What a weekend it?s been, and I haven?t even hit Memorial Day. On Thursday, I drove down to Santa Barbara to sit on a panel about careers in writing at UCSB. On Friday, I kept trucking south on the 101 freeway to Los Angeles for the first ever National Critics Conference. More than 400 jazz, classical music, dance, and theater writers converged on the Omni Hotel (a swank venue whose amenities I did not have opportunity to fully appreciate, since I opted to sleep at my brother-in-law?s vintage 1970?s Airstream in Venice Beach).
The Los Angeles Times gave the gathering a humorous write-up, portraying the critic as professional crank. And it?s true that critics as a class have their quirks. But we also have a key role to play in the way the arts are received and disseminated and understood?a role that?s rapidly diminishing according to this earlier L.A. Times piece, and judging from general consensus among critics themselves. I?ve seen it at the Dance Critics Association conferences I?ve attended in recent years: Most critics today are disheartened and downright scared, as space for reviews is slashed and staff newspaper positions for their work are eliminated. And I?ll admit, the idea of an inter-disciplinary critics conference struck me as the journalistic equivalent of Custer?s Last Stand. But miraculously, by Saturday the mood at the conference became one of resolve rather than defeat. I?m not one to get swept up in group sentiment, but there was a sense of history being made.
That?s because on Saturday, after two days of attending panels about everything from ethical traps to the legacy of Bella Lewitsky (and after watching the crowd hiss at L.A. Times arts editor Lisa Fung because she has yet to hire a theater critic), we critics were asked to break into groups of 20 and brainstorm concrete steps we can take to improve the field of arts criticism. The discussions?and the proposed solutions?were absolutely inspiring. Some of the crucial recurring points:
–Critics need to move away from a top-down ?opinion from on high? style of writing and strive instead to provoke dialogue and conversation.
–Critics need to think outside the old formulas of reviews and advances, and learn to develop stories that connect the arts to the lives of a larger audience.
–Critics need to get with the times and learn to use the Internet better to publish, to promote their work, and to connect with their readers.
–Critics need to stop bitching about their lot and take immediate action to rehabilitate the image of the critic in American society.
The list goes on, but that last point gets to the heart of things. And by the end of Saturday, we had actions to take. The leaders of the Dance Critics Association, the American Theater Critics Association, the Music Critics Association of North America, the International Association of Arts Critics/USA, and the Jazz Journalists Association announced that they had resolved to join forces for a conference again?possibly in New York in 2007. The groups also plan to immediately investigate forming a new umbrella organization to unite us. Once formed, this National Critics group hopes to start a National Critics website with training and mentoring resources for arts writers, and a description of professional standards?both in practice of the craft and in working conditions?to aspire to.
We all left energized and determined. And though I?m too dog tired to pitch in tonight, I plan to contribute in small ways over the next few weeks. For instance, I?ll post a quick guide on how critics can start their own blogs, a simple and crucial tool that seems to have flummoxed technology-averse arts writers. You haven?t heard the last from me about the National Critics Conference, and I?m sure you haven?t seen the last of the National Critics Conference either.