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Critics in the 21st Century

Alex Marianyi
Contributing Writer
alex.marianyi[at]gmail.com / @alexmarianyi

You can't deny it: critics have played a major role in the shaping of jazz history. Entire movements have been left out of the canon simply because they didn't appeal to popular journalists of the time. If anyone disagrees, they can turn to John Gennari's book Blowin' Hot and Cool: Jazz and its Critics. It explores jazz history from the point of view of the critics and reveals their subtle, yet integral influence.

In an article for the British side of GQ, Johann Hari also argues that critics are important. However, he uses a little finer comb. He laments Spin magazine reducing their album reviews to tweets, disapproves of Variety firing their full-time critics, and goes on to effectively explain why a critic's role is essential. While I agree with all of this, it's his next statements that have me worried.

"If you are writing your criticism in the evenings, after a long day working at another job, your thought and your writing will almost certainly not be as rich as if you had been able to read and learn and think all day."

I most certainly believe there is a place in the world of criticism for those who are "able to read and learn and think all day." However, as the author points out himself, "Their first task is simply consumer advice." In order for someone to be a consumer, they need money to consume with. Since the state of savings accounts in this nation are dismal at best, having money to consume art most likely means having a job. Who will understand the consumer's point of view better than a critic who spends all day "working another job"?

The article goes on to talk about what might happen if all of these great critics had day jobs while they were writing influential interviews. The author brings up K-Mart, Barclays, and KFC as potential day jobs for these critics. Right, because no decent part-time critic would ever have a day job as... oh, I don't know... an administrator at a non-profit arts organization. Or as a teacher. Or a copy editor for a different publication. Or one of a thousand jobs that someone could hold that would enrich, not detract from, their writing about a particular art form.

Now, let's bring this full circle to the critics themselves. Why should it be a newspaper, magazine, or website's responsibility to hire critics full-time? If people want to critique for a living, doesn't it fall on them to create that career for themselves? In order to survive financially, other writers have setup careers with multiple revenue streams that span a wide range of opportunities in the writing world.

If critics want to be "able to read and learn and think all day", they could write critiques for several different publications across an array of media. They could even host their own blogs funded by advertisements. Of course, we all know that it's very difficult to make a significant amount of money from ads on a blog; however, that blog can be a gateway to more lucrative opportunities such as speaking engagements or teaching positions. Now that sounds like a career!

The days of the one-trick pony are disappearing in the arts world, and this holds true for those who write about the arts. And this isn't a bad thing. Economically forcing critics to become well-rounded writers and individuals will make for better writing and better critiquing. And that really is the goal, isn't it?

Alex Marianyi is a film scoring Irish jazz folk musician based in Chicago, IL. You can find out more about his exploits at alexmarianyi.com.