I was watching an episode of the old television series “Columbo” the other day, and in it, a Los Angeles restaurant owner was murdered by a local food critic, played by the dashing French actor Louis Jourdan. (Jourdan, who died last year at age 93, captured perfectly the elite, condescending attitude our culture used to associate stereotypically with food and art critics.)
One of episode’s the later scenes took place at a formal dinner for the “Food Critics Association” in a ballroom packed with people in tuxedos and formal gowns.
It struck me that such a scene would be pretty much unthinkable these days as the instance of professional, full-time critics regularly writing for newspapers is becoming far more the exception than the rule. Art critics, classical music critics and certainly dance critics have all but vanished from most of our major newspapers.
Movie critics have done a better job of avoiding this fate, a condition I attribute to the movies being a more “democratic” art form, as I’ve sometimes heard them described. Even so, we no longer have anyone as authoritative as, for instance, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert were back in their heyday.
Here in Texas, Scott Cantrell, the excellent classical music critic for The Dallas Morning News, took a buyout last summer and his position went away. With the disappearance of such voices, an important element of a healthy art scene disappears, too.
A few years ago in American Artist magazine, Daniel Grant said art critics were “a conduit between artists and the general public, and artists have relied on reviews to generate a discussion of, and interest in, their work.” That conduit is still needed, perhaps now more than ever.
Some will correctly point out that even as fewer newspapers employ professional critics, there’s still abundant conversation about the arts being carried out online by tens of thousands of Internet bloggers and tweeters. It’s true that while having legions of writers in the blogosphere review and comment on performances and exhibits reflects broader and more egalitarian reactions to art, it can’t replicate certain aspects of the way it used to be. For instance, the formality and authority that newspapers once had in American culture contributed prestige to any cultural activities the newspapers covered. Our current system of Internet commentary mostly lacks this authority.
What’s more, as Jerome Weeks of KERA’s online arts magazine Art&Seek put it, “it’s important for a city’s cultural conversation to have someone with ‘skin in the game’ — in other words, it’s his or her job to keep the rest of us informed about what’s happening, not happening, needs to happen.”
An abundance of people weighing in on performances and exhibits, while it may indicate that interest in the arts are alive and well, much of what’s written increasingly blurs the line between opinion and informed opinion. Informed professional criticism inevitably relies less on pure opinion. One who makes her living by writing about, say, theater performances, will have a deeper reservoir of knowledge and experience to draw on and her comments will touch on things that perhaps an average viewer — even a passionate one — may miss. Similarly, an art critic who deeply understands modernism has at least the potential to base his criticism of a museum exhibition on something other than his personal tastes and prejudices.
The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and The New Yorker magazine are three national publications that still uphold the standard of serious art criticism by writers with long experience in their individual genres. Bravo to any newspaper that stays in their company.