The death of the print arts and culture review

This story first appeared in Crain's Detroit Business.

When I started at The Detroit News in 2002, the paper employed a dedicated restaurant critic, a dance critic, two film critics, a couple of music critics, a theater, jazz and classical music critic, a fine/visual arts critic, a TV critic, a book reviewer, and an abundance of freelance arts critics and generalists, at least.

By the time I became arts and entertainment editor the next year, three critics retired and a music critic/musician went on tour and never came back. However, because we understood that readers looked to these paragons of criticism for unbiased, enthusiastic (or skeptical) and educated observations of a show, we found capable freelancers to carry on and trusted heavily on wire copy by capable critics at other newspapers.

Sometimes readers attended shows based on a reviewer’s recommendation; sometimes they went in spite of it, because reviews — good criticism written by experts in music, theater, visual arts, dance, film or opera — don’t just sell tickets. They attract populations of people to communities, jump-start conversations, enlighten and draw attention to cultural shifts.

If the newspaper didn’t run a review, my phone rang with readers demanding our critics’ views. If I directed them to a review online, older readers took offense; and rightly so, they did not have the internet or sometimes a computer, and as far as they could tell no one seemed to care.

What happened at The News is not unlike what has happened at the Detroit Free PressChicago Sun-TimesLos Angeles Times and at other major newspapers across the U.S., most of which have been plagued over the past 15 years by the rise of the internet and decline of print advertising — and, therefore, a business model that doesn’t work. The result has been a re-evaluating of priorities that for the most part kicked arts coverage to the curb. Even wire companies began laying off arts and entertainment critics.

Leah Smith, marketing and development director for Detroit Repertory Theatre, echoed my thoughts when she said, “It’s the way the world is going in general. … We’re being told art is not as important for quality of life as other things are.”

By the time I left The News in 2014, event listings ruled over actual event coverage. I had only film, pop music and visual arts critics left on staff. We freelanced TV and restaurant reviews, periodically persuaded someone to cover classical music and opera, and relied on wire and our ever-dwindling features staff to preview shows instead. At the same time, diversity of those previews steadily shrank, decreasing coverage of little-known performances and exhibits in favor of stories about trendy events.

Is there anything else you need to know about Harry Potter? We can all hop on the train to Stratford, Ontario, for Shakespeare, but how many know about the summer Shakespeare Royal Oak performances or Detroit Repertory Theatre’s new playwright productions?

Vince Paul, president and artistic director of the Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts, agreed. “The bigger picture is that we’re leaving our body politic in the dark as to the cultural options available to them, or removing that as critical thought or discussion for the performing arts that are on display,” he said.

In the early 1990s, when I was publishing an arts and entertainment magazine called Surreal, then Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer invited me and several other Detroit-area arts writers, photographers, musicians, painters, theater owners, etc., to his office to discuss the needs of the city. He recognized, as does anyone wanting to recruit highly sought-after white-collar workers or retain recent college graduates, that a great city needs a strong cultural foothold. So Archer looked for ways through the arts to boost Detroit’s flagging downtown, because, “You want to share the talent and beauty of the art with everybody,” as David DiChiera, founder and artistic director of Michigan Opera Theatre, has said. DiChiera effectively compared the dearth of reviews to “the proverbial hiding your light under a bushel.”

Reviews bring cultural institutions to light for generations of readers; and losing them doesn’t just save space in the newspaper, it does a disservice to older readers and the community at large, especially in this age of social sharing.

Imagine now, with Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, Periscope, Twitter, et al., the attention Detroit-created, curated, produced and staged performances and exhibits could garner nationwide. Here, we have the only Arab American museum in the country, but no one (that I know of) is reviewing its exhibits. There are at least 80 theaters in Michigan, but only a smattering of reviews can be found, most on

Nevertheless, it’s not just about letting people know the event is happening, it’s about creating conversation.

“Competent critics provide a constant commentary on the arts scene,” said Lawrence Johnson, theater, jazz and classical music critic for The Detroit News for 20 years before he retired in 2006. During his 50-year career, Johnson also has written for the Los Angeles TimesNew York TimesOpera News, various music magazines, and “Classical Voice North America.” He and his wife, Nancy Malitz, founding music critic for USA Today and former cultural columnist at The News and freelancer for dozens of well-known publications, now run a classical music and theater review website, “Chicago on the Aisle.”

“I have always been convinced the number of people who read reviews far exceeds the number of people who see the given event,” Johnson said. “I write a review to try to be evocative of the experience as I witness it for anyone who might be interested in the topic.”

I’m looking forward to the Fisher Theatre’s production of “A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” based on the Mark Haddon novel with the same name. The story is difficult to explain: It’s about an awkward boy — in the novel he had autism — who is trying to solve a mystery. However, it’s much more than that. A review by an experienced critic could clarify things for would-be patrons, book lovers, and those just wanting to know how theater and the world have changed over the years.

That’s the thing about true critics, not bloggers (of which I am one), they are skilled at drawing on historical knowledge of performances/exhibits to draw comparisons to new works. Perhaps a critic would contrast the treatment of the innocent Lennie in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men to Haddon’s Christopher or to someone in modern day politics. Regardless, I’d like to know.

While I could likely search online for a review next spring when the play is staged, I’d prefer the conversation one gets from the oft-opposing viewpoints of critics at different publications, as when The News‘ (fill in critic’s name here) skewers a show and the Free Press’ (fill in critic’s name here) praises it, or vice versa. In the midst of this conversation, these critics are educating readers.

I think Lawrence Johnson’s point is solid reasoning for more arts reviews. He said, “Good criticism sheds light and stimulates readers to think.” Considering all the bad news happening in our town, our country, and our world, we could use a little more thinking.

From page to screen: TV's The New Yorker amuses, inspires

Last month, Amazon Prime launched the new original series “The New Yorker Presents.” A fan of the magazine and its podcasts, I added the show to my watchlist and let it sit, assuming it really wouldn’t satisfy when I sought good television programming.

I’m not sure what I expected from the 91-year-old publication, known for its unrivaled literary, arts and political coverage, but it wasn’t this.

This digital cultural magazine, in its first season, brings The New Yorker to life in a way that will inspire writers and artists and inform the masses. Each episode is short, not even 30 minutes, and therefore doesn’t explore any subject in great depth. The first takes on “The Truman Show” delusion, where people believe their lives are reality shows; the FBI’s foreknowledge of 9/11; and a short film with actor Paul Giamatti as caffeine-addicted author Honore de Balzac:

The second episode presents an honest, unbiased documentary on child bull riders, writer Edwidge Danticat looks at racial violence using the art of Jacob Lawrence as a backdrop, there is a poem and much more.

“The New Yorker Presents” is time well spent.

Moving People: An Exploration of Inspiration and Human Nature

Image of guest blogger Maureen Batty

By Maureen Batty

Being deeply moved by the written word always seems like a bit of a hijacking.

I am comfortable, usually in my own home, when someone suddenly takes over my heart, my breath and that feeling in the pit of my stomach from an entirely different location — where the author first put pen to paper or fingertip to keyboard.

It happened months ago when I read John Green’s “The Fault in Our Stars” and cried so hard I thought I was pregnant.

It happened again just a week or two back when I was editing a gorgeous piece of writing that ended suddenly, perfectly and unassumingly with a man changing his mind. Doesn’t sound like a big deal, right? But the writer had so completely sucked me into this man’s firm mindset that when he surrendered it for the love of his child, I felt the importance of his change of mind.

“Sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book.”
― John Green, The Fault in Our Stars

Sometimes the effect isn’t heart-stoppingly dramatic but memorable. It happened when I was reading “Unbroken,” that incredible story of an Olympic athlete whose plane went down during World War II. Author Laura Hillenbrand just dropped the slightest mention of Edith Frank tending her infant daughter Anne Frank and I was absolutely enchanted by her way of providing context.

But it doesn’t have to be the written word; anything that puts a finger on the pulse of human nature — movies, music, photography, architecture, theater and even a television commercial or a comic strip — can take you completely away from your present moment, whether it lifts you up or weighs on your heart.

From time to time in this space, I hope to explore what moves people. To kick things off, I asked three very different people this question: When you think of how human nature and the arts collide, what inspires you?

Here is what they had to say:

Eno Laget

Strawberry by street artist Eno Legat

“I don’t think of collision, ever. It’s more like human nature and arts mixed is a colloid (I am suspended in a continuous phase of another component). Here, I am fog, or I am paint — body and spirit mixed by a source I cannot see, yet I know is real. I have been made and set into motion for a purpose I do not understand because my mind is too puny. Yet, I choose to believe in the driving force that created me for some duration that is beyond my control.

“I am foam rubber. No matter how often depressed, I return to my original form to be in service of my purpose. The tension of this continuous suspension is inspiring. Maintaining balance is a challenge I embrace. To be neither swallowed, nor spit out by the dominant culture until I wear out is the goal.”

Eno Laget is a Detroit-area street artist. He is featured in “Canvas Detroit” by authors Julie Pincus, Nichole Christian and 25 other inspired photographers and contributors. Eno Laget exhibited the above mixed-media image of a woman called Strawberry, who reportedly was killed for knowing too much, at Red Bull Creation in summer 2014.

Michelle Jimenez

Meghan-Trainor-All-About--Bass image

“These days, it’s Meghan Trainor’s song “All About That Bass.” This catchy, fun tune is an instant pick-me-up and an unexpected source of inspiration for a serious soul like me. Though the song encourages a positive body image for all, its message of self-acceptance helps ward off my never-ending and very human drive toward general perfection that goes beyond just trying to attain that perfect number on the scale. To name a few items on my list of elusive perfection: Perfectly clean house, perfectly fed, groomed and happy child and perfectly energetic and engaging wife.

“As a new and first-time mom, I’m still adjusting to the work-life balance, and I welcome any message out there that, after a day at the office, makes it a little easier not to cringe at our atrocious kitchen floor or beat myself up that my toddler’s sharp nails again didn’t get clipped before bed or that I won’t be able to keep my eyes open long enough to watch my husband’s and my favorite TV show. It’s all about that (self) acceptance.”

Michelle Jimenez is a wife, mom and professional communicator who lives in San Antonio, Texas. She most enjoys spending time with family and friends, romping around with her toddler and engaging in creative expression.

Tara Michener

Image of Tara Michener

“So many opportunities to grow, learn, change and develop exist in simple works of art. As humans we see ourselves in paintings, we express ourselves in crafting, we find ourselves in our ability to write a story.

“I specifically think of my own journaling and thought sketching and how my therapeutic creative writing details my own personal experiences from a fiction perspective.

“While human nature and the arts collide in many ways, I am most inspired when I speak to someone who shares their thoughts with me about how my children’s fiction has allowed their child to have a deeper perspective on bullying, diversity and/or self-esteem.”

A counselor, writer, consultant and more, Tara Michener of Novi, Mich., is the founder of “Professionals Against Bullying,” which supports those who have been affected by relational, social and physical aggression. She adores her husband and son, and enjoys running.


Maureen Batty is a Detroit-based writer, editor and lover of how human nature and the arts collide.

Learn more about Maureen at

Inspired to share your own thoughts on the topic human nature and arts?

We’d love to hear about it in the comments below.

©Maureen Batty and Wildemere Publishing LLC [2014]. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is to Maureen Batty and Wildemere Publishing LLC with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 2014