Social media strip arts criticism of elitist edge | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 31.03.2011
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Social media strip arts criticism of elitist edge

No one in the media landscape is immune to the popularity of social networks and blog-based websites - not even highbrow arts critics. As newspapers cut down on reviews, online venues and social networks fill the void.

A scene from the opera Love and Other Demons

Now, reviews are disseminated before the opera is even over

A reporter sits hunched over his typewriter, fedora nearby, furiously hammering out a story before his deadline. The cliché reporter is clearly an obsolete image as mainstream newspapers sideline more and more of their professional arts criticism and reviews.

While cuts spell bad news for reporters, they mean opportunity for Web innovators like Peter Culshaw, who started the website to combine professional quality reviews with the speed of new media.

"Our site is quite old-fashioned in the sense that we're doing overnight reviews with a lot of space for questions and answers in a way the national papers used to do," Culshaw explained. "But we are also online, so we're a sort of half-way house between the old world and the new world, and we use Twitter, Facebook and all of these networking sites to get interest in the stories that are on the site."

The Artsdesk has also benefitted from online advertisers. Although the writers who contribute to the site are unpaid, Culshaw is confident that the idiosyncratic mix of arts coverage will survive, even if the mainstream press falls.

"We're betting that there will be interest in high quality reviews. It's by no means clear that the traditional, national media will still be around in 10 years," he said.

New reviewers, new insights

A stack of bundled newspapers

Traditional reviews helped author Colin Grant much less than discussion on the web

The ways in which people sum up and select the arts events they attend is shifting as well. Reflections on opening night come during the performance; seconds afterward is too late. In addition to abbreviated Tweets, more sophisticated, unofficial online reviews are being spread digitally on a large scale.

Historian and playwright Colin Grant sees that shift reflected in the attention his own work has gotten, including his books "I & I: The Natural Mystics" and "Negro with a Hat: The Rise and Fall of Marcus Garvey."

Grant said he was surprised that his first book didn't do well commercially in spite of a large number of mainstream reviews.

"But I can see in just the few weeks since my new book has been published that the bloggers, the Tweeters and the Facebook followers are the people who are actually going to push it and lead to more sales," Grant commented.

In the author's experience, the proliferation of voices when it comes to publicizing and reviewing works also means that new elements come to light.

"Social networks are not restricted in the way some newspapers are in that they have to serve the needs of the perceived readership," he explained.

Grant adding that a more conservative newspaper might not reflect on what he considers important in "I & I: The Natural Mystics," namely the rise of the Rastafari religious movement in Jamaica: "Those are the sorts of subjects you will find picked up by bloggers, by Tweeters and people who love Facebook."

'Out the window' with all-knowing critics

Westminster Palace in London

Being based in London helps the Artsdesk connect with readers

The connection between reviewer and audience depends on shared interests as much as ever. Grant may find more discussion of his work in social networks due to its appeal to younger audiences, and the Artsdesk website also has a niche that interests many arts enthusiasts.

"We are coming out of London, and a lot of people in America, Australia and India are fascinated to know what the latest thing is here - the latest play, exhibition, music. London is a big center, so we've got that advantage," said Peter Culshaw.

But London-based poet and critic Gabriel Gbadamosi sees room for caution amidst the positive aspects of the evolving culture of criticism.

"We're a society and cultural economy in transition, which means that the idea that the critic can disseminate insight and knowledge like a wellspring is out the window, as it should have gone out of the window ages ago," he said.

Cautioning against this structural change, Gbadamosi added that "it doesn't mean it is going to be progressive and better, but it is going to be new."

Author: Sylvia Smith / gsw
Editor: Kate Bowen

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