What’s The Purpose Of Criticism In A Critic-Proof Culture?

Maura Judkis, who works in the Style section at the Washington Post, raises a provocative question, and offers one potential answer:

It might seem, then, that Millennials have no appetite for arts journalism, but that’s not the case: Younger readers want to read and share stories more than ever. They just want to have a say in what’s being read and shared. They want to be the critics. So where do arts journalists fit in?

There is an abundance of opinion on the Internet, but bringing reporting into criticism is what will set the professional arts journalists apart from the amateur. Reporting on process—the behind-the-scenes stories that enable readers to identify with artists—will attract audiences who might otherwise overlook an arts journalist in favor of their best friend’s Tumblr…Just as this generation is many things—social, savvy, sub in any web 2.0 catchphrase here—it is a generation that derives more value from the arts when they feel like insiders, or can relate to the participants. Look at the TV we watch: American Idol and Top Chef have hooked audiences by showing them the way the sausage is made (quite literally, for the latter), and allowing them to potentially have a say in the outcome. This is not to equate these shows with higher art forms; it’s to demonstrate that our interest in process over product is transferable to other art forms, high and low.

I think this is definitely true: it’s one of the reasons casting and production news plays such a big role in so many pop culture publications in particular. Though even that sort of information’s gotten more democratized. It’s relatively easy to get on press calls and press lists these days — the threshold for what counts as publication has gotten lower, and I think that’s a good thing.

But I think more to the point is the idea that telling people whether they should watch something or not is not the only, or the most important, form of criticism. I write whether I think things are good or not, but that’s a tiny percentage of the things that I write, and many of the things that I think are most interesting (though by no means all of them) don’t qualify as high art, or even in the top tier of popular art. Some of them are outright bad, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not important.

Criticism has always been a kind of service journalism, and the service used to be that someone like me would tell you what to watch. Now, that doesn’t seem to be a service that people need at the same level or in the same way any more. Instead, the service readers want instead is criticism that sets the stage for interesting discussions of which they can be a part. In my case, the discussions about politics, and representation rather than about camera angles. Criticism will survive: critics just have to figure out what their market is.

(Relatedly, see this very good, research-oriented post on recaps, cultural consumption, and strong and weak social ties by Gabriel Rossman.)