Volatile personalities, free speech, free tickets and the free language almost obligatory when publishing online – look at me, please!! – tangled at the weekend when a dispute between Opera Australia – always a lightning rod! – and two arts commentators became public. Of course it became public. It seems there are no quiet corners in which private conversations leading to cooler heads and satisfactory resolutions can happen. Read on …
MANY years ago, when arts editor of The Australian, I was invited to Israel to experience aspects of its cultural life. I was part of a large group of journalists from around the world, which was fascinating in itself. There was a young Turkish woman who had never before met a Greek person (the two got on superbly) and a worldly Chinese man whose irreverence on matters political was refreshing and who, if I recall correctly, spoke Arabic. There was the very junior reporter – possibly the Turkish woman – who had to ask at the Jerusalem memorial Yad Vashem what the Holocaust was (she was treated very kindly).
Then there was a representative of The New York Times, who stood out for another reason: at every point at which money had been spent on our group, he required an estimation of what his portion of the cost would have been, even at the most insignificant food stall. His company would pay. The separation of the reporter and the reported-upon was absolute.
The New York Times doesn’t, however, pay for everything. According to its code of ethics, reviewers of “artistic performances” may accept “the press passes or tickets customarily made available”. However, editors or other staff members may not.
So, even the mighty NYT can’t cover the cost of its reviewers’ tickets. Can’t, or won’t. Every news organisation has budget priorities and it appears that in New York, as here, the taking of a free ticket is an acceptable part of doing business. Or – as is the case in Australia – more than one ticket.
Not only is it customary for reviewers here to accept tickets – so do senior managers, editors and writers, not necessarily all of them directly involved in the organisation’s cultural coverage. In the good old days arts organisations’ largesse was sometimes extended to administrative staff. So what? It’s always been this way.
In other words, there is an entrenched and rather touching belief on our part that disinterested media coverage plus freebies doesn’t equal oxymoron. Although it is a far from satisfactory state of affairs the system continues because it is mutually beneficial. Mostly. We media types scarcely think about the fact that, almost always, reviewers are given not one but two tickets so they can bring a friend along to work, and that drinks are almost always laid on at the premiere. What could be regarded as career-ending inducements in other fields of endeavour are part of the landscape. They don’t stop us from writing a swingeing review if we see fit. We trust ourselves, of course we do. It is insulting to suggest anything else. (Which does raise the matter of quis custodiet ipsos custodes, but let’s move on …)
The situation is scarcely remarked upon unless, as happened at the weekend, something happens to disturb the status quo. There was a flare-up involving Opera Australia and the withdrawal of complimentary tickets to writer Diana Simmonds, who has been accustomed to being invited to Sydney performances. She has recently been highly critical about OA on her website. This brought to light a communication between a contributor to The Sydney Morning Herald, Harriet Cunningham, and OA. On December 8 Cunningham wrote an interesting piece of commentary for crikey.com.au’s Daily Review that bore the heading: Why I’m not going to the opera next year. Cunningham also, it appears, is now off the free list.
Not surprisingly, glee erupted on Twitter, and also not surprisingly the argument was essentially that it’s not about the free tickets, it’s about free speech. This is disingenuous. It is, in fact, very much about the free tickets, and about free speech, and about the fact that we yoke the two together.
By the way, OA wasn’t objecting to reviews in this instance. It got hot under the collar about commentary that criticised the company’s direction rather than the merits of a specific production, although a report online in the SMH on Saturday conflated the two. I think it’s important to use language very precisely in these situations.
The word ‘’ban” was bandied about but of course Simmonds and Cunningham are still perfectly free to go to the opera and write what they like about it, just not on OA’s dime. If the SMH needs Cunningham to review OA from time to time (she is the second-string opera critic), it will undoubtedly pony up for a ticket. Fairfax can probably still afford that much. Cunningham is a fine critic who would review fairly what she saw no matter who paid for the seat. (She Tweeted that she would indeed go to the opera no matter what, loving it as she does.)
In the case of Simmonds, she has long written about cultural matters for a variety of mainstream publications. Now she mostly edits and writes for an online site, Stagenoise.com, reviewing and commenting. Could she afford to buy a ticket to every performance she wished to review? I don’t know. Theoretically she can still go, and if her recent attendance at The Magic Flute is a guide she has friends who are happy to take her as their guest. If all else fails there are seats to be bought from $44 (restricted view).
Is it OA’s responsibility to ensure Simmonds, and by extension anyone with a history of arts journalism, can see every opera it stages and they want to see? That’s the box of worms we peer into in this world of proliferating online arts sites . By what right do any of us get on to – and stay on – that wondrous free list?
In the mainstream media world – and who knows how much longer that will survive – there are arts editors between the critic and the organisation to do the selecting. In the age of blogging it’s increasingly common for writers to publish material on cultural matters for no pay, with no commercial backing and with no heavyweight media organisation to exert some muscle for them – or to pay for a ticket if they fall foul of an artistic director. And while it would be pleasant to think companies have nothing but the greater cultural good of the nation in mind, pragmatism would suggest they also want to sell tickets and stay in business, and that they see positive media coverage as part of the deal.
The situation is made murkier by that fact that many (most) critics – including myself – have written advance articles in praise of forthcoming attractions or have undertaken corporate work on behalf of the relevant organisation. I don’t accept commissions about work I’m going to review, but I’m very aware of the conflict nevertheless and of the fine line being drawn. Caesar’s wife and all that.
It’s all very well to cite the maxim attributed to George Orwell that journalism is what people don’t want to see printed; all the rest is advertising. If you take that line, most of us working in this little pond are paid-up members of the arts advertising business. Organisations can’t get enough of these inevitably positive pre-show pieces and freelance writers have to make a living, but we also need to be clear-eyed about the circumstances and the potential for lines to become quite blurred.
OA has its knickers in a twist about giving tickets to people who have stated strong objections to its current direction. Mostly, though, I suspect OA, and specifically its artistic director Lyndon Terracini, object to the tone of the commentary. Simmonds, and to a lesser extent Cunningham, used the robust and colourful language that is the lingua franca of the online environment. It’s more direct and personal – more likely to sting? – than we are used to historically. The language of the mainstream media is still to a large degree more formal, mediated by a greater number (albeit diminishing) number of editors, sub-editors and lawyers.
Possibly OA inferred that poor reviews of upcoming productions would necessarily follow the commentary and reckoned it’s buggered if it’s going to facilitate that but I think the reason is more simple. The bear – Terracini – got poked hard with a sharp stick and roared.
As a result, OA has decided not to aid the enemy. This is a courageous move, in the Sir Humphrey Appleby sense. OA must know that these days there is no way of silencing a voice, no matter how excited people get about what looks like an attempt to do so. Well – the silencing will take place only if critics reckon the only way they will see a show is if OA provides them with a free ticket. Are we really that pathetically hobbled?
It goes without saying OA’s response has been incredibly shortsighted, not the least because it’s always an own goal when the media is taken on. I must say, though, had I been Cunningham I would have expected to be taken off the list for a bit – logic indeed demanded it. A pity about that heading. It was unequivocal. The thing is, Cunningham’s piece was very astute, even if written in a combative tone. Perhaps nothing would have happened, or at least not publicly, if not for a heading that got up on its hind legs and begged OA to reassign Cunningham’s tickets. OA should have resisted. Own goal.
As for Simmonds, well, she has an invigorating turn of phrase and doesn’t mind dishing it out. But is OA breaking a butterfly on a wheel?
I devoutly wish the cost of theatre tickets were considered as necessary a part of media budgets as is trailing after politicians and sending cricket writers around the nation. I wish that the arts were funded so lavishly that opera tickets cost just a few dollars and repertoire could be much, much riskier; that the whole business of cost was irrelevant, leaving only artistic merit to be argued over.
But we don’t live in that world. So we accept the freebies while asserting our independence from what that implies. It doesn’t surprise me at all that every now and then the inherent contradiction gives rise to some fractiousness.
22 Comments Add yours
Great piece. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if media organisations had the price of tickets for arts writers worked into their budgets? Unfortunately, I suspect a lot of publications would just drop theatre reviews if that were the status quo … Or writers would just get paid even less!
It’s important to genuinely look at the dynamics which underpin the relationships when they’re rocked — although they usually work well enough. I’ve been surprised at the number of comments from people who think critics are leeching free tickets off companies — that it’s some massive perk we’re all taking advantage of for a night out on the town (although the fact that we’re given a plus-one doesn’t help that impression). I don’t think people outside of arts companies/arts media understand how those relationships actually work.
It is a very enjoyable part of the job, for the most part, and we’re all very lucky to have that privilege. But it’s an essential part of the job — not simply a perk — whether the tickets are coming from your editors or the companies.
I do think it’s important to note that the effect of Lyndon’s decision re Harriet is that OA has attempted to influence SMH into using a different critic because (as the email said) Lyndon was ‘offended’ by the comments. Thankfully it hasn’t worked, but when the relationships are what they are, that’s what happens when a company refuses to give a particular critic comps for a production they’ve been asked to review by a leading publication.
The headline certainly wouldn’t have helped the situation, but I understand she meant she won’t be shelling out $2000 as a fan, like she did for Ring Cycle. I don’t think it was intended to be taken as a “if I’m asked to review a particular production in a professional capacity, I will not do so”. Maybe that point could have been made more clearly.
Thanks Ben – oh yes. There would be none of this if those budgets existed.Now, re the SMH – I think this is important. Do you really, really think any editor would be in the slightest bit influenced by such an email? In fact, it works very much in the other way. Editors love the opportunity to show their strength. Surely we aren’t as pathetic as all that as to buckle when someone says they’re not providing a free ticket. We can’t pretend to be super robust guardians of freedom and then turn around and boo-hoo that we are severely threatened by an objection to our work. We put the work out there, they can respond if they don’t like it (their prerogative) – either cleverly or not; either forcefully or a bit tentatively – and we take it from there. But let’s face it: the media is always in a very, very strong position.
It’s heartening to see that Joel didn’t cave and Diana went public. It’s important. But I do fear that there would be editors out there who, under budget pressures, would just quietly drop a critic if they had to pay for their ticket on a regular basis. I could be completely wrong and hope that I am!
Ben! I can’t believe you would think that! If that were the case, they would not in any way merit the title of editor, and if there were many of them arts journalism is doomed. If journalists and media organisations could be so easily dissuaded and persuaded and cowed, then the profession has no backbone and no future. If organisations have so little money that they can’t afford some tickets – and, on another subject, can’t pay their reviewers properly – then perhaps they are not serious about arts journalism. Reviewers don’t have to sit in the most expensive seats, and many theatre tickets are very reasonable. Opera can be dear, yes, but we are talking about very isolated cases. In my entire history as a cultural editor I’ve had perhaps two or three fights with arts companies about critics and always prevailed. I have found that in most cases organisations ultimately understand that they don’t control what reviewers say. But who can blame them for thinking they exert some control over features and commentary when they get so much complimentary pre-show boosting for absolutely nothing? That’s what I mean about the blurred lines. We do kind of collude … Endlessly fascinating.
Au contraire, I know of at least three incidents when critics have been quietly sacked after arts editors being pressured by theatre companies. (And can name them). So I’m afraid it has happened. I wish I were as sanguine about the backbone of media organisations as you are, Deborah. Arts editors might be serious about arts journalism, but that doesn’t mean their employers are.
Hi Alison. There are a couple of things here. First, talking about the current OA debacle, this was an almost comical attempt to influence and was easily swatted away. I agree entirely that it is possible for arts organisations to attempt rather more effective action (if that’s the right word) against a critic they don’t like. (I think with you and Malthouse they were legally able to stop you from going into their building – am I right? But OA couldn’t stop anyone from going into the SOH.) It isn’t in any way admirable to make such an attempt, but if a media organisation gives in to such demands, what does it say about the state of our media? That, to me, is the MUCH more serious matter. We are supposed to be the guardians. Call me old-fashioned, but we on the media side have to bear the responsibility for that. Unpacking it a bit further, if there are arts editors who have caved in to pressure from companies, we’d have to ask what value they and their organisation placed on the arts. I guess not much. Now THAT is a problem – a media organisation problem, and by extension a problem for the culture at large. If we do our jobs right we will always get up people’s noses at some point and they will lash out. That’s life and human nature. I obviously got that from time to time because I was an arts editor for so long. There were always a few thin skins out there. (I had to dole out a smack or two and point out that the day a company let me do their casting was the day they could choose my critic, and I’ve had tickets withdrawn a few times. I never gave in and it always got sorted.) It’s how we – we – deal with opposition that defines whether we are worthy of the role we claim to play. If people were let go by an arts editor because a company didn’t like their writing, shame on the arts editor, and shame on their organisation. I don’t admire the attempt to stifle criticism, but hey, it happens. Let’s look at how WE handle it. I’d love to know what pressure was brought to bear in the cases you describe. A few shouts down the phone? A threat to withdraw advertising (own goal there!)? No more freebies? Was the arts editor instructed by a higher editor to make a change of critic (much more serious!!) – if so, did the critics who were let go tell their story to a different media outlet. You know what competition is like – organisations generally love to have a go at one another. My point ultimately is that we – we editors, journalists, critics – need to understand our own responsibilities, take them seriously, and have a bit of backbone. And in this particular case, for critics to act as if the withdrawal of free tickets can stop a voice, or to assume that the requesting of a different critic actually means the request will be granted (saints preserve us!) is pathetically weak. On a happier note, see you in Perth??
For some reason, I can’t reply to your comment below…! So this will be out of order. Yes, the cases I know of, which are not recent, btw, involved threats about advertising, and yes, I know of pressure brought to bear on an arts editor from higher up. And no, in most cases, it all happened quietly – freelancers are understandably reluctant to rock the boat, etc etc. The cases that attract notoriety are the instances where people go public. Agree with all your points about pusillanimity – I have “publish or be damned” tattooed on my soul, I think.
Thanks Alison. As you know, I think the number of cases isn’t huge given the number of companies, critics, the time span we’re looking at and so on, although I agree entirely that the desirable number of cases is zero. And yes, publishing is the only answer. Rock on!
Oh, and I don’t think the language and the more personal nature of certain writing is unique to online. I can think of many loud and provocative personal sprays in the arts pages of newspapers in recent years. Standards vary — especially when it comes to blogging — but many online publications uphold exactly the same professional standards (and in some cases far higher) as newspapers do.
I also think it’s clear that Harriet’s more personal statements about Lyndon were there to try and unpack his programming decisions, which is a legitimate goal of arts commentary, even if it insulted him.
My point was broadly put re online – and in the whole panoply of commentary I think it’s true. I agree however re Harriet’s piece. Robust, but in the context of a serious argument.
Great commentary Deborah. I’d missed all of that being currently in France. But I’ve found all those articles interesting reading.
I wonder what the ozco’s opera review will make of the state of things…and if it will lead to any changes – small or large?
Years ago I had the opportunity to spend a long weekend with Paul Kellogg at his country retreat in Cooperstown near glimmerglass. At that time he was Ceo of NY City opera and AD of the glimmerglass opera festival – which was essentially the summer festival of city opera in those years. He gave many young singers their first chance in major roles at glimmerglass & launched a number of careers.
He led city opera during its most vibrant & successful period. It had a large & loyal following, plenty of money, wasn’t afraid of risk, or commissioning new works. Essentially positioning itself as the company that did the things that the Met wouldn’t, or couldn’t, tackle. It was very much seen as the people’s opera. And New Yorkers couldn’t get enough of it. Now city opera no longer exists… Was it bad management, bad programming, or a sign of the times…I guess a bit of all.
I wonder about Lyndon’s strategy…who is he really trying to appeal too…and had Simone Young seen out her time as AD, what would the company now look like?
Now back to my cafe au lait & croissant 🙂
Hope you’ve had a lovely Christmas & new year.
Sent from my iPhone
Thanks Steven – continue to enjoy France. How not??
An Occasional Correspondent’s view: johnofoz.wordpress.com
I actually think that there are very serious issues in critics accepting free anything. I note that the SMH prints reviews of hotels and flights that are comped, and I rarely believe a word of those always-positive, mostly benign reviews / press releases. I would be skeptical of a review of restaurant in which the meal was comped. Why should the arts be different?
Here are three even more important reasons why arts tickets shouldn’t be comped, however.
First, when a critic sees a press performance or an opening night, he or she is seeing a performance that is unlikely to be replicated with the same focus or energy on other nights. A simple trip to the theatre – first preview, press preview or opening, and two weeks on – provides very different experiences. Why do critics, from myriad outlets, see the same performance? Because critics accept free tickets from the producers when THEY want you to see it. Why would we, the audience, think that said performance will be anything like the one that the paying public will see? And why, with tickets selling at full price during “previews”, would you not provide audiences with a chance to hear your thoughts? Again, because critics accept free tickets with the caveat that the producers get to choose when. That helps the audiences and the readers – how?
Second, why would a critic review a production only once? Do art critics only look at a painting once before rendering their opinion? Do restaurant critics anonymously eat a meal only once before passing judgment? Some reflection time, and perhaps a second or third viewing, would benefit everyone. That’ll cost you. And it would resolve problem #1, above.
Finally, your free seats will always be better than mine and, most likely, almost anyone else’s. I love reading critics who see a musical, and note the sweat of the performer, or the detail in the costume. That’s fantastic. But I’m not going to see that. I am going to see the show from the rear stalls or the upper dress circle. And, because of that, the only sweat or detail I will see is on me or my neighbour. We’re seeing very different shows. I can’t see the detail, and the actors don’t project so well. The set looks flimsy from so far back. And the lighting doesn’t catch anything when the characters are at the fireplace. Get it? I hate reading about the beauty of a production to realise that there is nothing of that beauty that I will see from so far away. Buying your ticket, you’re in the same situation as the rest of us. And there’s a big, big difference. Those little annoyances, or flimsy sets, or poor sight lines matter when you’re paying. And when you’re paying, you’re likely to run into all three.
And yet – all three of the aforementioned problems will most likely be resolved if you stop taking those free tickets. We, the readers and the audiences, need your help, and your help is ultimately most, um, helpful when you are shelling out like the rest of us.
I agree with much of what you say Joe. I am incredibly aware that the view can be very different – certainly in extremely large theatres – from that in the most advantageous seats. (That said, some of my strongest memories from my youth are of seeing shows from the cheapest seats but feeling as if I’d had the most extraordinary experience.) It would perhaps be ideal to see a show more than once – I do it occasionally – but if one works for a newspaper then there is an imperative to let people know as soon as possible what something is like, even if the assessment is coloured by all those things you mention. The online environment can help here – people can reconsider and put up later views if they wish. And of course, if they’ve taken themselves off to see a show again. The mainstream media is quite a fixed environment, however. The point many critics make, of course, is that it would be impossible to pay for all tickets. The cost would far outweigh any remuneration for freelance critics or bloggers, and alas the leading media outlets are used to the convention that seats are supplied, and in the current parlous business environment are even less likely to create a budget for tickets than before (and they haven’t shown themselves keen before). It’s a tricky one! Thanks for your comments. Much appreciated.
Thanks for your response, Deborah.
By way of explaining my thoughts, above, here is a restaurant review that appeared in yesterday’s New York Times. It is a perfect example of how the price that is paid by a critic is relevant to the meal – and the review:
Hi Joe – here I’ll speak for myself, although I think most theatre critics operate similarly. Comps are not cash-for-comment, and I don’t know any critics who are not aware of the relative price of tickets, and who don’t take that into account in their evaluations. (Most critics, being enthusiasts, are also buyers of tickets themselves). As Deborah points out, this spat shows it’s not entirely satisfactory: but as long as the conventions are observed, and not abused by either party, it works quite well. The first convention, pretty strictly observed by critics, is that free tickets don’t mean free praise. If that _were_ the case, this particular controversy wouldn’t have happened, because there would have been no negative commentary for Lyndon Terracini to react to. And you would never read anything but five stars reviews. This is so obviously not the case that I wonder why you don’t take it into account when calling the ethics of performance critics into such general question. If critics had to pay for tickets, you’d remove at one stroke all alternative criticism, and there would only be reviews in the mainstream media outlets, as was the case pre-internet: much more top-down, an infinitely less diverse range of opinion, with some critics exercising disproportionate power. Anyone who remembers those days will tell you today, for all its challenges – and there are huge challenges to the future of criticism in this country – is a vast improvement on that. Ok, maybe Terracini wouldn’t: back then it was much easier for a company to silence critical dissent by, say, threatening to withdraw advertising, because there was so much less of it. And yes, it did happen.
In common with other critics I know, I often don’t attend opening night performances. I am able to do this because I don’t have a pressing deadline that means a review must be up the day after opening night. This deadline is desired by both theatre companies (who want news of their production out as soon as possible) and media companies (who want to be first or at least timely). And sometimes, although this can be difficult for working critics, given the sheer pressure of events, I try to attend more than once. No performance critic of any experience is unaware that performance differs from night to night: in fact, that particular quality of liveness is a major reason I want to write about performance. And mostly, after the stress of opening night, performances tend to improve during the run of a season. It’s much, much rarer for performers to pull out all stops for the press and then to give of their second best afterwards, although it does happen.
Mostly, though, I think that serious cultural criticism is about much more than a consumer review, which is what a restaurant review is, and so the issues are more complex. There’s quite a good discussion of critique in the light of this here: http://estheranatolitis.net/2015/01/07/on-critique/
Thank you for your comments. I am an admirer of your work.
First, let me say that I don’t believe that critics are ethically compromised; I have no evidence of that. I am saying that critics leave themselves open to compromise by accepting those free tickets. That does not mean that the critics heap praise on shows they don’t like for the comps, but I believe that it is a completely unsatisfactory arrangement. Conventions are one thing, but I believe deeply that in journalism – and criticism – appearances matter.
The AO controversy is not, from what I understand, about the reviews that Terracini didn’t like; it’s about coverage he didn’t like. Even if the critics don’t see “comps for comment” as the quid pro quo, it is apparent that some organisations do. Again, this is easily resolved in the larger media companies: for less than $100 a day in a city like Sydney or Melbourne, a critic can undertake his or her work without any potential journalistic compromise involved. As you say yourself, free tickets are not comps – they are part of the job; and if the media companies believe that arts criticism helps them sell newspapers or advertising, they should pony up. Perhaps that’s unrealistic in a country where the arts is considered less important than cricket, but I imagine that the daily Fairfax or News Corp executive lunch tab runs significantly higher than the cost of a show four nights a week.
Now, free tickets for those outside the mainstream media may be another issue, and these outlets are certainly contributing to the wider debate. I maintain, however, that there is no reason that a blogger would be given a season of comp tickets without an assumption, by the producers, that more positive press will flow from those free tickets than negative. Too many unkind reviews, and that blogger will find him or herself cut off. That’s the reality, and that is what we’re now seeing. Self-censorship is a scourge, and comp tickets may – at some level and for some critics – affect the ability to do one’s job. It is why we are rightly uncomfortable with an endowed Caltex Chair in Environmental studies at a university, regardless of the holder’s environmental credentials.
Finally, I 100% agree that criticism is not the same as a consumer review (and thank you for the link to Ms. Anatolitis’ piece, which was excellent). I expect my arts critics – and my food critics – to have a level of expertise in the area that a consumer does not, and I expect that those critics will contribute to the wider cultural debates that their expertise allows.
But I don’t think that’s what the mainstream media hires critics for, at least not anymore. As you point out, the media wants those reviews out as quickly as possible, following old conventions to do so. If they want to contribute to the wider debate, the declining arts coverage would be increasing, with a greater investment put into it. That is clearly not happening.
Ultimately, I keep coming back to your correct statement that tickets to shows are essential for the critic to do his or her job. The tools to do that important job, without the appearance or possibility of compromise, should be purchased.
Hi Deborah, I wholly agree it would be much better if comps weren’t a bargaining chip. And yes, the problem devolves onto the larger questions of how critical debate is valued in this country (and elsewhere, these are not only local dilemmas). Which itself raises the question of how the arts are valued. Sadly, I don’t see any easy answers to any of these questions: of course people, and not just the “elites”, value the arts here, but that isn’t generally reflected in media priorities. I keep going back to that amazing statistic, that more people visit art galleries in Australia than go to the football. And for what it’s worth, I don’t believe that anyone gave me free tickets when I was running my blog expecting that I would give them favourable press. (And, interestingly, over eight years, nobody withdrew them, or threatened to, when they got swingeing reviews). They _did_, however, expect the kind of reviews I wrote there: longer interrogations of their work, which went beyond consumer reviews.
Alison, you are right about the importance of the longer, more exacting discussions, and that companies appreciate them regardless of the ultimate judgment. That is a very valuable result of having ample space online. It is the rare print publication – and certainly not daily newspapers – that has the taste and space (not to mention budget) for extensive analysis. This is the obverse of the shoot-from-the-lip tendency we also see online – people wanting to be faster and louder so they rise above the ruck and get a bit of a reputation for being tough and smart (even when not). In some ways the decline and, I would think, imminent demise of mainstream publishing in hard-copy form could be good for cultural coverage. Space is no longer the issue it was if you’re publishing exclusively online. (I see the arrival of Crikey’s Daily Review, the ABC’s Arts Online, the local Guardian and the increasingly strong online voice of Limelight as very, very positive.) Naturally I speak from the perspective of someone who worked at The Australian for 25 years, where cultural coverage was, and still is, an important part of the paper. By the time I finished my arts editorship (after 10 years) the number of full-time staff specifically working on the arts had risen from two to 10. My brief right from the start was to make the arts a significant news round for the paper; at the same time space, while going up and down a bit over the years, also increased, particularly with the advent of Review. Yes, the staff number has decreased a bit because of the intense pressure on print revenues, and we’ll have to see how all that shakes down in the next five to 10 years. But certainly the interest was there and is there. Unfortunately as Fairfax – in Sydney at least – there is a lot of concentration on entertainment and on preview pieces that rarely get past the bright and chatty. Review lengths have been much diminished. Because the SMH and Age still have some power, this is exceptionally worrying. At least I can still get a review of 600 words or more in the paper if I want on something I think needs it. That’s a little off the subject, but I am not entirely pessimistic about media interest, at least from serious media (the Oz, ABC, Guardian) in arts coverage. The status of culture in society at large is a whole other thing, and we get into the question of whether the media leads or follows here. I think it tries to do a bit of both. I won’t get into the issue of how embedded culture is in a country where Western classical traditions aren’t that old, relatively speaking (that is a book-length subject), but I will make the point that while more people go to art museums than to the footy, I would venture that the viewing audience for the footy overall, when you add in those who watch at home, is greater. There is no denying the power that sport has in this country, and I think it is more reflected by the media than created by it. (I give you the death of Phillip Hughes.) Ours is a fascinating and complicated field, and I think we all see our mission as trying to make the arts more and more a matter of necessary nourishment for all rather than a nice night out for those who can afford it. That said, one person’s nice night out is another’s meat and drink (very much the case at opera and the ballet – some people there for the colour and movement; others with the deepest love and appreciation for the art form). I am sure I’ve wandered far from the original matter, but never mind. It’s all important, which is why we’ve spent our adult lives in the service, and will continue to do so whatever the cost.
While I agree with all of your points regarding the review of productions, it highlights for me an issue that I have always encountered as a dramaturg and critic. Is our main function to operate as a consumer information nexus offering details about the performance and ultimately evaluating if the production is worth the ticket price, or is our function to move the art forward, provide an impartial sounding board, and spur innovation? If our main function is to act as a consumer watchdog then I agree that multiple viewings and a lack of incentives are inherently required. However I believe, and I hope, that critics and reviewers should and do function as a way for artists and audience members to receive an educated opinion from an informed artist. An artist that not only assess if a show is ‘good enough’ but furthermore provides a way to address any issues in a production’s or even an individual artist’s approach. If it’s merely consumer protection we seek, then amazon style reviews from audience members are going to be far more informative. This question of money and compensation or incentive cracks open the divide that perpetually stifles while at the same time inspires performance; is this a product like cheese or a cultural process like protest, shifting values, and community engagement? The answer I think is both, but this issue tends to highlight that dynamic tension.
I have always hoped one could cover that first function (consumer advice) through the medium of discussing the art seriously. The second function done well should enable readers to make up their minds about whether they should see something. But of course it’s never that easy. Tension indeed! Thanks for your comments.