Interview with Alisa Solomon[1]

By Andrea Tompa[2]

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ANDREA TOMPA: You teach journalism at Columbia University, and your experience includes writing for two decades for the Village Voice. What do you observe now in art criticism in the U.S.? Space for art criticism is shrinking worldwide in the print media. Do you observe such a thing in the U.S. media? Since when?

ALISA SOLOMON: Yes, absolutely. Space for art criticism has been shrinking for a long while. Even before the pressures of the Internet, business models for newspapers and magazines (and publishing in general) were changing as early as the 1980s, even at an alternative weekly like the Village Voice, where I saw the arts pages shrivel over time. In the early heyday of the Voice, and the alternative weeklies in the U.S. more generally (and indeed, even for mainstream newspapers), publication was driven by principle. That is, people produced these publications out of commitment to some ideals: the importance to a democracy of an informed citizenry; a need for coverage of communities, movements, cultural production, perspectives often ignored by the mainstream; the desire to fill a gap in the stories being told and information being disseminated; and so on. But as papers were sold or swallowed up into media conglomerates, they became driven by a different motive: profit. While they had been doing well enough financially until then, the new business imperative required a much larger profit margin. If owners are in it only for the money, and not for the sake of a mission, then they want to see as big a return as they might win with other investments. That became much more important than any public-service impetus that may have originally animated the paper. (This paralleled—or maybe was a result or symptom of—a more general shift in the American ethos that one can date to the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, who promoted an ideology that anything of value would pay for itself: the market rules. That went for healthcare, education, parks, the arts… We saw a big wave of privatization and a growing suspicion of public funding for anything.) By the early 1990s, the Voice’s theatre section was dwindling. When I started there in 1983, we had three or four full pages per week—with eight reviews or more written by regular contributors who had real expertise in the field. By the time I left in 2004, there was, at best, a page-and-a-half each week, with one primary critic (Michael Feingold) getting most of that space. Nowadays, there is even less—and Feingold was laid off earlier this year. We have seen this sad fate at other papers and in coverage of the other arts. The theatre pages were among the earliest and hardest hit because they didn’t bring in the same level of advertising dollars that movies, pop music, and other sections that cover mass culture bring in. But following the decline that started in the 1980s, the impact of the Internet on news media generally only hastened and worsened the slide downward. Over the last eight years, nearly half of the staff jobs in arts journalism at U.S. newspapers have disappeared (as have many staff jobs in other departments).

And what do you think the reasons are?—both the obvious ones (the Internet) and the less obvious ones?

This is a long and multilayered story, as I already began to suggest above, having a lot to do with a changing ethos and an almost religiously fundamentalist belief in the free market as the arbiter of everything. Another factor is the extreme anti-intellectualism in our culture, where expertise is often derided as “elitist.” Critics, under this view, are not just expendable, but somehow dangerous or villainous. And publications themselves have to assume some of the responsibility. Those that emphasized the role of criticism as consumer reporting—thumbs up/thumbs down, assigning letter-grades or numbers of stars—rather than fostering idea-driven discussion of artworks, have been hoisted on their own petard. Cheap listings publications and the Internet can provide those quick ratings more easily than newspapers and magazines can, so it’s no surprise that they have proven to be unconquerable competition for print journalism. And yes, of course, the Internet, where we have all learned to expect to get everything for free.

Parallel to some newspapers becoming less concerned about art criticism, some media (such as TheNew York Times) have become more powerful? Is this correct?

Yes a little, but mostly no—but not so much because of the change in the media landscape. The New York Times has always been the most powerful of the newspapers commercially—the only one whose review could actually close a show with a negative review. If any paper can still do that, it is only the Times. But for a good number of years, producers have figured out how to make their shows “critic-proof”: massive marketing campaigns, advance-sale ticket packages, and huge PR machinery have a lot more impact on getting people into seats than the Times. The musical Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark is a good example. It was universally panned by the reviewers—the Times and everybody else—and yet it has been running more than two years. The reviews don’t much matter to box office on that scale (though maybe have more of an impact on Off- and Off-Off-Broadway productions that don’t have big budgets for marketing.)

On the Internet, criticism is being practiced more and more by “amateurs” as well. Do you see this as a part of the democratization of opinions?

“Amateurs” always shared their opinions with friends and colleagues—the famous water cooler conversations at work and the word-of-mouth that shows have long depended on. The difference now is that they are doing it through blogs, tweets, Facebook posts, and other web platforms—and, most significantly—that certain commercial websites have elevated consumer opinion to the status of criticism. I’m thinking of the consumer reviews of books on amazon.com, for example, and others that have followed suit. These are innocent and reasonable in many respects—why shouldn’t people talk about what they’re reading or watching or listening to? But I do think it’s all fostered a culture that blurs the lines between the blurt of opinion (and the Internet generally cultivates outbursts and often anonymous screeds for which the writers cannot be held to account) and considered judgment.

Do you think professional criticism is less needed today? Do you think all opinions are equal in criticism?

For me, the distinction between mere opinion and considered judgment is all-important. All opinions are not equal. Everyone is welcome to have one, of course, but that doesn’t make an opinion persuasive or solidly based. Criticism involves opinion, but it isn’t only opinion; it brings to bear knowledge, contextual thinking, intellectual ambition, elegant argumentation. Our culture needs such practice more than ever—in our political discourse as well as in our discussion of the arts. In that respect, I think we need professional critics desperately.

Could you give a definition of “professional critic”?

And what I mean by “professional critic” is one who has the capacity to do all of those things I just enumerated. Those abilities may come from formal training in a university or conservatory, but not necessarily. Seeing a lot of theatre—and, of course, the other arts—and reading and talking about work with other engaged people can provide an excellent education and build one’s expertise and authority. (Notice that I am not defining “professional” the way the Olympics still try to define it for athletes—as someone who is paid for her/his work. That is a different problem.)

Some professional critics have begun to use new tools to express their opinions—tools such as blogs, Facebook or Twitter. How can a critic still make a living from criticism if he or she only writes a blog? How will a critic stay “professional” if writing becomes only a hobby?

Yes, this is the problem. As news media have lost the business model that sustained them for a century before figuring out what the new business model is going to be and have laid off most of their critics, how is a critic to pay the bills—and to distinguish her/himself for the multitudes of mere opinion-blurters out there. I don’t think there’s an answer yet—certainly not a general one. Some individuals are figuring out ways to freelance and find audiences (and even small advertisers) for their blogs. But I do worry that criticism might become more and more of a “gentleman’s hobby”—a practice that will be engaged only by those with enough income to purchase lots of theatre tickets and to have time to write without a paycheck. Part of the new model says that Twitter and other social media build the critic’s “personal brand” and that her/his ability to bring readers along to any publication where s/he may get a paid assignment will be part of what gets her/him the assignment. There’s a self-commodification, or at least a system’s commodification of a human being, that makes me queasy. But maybe I’m just not part of the generation that has learned to think this way.

Do you personally read any art criticism blog?

Yes. And I use Facebook and Twitter. I find pleasure in these platforms and certainly exposure to articles, artworks, and ideas that I would not have come across otherwise (though I don’t confuse any of them with criticism!) There are a lot of bloggers I check in on periodically—though not every day—and are too numerous to list. I’ll just mention two for now: Jill Dolan’s Feminist Spectator, at thefeministspectator.com, which she writes on her own schedule, in her spare time, making a living as a professor; and howlround.com a fascinating platform for discussion within the theatre community, which recently added a criticism section (with some trepidation), which does pay writers and works on a non-profit model, applying for grants from its situation within a university. This is an exciting new model.

What do you think are the damages and added value created by “amateur” criticism?

The damages I already mentioned—but there are some advantages: When “amateurs” are drawn into heated and enthusiastic conversations about art, that has to be a good thing. All those commenters on amazon.com are reading books and talking about them and are interested in exchanging views with other readers. They bring an energy and passion to the debates that “professionals” may have started out with, but often forget as they work in a sometimes insular world or fall into a routine. That said, the number of theatre-goers in the U.S. is dwindling at least as fast as the number of critics (especially when you don’t count tourists seeing Broadway musicals.) This is a separate sad story, but one that has to make critics wonder for whom they are writing.

What is the impact of this new situation on the art world?

There are many exciting opportunities the digital sphere can bring to theatre criticism that we are just beginning to learn: incorporating video and audio into critical analysis; writing pieces that accrete over time rather than being held from publication until they are one whole, polished piece; provoking genuine discussion among readers through interactive comment sections (which can also have their drawbacks, of course); linking to relevant documents and other materials (the New York Times sometimes posts its reviews of original productions alongside the new ones about revivals, for instance. I just read their 1945 of the original production of The Glass Menagerie, for example, alongside their review for a new production that just opened here, starring Cherry Jones.) The web makes this possible. I think we need to be exploring how to make more use of such possibilities. There are pitfalls—one doesn’t want to fall into something that becomes merely promotional nor to sacrifice genuine thought-through argument to bells and whistles. But I think there are ways yet to be explored in which resources available through the web can enhance serious criticism.

Do you still practice criticism?

I don’t have a regular venue for writing these days and over the last few years I was working on a new book, so I wasn’t looking for one nor developing a platform of my own (which I might afford to do as I have a job as a professor, like Jill Dolan—though it does not leave me much time.) At the same time, I’m not so interested any more in writing reviews of 600 words on an overnight deadline, as I did for so many years at the Voice. Maybe it’s middle age, maybe it’s the state of the theatre and our culture more generally, maybe just the desire to do something different and face some new challenges, but I am more drawn to writing with more reflection and wider scope than typical reviews allow. I’m interested in combining narrative and critical analysis—criticism as story-telling, or vice versa, experimenting with form a bit and finding out what happens.


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[1] Alisa Solomon is a professor at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, where she directs the MA concentration in Arts & Culture. A longtime journalist and theatre critic, she is the author of Re-Dressing the Canon: Essays on Theater and Gender and of Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History ofFiddler on the Roof.

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[2] Andrea Tompa, PhD (1971) is a Hungarian theatre critic, researcher and writer. Her main field of interest is contemporary Hungarian, Russian and East European theatre and drama. She is the editor of the theatre magazine SZINHAZ (Theatre). Since fall 2009 she is the president of the Hungarian Theatre Critics’ Association, and also an academic at Babes-Bolyai University, Cluj, Romania. Recently she published her first novel, the Hangman’s House, about Romania the 70ies and 80ies.

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Mere Opinion and Considered Judgment: Amateur and Professional Criticism Today