Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Articles [NAJP]

Anybody but Flyp

I've been dreading this, so that even after my deadlines were done last Thursday I kept finding other pressing concerns, such as the baseball postseason, which when it involves one of my teams is for me a religious matter (if there's music to cover I bring a radio). But having watched the full four hours of the National Arts Journalism Summit live (or is that "live"?) with NAJP chairman John Rockwell in his office on Friday, October 2, I found myself at a loss for commentary--I had plenty of ideas, but most of them were sour. To sum up my mood, very little presented in these visually hyperactive presentations spoke to the question that most concerns me in arts journalism--quality writing. Of course, some barely dealt with writing at all, but maybe I'll get there in another post.

I liked most of the presenters and learned from many of those I didn't. But I couldn't stand Jim/James R. Gaines, the former Time, Life, and People editor (and sometimes simultaneously publisher, as well as, to quote Wikipedia, "the author of four works of narrative history," which from their looks, if I had to guess--and for what they're paying me here, I do--I'd assume were at least moderately smart) whose Summit-nominated project is the multimedia online magazine Flyp. For me Gaines's money quote was a no-brainer in more ways than one: "The blog is the place of the critic." That's right up there with "The reader doesn't like long sentences." Both mean, "Keep your annoying ideas out of my fiefdom, you pretentious twit."

Still, I checked Flyp out, and clicked all the buttons on "Ted Hope's Excellent Adventure," where I found Rachel Fernandes's text an interesting account of an admirable and even visionary filmmaker. Can't say it stuck with me, however--I had to go back to the site just now to remind myself of what I'd read (and heard, and looked at). And before that I'd read and clicked some of the buttons on a newer arts feature, "Hungry Like a Wolf," text by Drew Stoga. The subject Shakira, who's in the running for the smartest pop star in the world--a funny and caring woman who's devoted enormous energy to UN-associated educational projects. So we got to hear her speak: "Every time you give a child an opportunity you are transforming his life, her life, and giving this child a chance to become a productive member of society."

One reason I love Shakira is that she's capable of better than that kind of do-gooding boilerplate, and believe me (though you don't have to, because in this participatory age you can check it out yourself), hearing her say it didn't improve it an iota. But she beat Drew Stoga, whose narrative included such sentences as "Working with hit-making producers such as Wyclef Jean (of Neptunes fame), Shakira produced a whole new sound that is very electronic, and dance- and club-oriented" and "She has never shied away from an artistic challenge and has always walked--or danced--down her own unique path." Yawn, scream, and repeat.

I dunno. I'm sure not everyone, not even here, will find those sentences as vague and empty as I do, and maybe I'm wrong and Wyclef Jean has had some hits recently (Sean Kingston's "Ice Cream Girl"? some Lyfe Jennings joint that escaped my notice?). But convincing the world of the fatuity of such prose, by example and advocacy, is my battle. So for me, Flyp is the enemy. Right now I'm leaning toward the Texans. But I urge the electorate to vote for someone, anyone--except Flyp.


By Jim Gaines on October 21, 2009 4:36 PM

Wow. There's a lot to say, but I will try to limit myself to what I meant when I said, "The blog is the place of the critic." I mean OUR blog, FLYPnotes, the one devoted entirely to the arts. I did not mean to say all critics should confine themselves to blogging or to blogs. I wish that went without saying, but obviously it doesn't. I did not mean to condemn long sentences, nor to imply, in your words: "Keep your annoying ideas out of my fiefdom, you pretentious twit." In fact, I also said that on the web, the very multiplicity of voices creates "an opportunity for authority"--that is to say, a need for authoritative critical writing on the visual arts, literature, music, etc.

I would remind you that the summit was about "arts journalism," not "arts criticism", though you are not alone in wishing it had been otherwise, nor in imagining that it was.

I have read your criticism in the past with respect, assuming it to be free of the kind of sloppy or polemical misreading evident here. But maybe you just take blog posts less seriously than your other work?

By Robert Christgau on October 22, 2009 5:35 AM

One reason I misconstrued Gaines's comment was that I glanced at the headlines of the blogs Flyp had on its front page before writing my post and saw nothing critical. This time I went to the archive and in my field found a May 5 post on Wilco in New Orleans and a June 26 video link concerning Christina Courtin. Both were dead as prose and idea-free even by the low standards of music blogging, but to me the fact that both are many months old is even more telling. The other reason I misunderstood is the frequency with which editors hostile to criticism claim that the plethora of opinion on the web renders paid critical thinking vestigial or irrelevant--a new version of an old argument of which Gaines is presumably aware. Of course I'm aware that criticism isn't the only kind of arts journalism. I've published reporting, I've edited reporting, I've incorporated reporting into my criticism, blah blah blah. But for as long as I've been a journalist I've contended with front-of-the-book bosses who used the truisms of reportorial journalism to disparage the intellectual kind. At the NAJP, my announced role is to argue the other side, and I will continue to do so--often polemically, and why the hell not? That doesn't mean, however, that I don't love good reporting. In fact, I've taught a Shakira profile from Blender to my NYU students since 2005. Like so many of the best profiles, it was written by an excellent critic, Rob Tannenbaum. Can't figure out how to do a link in this format, but here's a URL:

By Jim Gaines on October 22, 2009 9:03 AM

You judged by having "glanced at the headlines"? Well, at least you're honest about it. If you looked at what was actually there, I have to conclude that your field excludes Drew Stoga's October 14 blog on the Austin City Limits Festival, which featured David Bloomfield's photographs, as well as David Ross's terrific (critical) posts this summer and fall on everything from Steve McQueen and the young Scottish artist Katie Paterson to Steve Reich, Beryl Korot and Brice Marden, and Lindsey Schneider's blogs on Michael Auder and Merce Cunningham. We don't post more because we pay all of the people who blog for us, and like every other journalistic outfit these days, we are short of funds. I only wish we could do more.

Articles, Oct. 21, 2009

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