Monday, December 27, 2010
The biggest "arts story" in Boston this year may have been the further decline of the city's arts criticism. In theatre, in fact, the "decline" is tipping from a slippery slope to a cascade - to a sheer cliff; it's more like a disappearance than a decline. The Phoenix has cut back its theatre coverage to a trickle, and the Globe and Herald seem to have turned their backs on any but established groups with Equity contracts. All these press organs are maintaining some coverage, yes - and perhaps percentage-wise, that coverage hasn't shrunk all that much; but the papers themselves are shrinking, and thus so is the number of their reviews.
Of course the local arts criticism was never very good in the Athens of America - it always lagged behind the quality of the local scene itself; but at least there was more of it, and a theatre company on the rise could use good reviews to grow its audience. Yes, there were poisonous snakes in the grass (Bill Marx), and bitter old queens on the make (Kevin Kelly), but still something like access to the city's larger public, flawed as it may have been, was available for an ambitious theatrical start-up.
I think that's over now. Even as the scene has continued to expand, print coverage has continued to contract, and so today, it's almost unheard-of for a fringe group to attract any attention from the "major" press. The super-annuated critics of the Globe, Phoenix and Herald (okay, she's not super-annuated, but something tells me her editor is) make the rounds of the equity houses, but that's about it; I think I can count on one hand these papers' combined forays onto the fringe. They have essentially de-coupled from the city at large to only follow a theatre scene "preserved" from about 2005 - with new attention paid only to large-scale ventures like this fall's ArtsEmerson initiative (which has probably pushed more than one smaller company off our local pages).
The result is a surreal disjuncture between the print-media picture of Boston and reality. Looking over those two "Top 10" lists, in fact, was for me like staring at a line-up of the usual suspects of the past few years: the ART; the Huntington; SpeakEasy Stage, the Lyric . . . these could have been top-10 lists from five, or even ten, years ago. Which means that local print criticism is failing at an essential aspect of criticism: discovery. Yes, the upper-middlebrow connoisseurs of the Globe and Phoenix may accurately chart the tastes of their respective suburbs - but do they really expect to be choosing among precisely the same theatre companies ten years from now? Perhaps they do. (If their editors say so, they will be.) Or perhaps they simply expect said masters, or the town itself, to move talent forward for them, so they can eventually place their laurels on new artists who have, in effect, already been crowned.
You could argue, I suppose, that this abdication of their central responsibility isn't really the critics' fault; in a way, it was always built into the business model of the press, and the current crisis merely reflects the collapse of that model, as well as a failure of imagination on the part of all those editors. Which leads one to wonder precisely what is keeping the Globe, say, from maintaining a blog on its site with online reviews, paid for with a pittance, by any number of qualified writers living around the city. No, not me - I'm thinking more of former media figures who are still floating around hoping to pick up work. I'm hardly a fan of most of these people, but wouldn't they be happy for the exposure, and wouldn't fringe theatres be happy with whatever attention the Globe and Herald could give them?
For exposure is the name of the game, as they say, and I think it's worth admitting that the blogosphere - my own blog included - isn't always picking up the slack. I probably see and critique more than any other person in the city - probably two to three to ten times (in some cases) what the major print critics review. And I like to think my analysis is as strong - oh, hell, actually of course I think it's stronger - than any criticism Boston has seen in years. But I can't get to everything, and so far no other blogger has emerged with anything like my stamina (several go to as many shows, but none can match my output). There are, of course, independent blogs and sites worth reading - but I have to point out the feared torrent of mediocre, self-serving opinion that so many observers predicted would "take over" the cultural space hasn't really materialized. Instead there simply is no expanding cultural space - as the theatre scene continues to grow, it just meets a critical void.
So where do we go from here, as the song said? People seem to think these days that I'm the natural one to initiate what "The Arts Fuse" has failed to become (and what so far the promised TimeOut Boston site has failed to launch); they often suggest I edit a larger site, featuring other writers. But I'm not really an editor by nature, and at any rate I'm also drawn to the other arts as well, which face much the same lack of attention from the local press - and to be blunt, I only have so much time. I will keep thinking about it, though, and maybe I'll figure something out. In the meantime I'm shaking my head at the irony of what the Internet has wrought for the performing arts. Wasn't there supposed to be some sort of "explosion" of "critical thinking," some sort of cultural tsunami in the offing? Wasn't the Internet supposed to unlock opportunities instead of making them dry up? Looking over the "blogrolls" of the many sites I'm familiar with, I'm struck again and again by the fact that there are only a handful dedicated to serious criticism. Almost all are instead works of self-promotion-in-progress, or attempts at political punditry, or just little bulletin boards where this or that thought or link is whimsically pinned. And oddly, even the blogosphere seems to be shrinking in ambition and relevance - the Web itself is no longer hip, because everybody's singing to him- or herself, and only rarely does anyone actually go to the theatre. (Indeed, when this happens, the blogger usually pats him- or herself on the back with touching pride.) Oh, well; I suppose the theatre can survive the slow death of criticism; the mirror up to nature can live without its own mirror. But I sometimes wonder - if a show opens in the forest and nobody writes a review, does it really make a noise?