Sandra Kurtz and Leigh Witchel, both of whom I enjoy reading at Ballet Alert! (and Leigh at Dance View Times, post some thoughtful comments to ?Damning with Fulsome Praise??
?It is sad that the byproduct of the Internet is the specialization of the reader. But when Bill Keller, editor at the NY Times, calls people who read dance and opera reviews a niche market as he did in an interview with the LA Times, he’s counted us out of the general readership. How do we reconvince mainstream publications that the fine arts are not a specialized interest, but a necessary part of cultural literacy??
And Sandra writes:
?Several years ago, at a Dance Critics Association conference, we had a panel on changes in dance writing as it moves to the ‘net, and one of the phenomenon discussed was something then called “point casting” — the method through which the reader (or, more ominously, the publisher) could tailor news to the specific reader. As a reader you could request to see only certain parts of a publication — as a publisher/distributor you could use that information to track other, specialized, material to that reader. I don’t know that this potential is always utilized, but I do know that the weekly paper I write for tracks individual “hits” on section of the website quite thoroughly. And that every time I as a reader go to a specific part of any web publication they have the capacity to put a “check” in that particular “box.” We have, as readers, in many ways participated in our own marginalization.?
Leigh?s final question is a tough one. Newspapers and magazines are simply responding to what they perceive their audience wants. That?s why I think reader engagement is key. If a newspaper?s subscribers wrote letters to the editor on dance with one-tenth the frequency with which they respond to movie reviews, we?d see a lot more space for dance coverage. I like to think it?s not just a personal pipe dream of mine that this could happen.
I?m not sure if the DCA conference to which Sandra refers is the same one I attended in 2003. The Nation?s Victor Navasky and the NY Times? John Rockwell spoke to us with grim news about the increasingly sidelined place of dance?and indeed all the ?high? arts?in even culturally literate publications. All kinds of sociological explanations?many of them accurate, I?m sure?were given. But what frustrated me was the scant time given to finding solutions. I hate to be simplistic, but I think as dance writers the number one thing we can do is focus on the writing?i.e., take pains to write for a general audience even as all signs point to that audience diminishing. This does not mean ?dumbing down.? One of the things I admire in Joan Acocella?s work for the New Yorker is that it?s intelligent without presupposing historical or technical knowledge of dance on the part of the reader. Any culturally literate person could stumble across one of her reviews and engage with it.
Of course, there is always an important place for specialists and the specialist audience. But as more dance writers migrate to the Internet, as dance coverage withers in general interest publications, it?s incumbent upon those of us so inclined to try to write for people both inside and outside the dance world. If we accept that dance today belongs in the margins, we may write ourselves right off the page.
I’ve had a similar conversation with Alexandra T. over at Ballet Alert. If I recall the substance of it correctly, she maintained, interestingly and arguably, that we have to think of the media as more than an instrument of response to people’s interests. It forms them as well. She felt there was a time that papers operated on that assumption with a sense of cultural duty. It’s easy to posit the self-perpetuating cycle of lower profits and more specialized readers leading the media to think of itself purely in terms of commercial survival.
Pretty depressing I realize, but to ask the question optimistically, can we find new ways to form popular taste? I think we can. I recall another article linked on Ballet Talk where an English arts administrator talked about the financial necessity of stars – and the fact that the dance system is no longer creating them. To me, it’s all related.