BU Today


Everybody’s an arts critic

Writer Bill Marx on the blogging of culture

CFA’s Bill Marx is looking toward the future of arts criticism. Photo by Frank Curran

Discussion of the arts is moving away from conventional print media to the Internet, and the online landscape is currently “like the Wild West,” according to Bill Marx, a lecturer at the College of Fine Arts, who developed, wrote for, and edited Online Arts, WBUR’s online arts magazine.

Marx, who is currently teaching the CFA course Arts Criticism: From the Old Media to the New, has reviewed books for the Boston Globe and the Boston Phoenix, won UPI and AP awards for his radio reviews, and has three times been a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle’s Reviewers Citation.

“We are fortunate to have Bill Marx developing and teaching this course. Marx has been critiquing the arts in Boston for over 20 years, which makes him a very interesting and valuable resource for our students,” says Walt Meissner, CFA dean ad interim.

Marx spoke recently with BU Today about old and new media, the future of arts criticism online, and what he hopes to inspire in his students.

BU Today: How is the transition from old to new media affecting arts criticism?

Marx: The Internet is where a lot of reviewing, criticism, and arts writing is going to go since so much of the mainstream media is now getting rid of arts critics and arts writers or cutting down on the amount of space they’re giving to arts coverage.

For example, we just had a major event happen — the Village Voice, which is well-known for its arts coverage, just removed several major arts editors, including Bob Christgau, a renowned rock and roll critic who’s been with the Voice since 1969. And I think where he and others will have to go is online. They’ll go to sites, like Pitchfork, that are devoted to reviewing or start their own review blogs and get sponsors to sign on.

What do you see as the potential of the new media?

The potential is untapped. It’s the brave new world. While it’s sad that old spaces like the Village Voice, where you could talk meaningfully about the arts to the general public, are going, you’ll find that kind of arts coverage provided online, although for more niche audiences. If you really want to find out what’s going on in rock and roll, and you find out, say, where Christgau is online, then you’ll go to Christgau.

I think what’s going to happen online is that there’s going to be a need for, a hunger for, filters. There’s going to be so much out there, the question will be how do you keep from wasting your time. The best thinking about the arts is no longer going to be found in mainstream media, as it used to be; it’ll be found online in these various filters.

How has your own criticism changed with the advent of these new media?

It made me rethink what a review was and what an arts commentary is. Suddenly you could have a photo gallery where you could specifically point to things and refer various things in your review to those pictures. The same thing with music; you can refer to a particular song or even a particular lyric. It helps broaden and change the idea of a review or a commentary.

The negative side — it’s not just all paradisiacal here — is that there is less patience online for longer reviews. I hope this will change. The essay form, which was big in a lot of the smaller magazines and some of the better mainstream newspapers, is having a little harder time surviving online. But I think even that will find its own niche as well.

How important will discussion groups be for online arts criticism?

I think it’s going to be more connected with blogs or podcasts. People are going to be able to talk back to podcasters and create a discussion around a certain blog.

The future could be — though I don’t think it will — just a massive My Space where everybody’s got their own little page and they’re just typing away about what they had for breakfast. I think that’s not going to happen. I think what’s eventually going to shake out is that there will be these various filter structures, and they’ll take various forms. That’ll be Web 2.0. I think we’re just beginning to develop them now.

Right now, I think there’s a tsunami of podcasting coming. As more and more people get a microphone, get a tape recorder, learn how to put it on their computer for people to listen to it, it’s just going to explode.

What historical narrative are you hoping to illuminate for your students?

I see the class as being a bit like a yo-yo, moving between the past and the present. We’ll start with what I think is the greatest art critic of the 19th century, Edgar Allan Poe. Then we’ll move toward the present and examine the various ups and downs of critical writing, in mainstream media as well as in the smaller magazines.

The idea is to take Poe’s ideal of what a critic should be, which is an independent, honest evaluator with what he called a talent for analysis — which meant you could explain why you did or didn’t like something with an eye on the larger cultural currents going on around you — and see how that ideal fared through the decades. And then to bring that ideal of an honest independent perspective, writing seriously about the arts to provoke people to think about the arts, into the online world.

The idea is to take the best of the past and take what fits into the future, and also to see what you gain online, with things like photo galleries. For example, online comments are great. Instead of the old ideal of the critic up in an Ivory Tower, comments allow any reader at any time to say they like or don’t like what you’re saying. The critic is not just a judge, but creates a community.

But where we are online now is like where Poe was in the 19th-century critical world, with anonymous reviews and little accountability. It’s the Wild West out there.

What do you hope your students will take away from the class?

A sense of history of arts criticism from past to present. An idea of what it was like to write a traditional, or conventional, review, and also to begin a portfolio of reviews online that they can have and send off to prospective editors.

Performers in the class will be learning how to podcast and learning how to think critically, which is only going to help them as artists.

I’d like them to come away with a sense of the importance and vitality of writing critically about the arts — that such writing is under threat from the all-thumbs, marketing-mad media we have today and that it’s online that we can keep alive the idea that one important component of our culture is the arts themselves.

And what nourishes the arts? Talk, conversation, and dialogue about what the arts have to say about ourselves. If serious talk about the arts disappears, how long are the arts going to be taken seriously?