Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A Plague of Bloggers? Really?

Recently, while perusing the pages of the current issue of Border Crossings--an edition I also recently gave a shout-out to on Twitter for its Lawrence-Weiner-penned tribute to the late Gerald Ferguson--I saw something a bit strange that I thought might be worth noting here, however self-reflexively.

The troubling points in question are written by Robert Enright in his review of the documentary For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism.

Writes Enright,
What the documentary also shows is that in place of serious film critics, the Internet has facilitated (and I’ll have no trouble with the collective noun for this group) a plague of bloggers.

He goes on to state,
There are those in the film generous enough to view this development as a healthy democratization, a state where everyone is a film critic. They’re welcome to that opinion. What the film makes clear is that one Stanley Kauffmann is worth a hundred Harry Knowles. “What I see of Internet reviewing,” says Richard Schickel, “is people of surpassing ignorance about the medium expressing themselves in the medium.”

I guess what concerned me, mostly, is that any argument that posits "bloggers" vs "critics" seems kind of old and tired, and frankly I'm surprised to see it even being tossed out as a helpful dividing line in 2010.

The fact is--at least in my experience--that both print and online mediums provide forums to good writers and bad writers, thoughtful reviewers and unthoughtful ones.

Granted, I'll admit that the process of getting into print can, in theory, provide some measure of separating the wheat from the chaff. But this is less so in the art media, where jargon and poor writing tends to reign.

Also, there's a number of blogs (and let me be clear, I ain't talking about mine) that provide vital, engaging approaches to criticism. I'm talking about, to name just a few examples, Art Fag City, Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic, Two Coats of Paint, Another Bouncing Ball, Modern Art Notes and C Monster. What's more, to be academic about it, there are newspaper critics who have their own informative blogs, like Roger Ebert and Jonathan Jones. Finally, whether some folks like it or not, blogs provide an often entertaining forum for discussion, perspective and information, a reason I regularly visit outlets ranging from Sally & Lorna Mills' blog to Simpleposie to View on Canadian Art.

Another concerning point of argument comes up when Enright writes,
The heavyweights are included [in the film]—Roger Ebert (The Chicago Sun-Times), A O Scott (The New York Times), J Hoberman (The Village Voice), Richard Schickel (Time) and Lisa Schwarzbaum (Entertainment Weekly)—as are the featherweights—Harry Knowles (aintitcool.com), Mike Szymanski (zap2it.com) and Scott Weinberg (cinematical.com). For the most part, this latter group has little to say about the history of film criticism, since they are its irredeemable present. They measure their success in website hits and the number of times they have been quoted. When Jonathan Rosenbaum from the Chicago Reader says that, “the best thing that can be said of a critic is that what he writes is so singular and interesting that you can’t turn it into advertising,” you are aware he has drawn a line in the sand and the boy from zap2it.com is decidedly on the other side.

The main criticism of bloggers that caught my eye here was "They measure their success in website hits and the number of times they have been quoted"--as if print magazines don't measure their own success in audited circulation numbers or in the number of instances their title was referred to in other media. (Magazine grant applications and advertising/media kits are, as I think all of us know at this point, replete with the results of this kind of intensively tracked data.)

The sub-criticism that's also worth noting is the implication that bloggers are more susceptible than print critics to becoming mere glowing-review/advertising-quote generators. The thing is, at least in the Canadian art world, print critics (myself admittedly included) write a whole hella lot more positive reviews than negative ones. And the more negative critiques in our realm tend to turn up on blogs (hello, Artfag!). But that's another post...

Overall, I respect Border Crossings, and I respect Robert Enright--as a result I find the logical leaps and judgment calls in this review quite strange indeed. Now it's duly noted. Thanks Internet!

Image from Pop and Politics


sally said...

great post, Leah (and thanks of course for the shout-out). I agree that the blog/print dichotomy is a bit of a red herring in this day and age, and I appreciate your analysis, which gets at the underlying issues.

Anonymous said...

Of course the question really is, if a group of bloggers are called a plague (in the way that a group of ravens are called a murder and, my all time favourite, a group of crows are called an unkindness), then what's the collective noun for a group of print-based critics?


Leah Sandals said...

Hey Sally & Anonymous,

Thanks for your comments.

I'll admit that Enright does have some sense of humor about print critics -- in his article he calls it "a confusion of critics" -- not a bad moniker, particularly in light of conversations like this one!

Anonymous said...

Damn, Leah, that just cuts the whole question short. A confusion of critics. Perfect.

Andy said...

What I find amusing in all this blogger v critic debate is that if blogging had been a widely available medium when many respected critics started would they have gone down the blogging route? I think they would because it is a way of getting your opinions out there when starting out. But because blogging is still relatively new some people see it as encroaching on their profession and diluting it because it has made it more widely accessible rather than being in the exclusive land of print.

Joanne Mattera said...

As an artist blogger who has also written for print, I have to say that the blog vs. print discussion is like the art vs. craft exchange that used to happen until artists started crafting things.

Nice discussion here about group names.

Plaguedly(?) yours,
Joanne Mattera
Joanne Mattera Art Blog

Leah Sandals said...

Hey Andy and Joanne,

Thanks for your comments...

Good point about the art/craft issue, Joanne.

Also, Andy, I do wonder, as you do, about the generational/technology factor.