I first came to the Daily wanting to do something this newspaper doesn’t do: I wanted to review theater. I was dazzled and not a little surprised at the extent of accessible shows here. I was hopped up on writing about performance, having taken a mini-course on arts criticism right before college. But when I got to the Daily, my editor explained that reviews in the fine arts section weren’t really done.
By the time a review of a professional performance can hit the page, the St. Petersburg Philharmonic or Caetano Veloso or Maya Angelou have already left town. And we don’t want to discourage already iffy attendance at some student productions, so we shy away from criticism in case it’s too liberally applied.
I disagree that those difficulties rule out putting energy and space toward reviews, but my caveat is I didn’t do anything substantial to change the status quo of Daily coverage.
With some distance now from pulling fine arts coverage together each week as the Daily’s fine arts editor, I regret, more than ever, not working on that. But in that position, I began to see the frustrating but legitimate list of reasons why things at this paper work as they do.
Limited page space, limited staff, limited expertise, limited time. The choice of what to publish comes with enormous opportunity cost. The general rule has been that an event preview, which should reveal the internal workings of an upcoming event as well as its nuts and bolts, takes priority over a review of how that event went down. The hope is that it can provide some analysis and allow people to attend.
I mourn the persistent missed opportunity to talk about what goes on after a member of Rude Mechanicals urges us that her show “has something for everyone,” or whatever else we quoted.
We publish thousands of unanswered questions. Audience members disperse on the steps of Hill Auditorium, and a student heading to Sushi.come realizes she just missed something that animated or disgusted thousands of people and figures she’ll catch something eventually this semester. The story shouldn’t end there.
Yesterday I spoke with an adjunct professor of English here, Thomas Lynch, who contributed an op-ed piece to Sunday’s New York Times. Lynch, also a published poet, wrote on the University Symphony Orchestra’s February performance at Carnegie Hall, an event Detroit-area and Ann Arbor newspapers, including the Daily, failed to report on.
That is, they didn’t send someone to see the concert and report back who attended, how they reacted, if the first violinist had a panic attack onstage or if the conductor crowd-surfed. If the orchestra delivered an outstanding show that should be lauded for years.
“There’ll be some notice, but – and this is true for every department – things become their own sort of company secret,” Lynch said.
The frequent MFA English program-sponsored readings by professional and often bestselling writers usually happen at 5 pm, which is great for students and retired, often wealthier residents, but not so much for the working stiff.
Before that stiff spends his cash on one of those books being read, he might want to hear from someone who has put time and concerted energy – or, as Lynch said, has “committed to legible prose” – into that book.
“There’s no shortage of venues in which to purchase a book. And I’m not sure a review’s effect should be to increase sales, anyway. It should be a more literate culture. With that, the sale of books will take care of itself,” Lynch said.
Critics are consumer advocates, although there are surely many who would cringe at that description. And they still are once Yo-Yo leaves. They put the onus on readers to confront a public dialogue that is active and ready for them to join in.
In Lynch’s opinion, “the review goes beyond the society, the spectacle, and considers the creative work itself.” That’s true, but reviews can do reporting on the spectacle one better – they can report on how the spectacle unravels.
Lynch made a point I really liked, commenting on a cornerstone of investigative reporting: without reviews, “no one is held to account.” (I’ve championed the fine arts section for embodying investigative reporting relative to other arts coverage but recently find myself reconsidering our success)
The Daily’s website gives us the opportunity to publish reviews, until we find a sensible way to negotiate page space. Reviews can come out online faster and on more days than print, overcoming some of the challenges for reviews.
Of course I want people to go see things. But if they don’t, I want them to consider, or perhaps question, why they didn’t, and why other people did (and if other people didn’t, why the percussion ensemble set their drums on fire or wept at the beauty of their own music as their sobs resounded in the empty auditorium). For that to happen, the artists and the public need to confront each other. A reporter can help that happen.
Colodner hopes you’ll review fine arts for the Daily. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.