One of the substantial changes in the arts environment that has happened with astonishing speed is that arts criticism has become a participatory activity rather than a spectator sport. Every artist, producer or arts organization used to wait for a handful of reviews to determine the critical response to a particular project. And while very few critics for a small set of news outlets still wield great power to make or break a project (usually a for-profit theater project which runs longer and therefore needs to sell far more tickets than any other arts project), a larger portion of arts projects have become somewhat immune to the opinions of any one journalist.
This has happened for three reasons.
First, far fewer people are getting their news from print media. There is a reason the newspaper industry is in trouble. Advertisers are spending less in print media because fewer people are reading hard copy newspapers. And for those arts projects aimed at younger audiences, hard copy newspapers are no longer a central element of a marketing strategy. Younger people get virtually all of their information online, through news web sites, social media and chat rooms. And older people are increasingly getting their information online as well.
Second, because serious arts coverage has been deemed an unnecessary expense by many news media outlets looking to pare costs, there are fewer critics and less space devoted to serious arts criticism. Even the New York Times' arts section is dominated now by features and reviews of popular entertainment -- television, movies and pop music -- rather than serious opera, dance, music or theater.
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.
No one critic should be deemed the arbiter of good taste in any market and it is wonderful that people now have an opportunity to express their feelings about a work of art. But great art must not be measured by a popularity contest. Otherwise the art that appeals to the lowest common denominator will always be deemed the best.