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The Culture Beat and New Media (MIT Communications Forum)

11/12/2009 5:00 PM 66"110
David Thorburn, MIT Professor of Literature
MacVicar Faculty Fellow; Douglas McLennan, Editor,; Bill Marx, Editor,

Description: Celebrity culture and the brutal economics of print journalism have conspired to kill arts criticism, but it has begun migrating to the web, where it just may survive and even thrive. Panelists discuss the field's colorful history, current decline, and possibly vibrant future.

Arts criticism went through a Wild West period in the first half of the 19th century, recounts Bill Marx. Literature critic Edgar Allan Poe "routinely reviewed his own works anonymously," and accepted the five dollar bribes publishers sent him with their books. In his day, a vituperative piece might leave a reviewer bloodied, bruised or worse. It wasn't until the late 19th century that critics developed an evaluative approach to art, providing reasons for people to read a book, attend a symphony performance, or visit a museum. Big"city culture pieces were syndicated for publications around the country.

What we've come to see as the "golden age of arts criticism," says Douglas McLennan, defined as robust writing staffs on newspapers and magazines, really only emerged in the 1970s. This coincided with the rampant commercialization of culture, so the role of criticism shifted toward providing consumers with advice, "becoming more thumbs up, thumbs down, pure recommendations." Fascination with celebrities, particularly in the movies, only narrowed the focus of criticism to Consumer Reports"style advice. Some coverage even began blurring reviews and feature coverage, including interviews with artists and producers.

The good news is that even as print journalism shrinks, decimating the ranks of critics, arts discourse may be reviving. McLennan notes the presence of 300 thousand arts blogs on the Web, "people who may not all have something to say, but at least desire to engage in conversation." He sees a revolution in the "ways people are using culture, and their expectations for how to get it." The "broadcast model" of theaters, music performances, print pieces, is giving way to an interactive form, where "people have access suddenly to the entire world" and are demanding to participate in and react to rather than merely watch art.

In this transition, Marx hopes for new modes of the "evaluative act," where people express why a certain performance or poem is important to them, in ways that go beyond words. His online venture, ArtsFuse, experiments with technology to create a community of artists and audience. McLennan imagines a musical response to music, or a graphical response to a graphic novel. He also believes the cumulative power of voices online will create astonishing possibilities for real"time storytelling and arts discourse (recall the Twitter explosion around the Iran uprising). The big challenge to this online arts revolution, panelists agree: a business model that works.

About the Speaker(s): David Thorburn has published widely on literary and cultural subjects and is currently completing a cultural history of American television, called Story Machine. He received his A.B. degree from Princeton, his M.A. and Ph.D. from Stanford and taught at Yale for 10 years before joining MIT in 1976. He has edited collections of essays on romanticism, and on John Updike, as well as a widely used anthology of fiction, Initiation. He is a former Director of the Film and Media Studies Program and of the Cultural Studies Project.

Host(s): School of Humanities, Arts & Social Sciences, Communications Forum

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