National Critics Conference: Musings Part 1

Last week The American Theatre Critics Association, The Dance Critics Association, The International Association of Art Critics, Music Critics Association of North America, and the Jazz Journalists Association held a joint conference in Los Angeles to discuss the state of arts coverage today. My first two lasting impressions from the conference both resonate around my love of narrative journalism. I know this was a conference of Critics, but, despite my being an opinionated soul, I have never defined myself as a critic. And although I was attending the conference as a card-carrying member of the Jazz Journalists Association, I don’t often call myself a jazz journalist either. I am happiest as a writer of true stories — narratives.

Norman Lear gave the opening keynote speech, and even though it was full of the expected humor and political barbs, his message was serious. He bemoaned our society for “celebrating success regardless of quality;” contrasted Power, which “aims to anesthetize and retain,” with Art, which “aims to probe and startle;” and exhorted us “to give [our audiences] some perspective on how truthfully and skillfully creative works are speaking to power.” He spoke of artworks as the means by which artists “declare [their] individuality while affirming that [they] all belong to a larger family of man,” and he wants us to help our readers “recover a sense of emotional and moral complexity in human affairs.” This was a call to arms perfectly suited to a narrative journalist.

Prior to Lear’s keynote speech there was a warm-up panel during which Sasha Anawalt, Director of the USC Annenberg Getty Fellowship Program in Los Angeles, said ‘Go inside the world – don’t be afraid of losing yourself.” To this I would like to add, “And bring the reader with you.” Critics who have a tendency to analyze and judge from a distance, to remain outside of, if not above, the art world in question, miss out on so much of the story while protecting their analytic objectivity. As a reader, I love writing that provides a window on a world with which I am not familiar, and I can relate more deeply to narratives that show me that world rather than tell me about it. In crafting such a piece, a writer can only benefit from behind-the-scenes explorations and getting up close and personal with the artists. To circle back to Lear, narrative is the best way I know to explore “moral complexity in human affairs.”