicated from 1970 and inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 1997. It defined an alternative to pop music.