Big Think Interview With Terry Teachout

A conversation with the Wall Street Journal drama critic and author of “Pops.”
  • Transcript


Question: What plays and music did you most admire when you were young?

Terry Teachout: The first play I ever saw, I was in junior high school, was a high school production of Noel Coward's "Blithe Spirit," which seemed to me absolutely magical.  I had never seen people performing on a stage before.  It was so different from television and movies.  Of course, I didn't know at the age of 12, or however old I was, that I was going to end up being the drama critic of the newspaper, but the experience of seeing people on the stage, sharing the air that you breathe, being part of your world instead of people on a flat screen was very powerful for me and I know it pushed me in the direction of wanting to be a performer of some kind. 

I loved music from earliest childhood; from as long as I can remember.  The house was full of records.  My father had lots of old records; 78's, big bands, Jazz, that's how I first heard Armstrong really, and all the other kinds of music I ended up writing about and ultimately playing.  I became a professional musician and played all kinds of music.  I played Bluegrass, I played Classical Music, and for many years I played Jazz.  

But it was the records.  There wasn't a lot of live music that you could hear where I came from, which was a small town in southeast Missouri.  There was an occasional concert that came through, but basically, my experience of music, and largely of the arts, came through television more than anything else.  Back in the '60's, when I was a boy, you could turn on Ed Sullivan on Sunday night and see ballet companies and Jazz and Classical musicians along with ventriloquists and people who spun plates on the ends of poles.  And I think the fact that television brought you all of these experiences on a kind of plane of equality had a real effect on how I ultimately came to view the arts because for me, all the arts are one.  They're all -- music, drama, and film, and painting, they are different ways of trying to do the same thing, and I've always experienced them on this plane of equality.  Really, from the time I started writing about the arts, I've wanted to write about all of the arts.  I wanted to have the opportunity to do that and finally I got it.  Now I write about whatever interests me.

Question: How did you transition from performance to criticism?

Terry Teachout: I was writing throughout the time that I was performing.  I started – I edited my school newspaper, I did the things that a young writer does.  And they were parallel tracks for me.  Criticism was simply an opportunity that came up when I was in college to do some reviewing and I found that I liked it.  I found that I liked the idea of being able to communicate your own enthusiasm, your own excitement, to try to get people to come see something that you saw and maybe see in it what you saw.  Somewhere along the way, I came to the conclusion that I was a better writer than I was a musician, I was just better at it, and I decided that that was what I wanted to do. 

Question: Is music or theater criticism more personal for you?

Terry Teachout: Neither.  All the arts are personal and important to me.  Obviously, somewhere deep within me there is the fact that I have been a musician and it's as though that is my first language.  But, I’ve been writing about other things for so long that the thing that excites me the most is the thing I'm going to see tonight.

Question: Who is your intended audience?

Terry Teachout: Ordinary readers.  The people who read the paper who simply want guidance about what they might come to see, what might interest them.  I think of what I do as a critic as translating specialist knowledge into generalist language so that ordinary people can understand it.  I don't write for performers although I know that they read it.  I don't write for other specialists, although I know that they read it.  I write for folks.  That's actually the way that I put it.  Just as I wrote my Armstrong book in a way for my mother.  If you do that with integrity and seriousness, then you will write in a way that will speak to more than just folks that will be of interest to a wide range of people but first of all, I think you have to reach the general audience.  You have to write in a clear, straightforward, if possible exciting language that makes sense to them.

Question: How has blogging changed your relationship with your audience? 

Terry Teachout: The most important thing blogging does is give your readers immediate access to you either through comments, if you have them on your blog, or through the e-mail channel of the blog, which is always faster than any other way that somebody can get in touch with you.  

I try to answer my mail.  I'm interested in it.  I'm interested in getting to know the people who write to me.  Through blogging [on “About Last Night”], I got to know other bloggers, some of whom have become friends in real time, so to speak.  I don't know that blogging has changed my writing because I started blogging when I was in my late 40's, and I was pretty well fully formed.  The thing that I think blogging does for many people, which is, make their writing style more natural sounding, more speech-like, was something I had always worked on from the beginning anyway.  I always wanted my writing to sound the way I talked.  So, blogging simply allowed me to polish this, but it was pretty much where I was already.  And I was **** too.  I mean another thing that I think blogging will give you if you don't have it is facility because I'd been working as a deadline journalist for a long time.  If you're not **** you're not going to get anywhere in that business.  

For me, blogging has mostly been an opportunity to react more immediately to experiences to try out ideas that I may end up using in the print media or in some other place.  When I write books, it's a way for me to bring readers into the experience of writing the book, all through the process of writing the books that I write.  I talk about what I'm up to in the blog.  I let people know what I am doing.  You can call that a form of publicity if you want, but I don't really think of it that way.  To me, it's just part of putting my professional life up in a way that people who are interested in it can access; and learning things from them as well.

Question: Are blogs making professional critics obsolete?

Terry Teachout: No.  There are certain kinds of criticism that are being made obsolete by these technologies.  Regional newspapers increasingly are not employing TV critics, they are not employing people who are writing about something that the whole world has access to, and they can also get very good copy from wire services, or somewhere else.  There will always be a place for -- well, to take my particular line of work, a theater critic, because that's something you can't get off the wires in New York is people providing intelligent coverage of what your theater company in Podunk is up to.  And I don't, in any way, feel threatened by amateur criticism.  The truth is that I think it's healthy.  I think it's very important thing because amateur, of course, the root word of that is love, and many of the people who write what we call amateur criticism are professionals in anything other than name and receiving a paycheck.  Very often, they know more than the professional critic who might be writing for their local newspaper.  So, really, I'm all for it.  It's changing the playing field, it's shaking things up, in the short run it's going to be frightening and threatening to lot of people, but I can't help but think that, in fact, it's going to make the critical environment a healthier environment. 

I'm also especially interested in what I call practitioner criticism, which is when people who practice an art form start writing about it on blogs.  I think that's an immensely important development.  I want to see much, much more of that.  People who make music who are verbally articulate.  And not all musicians are verbally articulate.  But those who are should be encouraged to write about what they do and their perception of what other people do.  It makes the discourse smarter.

Question: Why did you choose to write about Louis Armstrong?

Terry Teachout: I was interested in Armstrong to begin with because he is the most important figure in Jazz in the 20th Century.  There's simply no question about it.  I mean, if you're going to compare him to somebody, it's Shakespeare in terms of centrality of the tradition, in being at the beginning of it.  I don't draw this comparison in the book because it's not really relevant, but I mean, that gives you a sense of how big he is in the history of Jazz. 

I could have written a book about Charlie Parker, it just happened that when I was out on tour for my last full-length biography, a book about H. L. Mencken, I'd gone through a long, horrible day of book touring and personal appearances and I staggered back to the hotel and sort of fell in the bed.  And it was like somebody hit me in the forehead and said, "Armstrong."  It was really like that. 

And the seed had been planted a couple of years before when I had met Michael Cogswell, who runs the Armstrong Archives in the House Museum.  I was writing a piece about the House Museum for the New York Times.  Michael said to me, "Have you ever thought about writing a biography about Louis Armstrong?"  And at this moment, I was in the middle of writing another book, and the last thing you want to hear about is the next book you should write.  So, I sort of fluffed him off, but obviously the seed dropped at some point and that day, at the first day of the Mencken tour, I thought Armstrong and the next morning I called my agent and we began the process of negotiation.

Having written a biography, a full-length primary source biography, I had a checklist in my mind of the things that make a biography practical.  Is the source material centralized?  Is it easy to find?  Are there new primary sources that no one has ever had access to?  Are all the sources in English?  If they're not, are they in a language that you speak?  You know, little nuts and bolts things like that.  I ran down the checklist and I realized that not only is Armstrong the most important figure of Jazz in the 20th Century, but he's a perfect subject for a biography for all of these reasons.  It was practical, and it excited me because I had always loved his music and I had been fascinated in him as a personality.  And that's really the key to writing a biography.  If you're not interested in the personality, in the inner life of your subject, you have the wrong subject.

Question: What revelations emerged from the newly released Louis Armstrong tapes?

Terry Teachout: In 1947, Armstrong bought a tape recorder.  Commercial tape recorders were new at this point.  He was one of the first people in America to buy one.  Like everyone else of his generation who first got his hands on a tape recorder, he would play with it.  He bought it to tape his shows, his live shows so that he could study them.  But he started taping conversations with friends, backstage conversations.  And he also taped off all of his record library from his home so he could travel with it, because Armstrong was on the road 300 nights a year and he missed his records.  He loved to listen to music. 

He kept the tapes because he was a very self-aware person, you know, he wrote two autobiographies of his own and he thought deeply about his own experience.  So, he realized fairly early on that he was creating a kind of personal archive of information through these tapes. 

By the time of his death in 1971, there were about 650 reels of tape.  They were kept after his death in a non-climate-controlled attic at his house in Queens, and so although everybody who knew him knew about the existence of the tapes, it was generally assumed that they wouldn't be playable by the time anybody got their hands on them.  But it wasn't true.  When the contents of the house became part of the Armstrong archive, the archivists did digital transfers of all the tapes, and they were all playable, and they were all, depending on the circumstances under which they were recorded, very good sound.  I was the first person to write a book about Armstrong who came along after these tapes became available to researchers. 

It was really an extraordinary experience.  Armstrong was a very unselfconscious man.  So, if there was ever a point at which he was aware of the microphone, so to speak, it went away early.  So when you listen to these tapes, you are stepping in the time machine.  You are eavesdropping on the private life of a great, important, and unselfconscious man. 

Sometimes, he is putting on a little show.  He does little mock radio shows.  There are tapes where he plays along with old records of his, tapes where he plays records from his collection and talks about them.  And they're fascinating too, but the most important tapes are the candid tapes where he simply started the tape recorder during a dinner party, in his dressing room, or in the bedroom, in a hotel room after the show and just lets it run.  And whenever he wants to talk about, whatever the people who are with him are talking about is what gets taken down on the recorder. 

So, I was fascinated by the idea that these tapes might show us an Armstrong that we didn't know.  In one sense, they don't because Armstrong was an unselfconscious person, and when he got on stage, as everybody I spoke to who knew him told me, what you saw is what you got.  He was what he seemed to be.  But in private, he was more candid.  I think much more sharp.  I don't mean sharp as in intelligent, I mean sharp as in testy, difficult sometimes because he had a temper, which was something he didn't show in public. 

He held grudges and he talks about some of those grudges on the tapes.  Grudges against musicians he worked with that he thought had double-crossed him.  Managers or people who had booked him that had mistreated him.  He talks very candidly about the difficulties he had with the gangsters of Chicago in 1930-31, back when he was having serious run-ins with them.  He talks about his marijuana arrest in 1930 in California.  Not a subject that you would go around and give interviews about in 1960 in the United States.  You hear him getting high with friends.  You hear him, in one amazing tape, trying to get his wife into bed.  You hear him talking to girlfriends when his wife wasn't around.  You hear him talking about racism, you hear him talking about people he had loved and music that he had loved and whatever inhibition he felt in public about talking about certain matters is gone in these tapes and they bring you closer to him than anything possibly could.  Closer even than talking to people who knew him, and I talked to quite a few of those people.

Question: What opinions about race emerged on the tapes that didn’t emerge in public?

Terry Teachout: It's not quite right to say they didn't emerge.  In one famous episode, he blew up in front of a reporter when Dwight Eisenhower, who was then President, was sending the National Guard in to desegregate the schools of Little Rock.  He was extremely candid on that occasion.  But by that time, Armstrong was perceived as being an accommodationist on racial matters by younger black because Armstrong had the manners of an earlier generation.  He was an entertainer; he didn’t perform in public with any kind of confrontational edge.  There were those who called him an "Uncle Tom" because he had some of the comic mannerisms of somebody who had grown up with minstrel shows, which is perfectly natural for a man who was born in New Orleans in 1901.  But, in the late '50's, he was widely perceived as being soft on these matters.  Not soft on all of them, when you listen to the tapes.  You realize that although he is himself, devoid of any kind of racist sentiment.  There is no reverse racism in Armstrong at all, he is absolutely frank about things that have happened to him about the anger that he feels about episodes where he felt he had been mistreated, especially in Hollywood, where he was sometimes treated as something of a servant on the movies that he made.  And he speaks about them with great candor and great anger. 

[00:20:52.18] If you already viewed Armstrong with a proper historical perspective, you're not going to be shocked by this, but people who have this notion that Armstrong was some kind of "Uncle Tom," listening to the tapes is an ear-opener.

Question: Is there a definitive Louis Armstrong masterpiece?

Terry Teachout: Well, a man who made recordings from 1923 to 1971 is not going to have a single definitive masterpiece.  There are records that I especially like.  There's a list of 30 of them in my book.  The Armstrong record that I personally like the most, is a recording of a song by Harold Arlen called, "I Got a Right to Sing the Blues" that he made with his big band in 1933.  I love this record for a lot of reasons.  One is, it started with his speaking voice.  He introduces the record.  So, suddenly it's like he is reaching out and coming to you.  Then he sings a wonderful vocal on this great Harold Arlen tune.  And then, he takes a solo.  And most of Armstrong's solos tended to stick pretty close to the melody because that's what he thought you should do as a Jazz musician.  But for some reason, when he was playing this song, it's like he let go of the tether and suddenly he's playing this beautiful high, almost abstract line that’s floating above the beat.  In my book, I compare it to the way that a 19th century operatic tenor might have sang an Aria because he's just completely let loose of the background and he's making this magic sort of flying above the staff.  Then he comes back down to earth and takes you out with the melody.  It's serene, it's incredibly lyrical, but it also has this quality of abstraction that I find fascinating.  That has always been the Armstrong record that has had a special meaning for me. 

Most people who know a lot about Armstrong put that high on the list of masterpieces.  That happens to be my favorite.

Question: Is jazz still fresh?

Terry Teachout: It's a very exciting music.  It's a very fresh music.  But it is minority music in a way that it wasn't when Louis Armstrong was alive. 

When Armstrong was at his peak, Jazz was a popular music.  In a way, it was the popular music.  I mean all of the most popular music of the '30's, and '40's, were deeply in formed by Jazz.  This is not true now and this is a problem that I am especially interested in and I have written about because the National Endowment for the Arts has done research, polling, on audience involvement with the arts.  And one of the things they've discovered, and which I have reported on and find very disturbing, is that the average age of the Jazz audience is increasing rapidly. Rapidly enough to suggest that there is no replacement among young people.  That generally speaking, young people aren’t starting to listen to Jazz and carrying it along in their lives with them.  That I find distressing, anxiety-making. 

Part of what explains this and part of what relates to it is that Jazz really isn't a popular music.  It is an art music now in a way that it wasn't in Armstrong's time.  It is more demanding.  It's not being made as a functional music for people to dance to.  Now, I don't think there is anything wrong with that.  I think it's wonderful.  I love that kind of music.  But I'm also aware, as a historian and as somebody who is aware of the problems of reaching an audience, that Jazz is becoming more like Classical music in terms of its relationship to the audience.  And just a Classical music is grappling with the problem of audience development, so is Jazz grappling with this problem.  Except most Jazz musicians don't want to acknowledge that they have a problem. 

I wrote a column about this for the Wall Street Journal and was inundated with really angry mail and e-mail and blog postings from people who really, I think, just wanted to pretend the statistics didn't exist.  That the world had not changed.  I believe, deeply that Jazz is still a very vital music that has much to say, not just to eggheads, or whatever the musical equivalent of an egghead is, but to ordinary people.  But it has to be systematic about getting out the message and developing an audience the way that classical musicians are increasingly working on audience development.  If this doesn't happen, there's not going to be an audience for Jazz in 25 years.

Question: Who are the most exciting young musicians in jazz today?

Terry Teachout: Oh, boy.  There's just a lot of people.  I mean, Robert Glasper, who has integrated Hip Hop into this jazz piano playing.  The Bad Plus, the fascinating, well, you wouldn't want to call them an infusion group now, I mean, the music has moved on from that.  But the Bad Plus plays a kind of Jazz that also has room for doing covers by bands like Blonde.  They have access to all different kinds of music and even Iverson, their pianist, has some of the most curious **** in Jazz. 

Maria Schneider, the best Big Band composer in Jazz today.  Out there, there are all kinds of musicians that you want to know about, find out about.  Luciano Sousa, the Brazilian Jazz singer, people who have something to say, not just to 50-year-olds, but to 20-year-olds as well.

Question: What would you like to see in a “Hamlet” production that you’ve never seen before?

Terry Teachout: If I knew that, I'd go out and direct it.  The wonderful thing about theater as an art form is it's a purely empirical art form.  It's all about what works.  And every show, every production is created anew right from the moment you go into the rehearsal hall.  So, I wouldn't sit here and say to you, I'd like to see a “Hamlet” in which, I don't know, in which Hamlet is a dragon.  I'm just riffing here.  I wouldn't think of it in conceptual terms.

What I want though, is to go to the theater and see something that I'm not expecting to see.  And that doesn't mean that it has to be transgressive.  It doesn't mean that it has to be unusual.  It could just be perfect.  It's actually now, more common to see conceptual productions of Shakespearian, which Hamlet is played as a Nazi, or a homosexual, or whatever concept is being laid over the play, then it is to see a production of Shakespeare in which there is no conceptual overlay and the play is simply being presented on its own terms.  This is something that I've been noticing in writing about actually in the last year or so, that conceptual theater is not the new normal.  It's the thing that we rebel against, and so now, I'm really surprised to see a production that doesn't have this kind of overlay.  And I might add that the “Hamlet” on Broadway that Jude Law doesn't have an overlay at all.  Not like say, the “Macbeth” with Patrick Stewart that was done last season in which it's set in some place, more or less, like Soviet Russia. 

The problem with the Jude Law “Hamlet” was simply that it wasn't unpredictable, that it was a very down-the-center modern production.  I mean, we sometimes forget that we live in modernity and therefore modernism is normal.  You wouldn't go to the theater expecting to see an old-fashioned “Hamlet” where everybody wears an old fashioned costume.  You don't get points, to me, now, for putting on a “Hamlet” where everybody dresses in black.  I've seen that one.  I've seen that one several times.

But again, it's not that it has to be new, it simply that it has to be different, fresh, that it doesn't bore, that it doesn't make me -- I don't feel as I'm watching it that I know where it's going to go.  I want to be surprised, especially by a familiar play.

Question: What particularly irks you as a drama critic?

Terry Teachout: Well, if I ever see another Shakespeare production where somebody drives a Jeep on stage, I'm going to run screaming up the aisle.  These tend to be matters of design.  I mean, we're seeing a lot of -- it's very common to see Shakespeare with automatic weapons, things like that.  They are clichés.  They're new clichés, but they are clichés.  And they're provincial.  It’s not clever to do Henry V, and have everybody dressed in United Nations soldier’s costumes anymore.  I've seen that one too.  That kind of thing irritates me.  I really get irritated when a classic play is hijacked for political purposes where somebody has some sort of political agenda that they want to use the play to advance, which, again, is fairly common with Shakespeare. 

But the wonderful thing about theater is that anything, no matter how tendentious, no matter how stupid it sounds at first glance, can be made to work if it is charged with freshness and originality.  You can have an entirely political Shakespeare production and I'll be sitting on the edge of my seat as long as it's surprising, as long as it's not just the standard, "out of the box" pseudo-transgressive production that we just see too much of nowadays.

Question: What’s a hidden gem of the American theater?

Terry Teachout: Well, the American theater is lousy with hidden gems.  But I think in particular, there are a lot of plays that used to be, well they're still well made plays of the '30's and '40's that fell out of fashion when the fashion in American theater turned towards more personal expressionistic playwriting.  Tennessee Williams really marks the big change in direction here.  There is still a lot to be said for the well-made, witty, clever, three-act comedy.  There's a playwright named S.M. Berryman, Sam Berryman, who wrote these kinds of social comedies.  They are actually extremely sharp and still quite provocative.  He has a play called "Biography" which is about to produced off Broadway that I am going to see.  I've actually seen that produced and am excited by it. 

John Van Druten, another purveyor of well-made boulevard theater that's actually much more challenging and interesting than you might expect. There's a wonderful play called "The Voice of the Turtle," a three-character play that has never had a modern production on the East Coast so far as I know.  There are British playwrights, Terence Rattigan in particular, were all are also totally unfashionable because of their being rooted in traditional wood ways and construction.  I'm not saying that this is the best or the only way to write and play, I like Tennessee Williams as much as the next guy, and Sam Shepard, and all sorts of different ways of writing plays.  But I don't think that what worked in the ‘30s and ‘40s should be disregarded simply because it is no longer fashionable.  And that's something that I've sort of crusaded for in my writing.  I look for productions of playwrights like that.

Question: Who excites you as an up-and-coming talent in theater?

Terry Teachout: David Cromer, from Chicago, I think is the most gifted young director in America.  He had a real setback, he just made his Broadway debut last month with what was supposed to be a repertory production of two Neil Simon plays, and they closed it after the first one opened and before the second one got opened.  That's not gonna stop him.  This is a guy whose imagination just oozes out of his pores.  He did an off-Broadway production of "Our Town" last season that is still running, in which she plays the stage manager.  Nowadays, everybody’s seen "Our Town."  Your high school did it; you probably didn't when you were in high school.  It is an utterly familiar play.  And Cromer, without distorting it, without transforming it with beyond recognition, made it absolutely new and fresh and every moment of it was alive.

He did the same thing with the production of "The Glass Menagerie" that I saw in Kansas City last year.  The same thing with the production of William Inges’, "Picnic," that I saw in Chicago two years ago.  I got on to him because I travel and most other critics don't so I was aware of him earlier than he was generally known in New York.  Now he is atop the list of directors whose work I will travel to see.  He excites me.

Question: For a critic of music and drama, is opera the ideal form?

Terry Teachout: I like what you put there.  Opera is the medium of choice to embrace everything to do everything and if you do it right, if you keep all the different parts and balance, it's a juggling act, but you know, there's really nothing much more exciting than a really good juggling act when there are about 15 balls in the air.  I've always loved opera; it never occurred to me that I would write a proper libretto.  The reason why it happened was, one of my closest friends is a composer, Paul Moravec, and a few years ago, Paul and I were at lunch, he is a neighbor of mine in the upper West side, and we were sitting at lunch and I said to him, "you really have to write an opera."  And I ticked off the reasons why he should do this.  His music was inherently dramatic, he wrote well for voices, you know, things like that.

So, he says very casually to me, "I'll do it if you write the libretto."  Well, little did I know that the within a couple of years we would end up getting a commission from the Santa Fe Opera to write an opera together, "The Letter," which turned out to be, so they tell us, the most successful commissioned opera in the history of the Santa Fe Opera.  We are hoping to write more operas.  We are talking to other companies about commissions.  It was a completely unexpected for me.  I have not since the days of when I was a performing musician, have I got myself as a creative artist.  A critic is not a creative artist, is a commenter, a midwife of creativity, but not creative himself.

George Balanchine, the choreographer, would have said, "He's like an angel.  He carries the message, but doesn't experience it." And then suddenly, here I am, writing a libretto.  And it worked.  I mean, the reason why it worked was because I was working with a great composer, but I had learned a lot about what works on stage from spending six years of seeing two or three plays a week.  You know, if you don't learn something from that experience, you're not paying attention.  And it was fun.  It was fun to be on the other side of the curtain.  It was fun to see a director, Jonathan Kent, whom I had praised to the skies in my capacity of a critic, working on my material and seeing how he did it. 

Direction is the most invisible part of the theatrical art.  You don't see it.  It's not like the conductor in the symphony orchestra performance because he's standing in front of you waiving his arms.  You now what he's doing.  You don't know what the director is doing unless you know a lot about theater and even then you can only deduce it.  You know it when you go to rehearsal.  You really know it when they are rehearsing something of yours.  I learned more in the rehearsals for The Letter than I have ever dreamed of know in the theater as a critic.  If it doesn't make me a better critic, I'm an idiot.

Question: What advice would you give someone writing a libretto?

Terry Teachout: The most important thing to remember is that the composer is a senior partner.  You cannot force a subject on a composer if it doesn't inspire him.  He has to take the lead, you are an enabler, and you are creating the enabling conditions under which he can write great music.  Your words are secondary.  Many librettists in opera collaborations in the past have forgotten this, or not known it, or refuse to accept it and tried to get out in front of the creative process and it just doesn't work that way.

Now, Paul and I are old friends; we really understand each other on.  And Paul, not being a theater person, would always trust me when I said things that I am like, "you're going to need another 10 seconds of music year to get them across the stage."  But at the same time, I always knew that the people weren’t going to be coming to this opera tear my words, they were going to be coming to hear his music of which my words are going to be a part.  And had there ever been a major dispute in our collaboration, and there never was, I would have yielded to him.  And I would try to make my point but it was clear that he wanted to go and direction A., and I wanted to go and direction B.  We would've gone and direction A. that's the most important piece of advice I can give to anybody who finds themselves in an opera, or musical comedy situation like that.

Question: Do newspaper critics have a future?

Terry Teachout: It depends on where newspapers are.  What I expect is that we're going to see a long-term contraction of the newspaper market.  We will start to have middle sized cities that no longer have major newspapers.  I wouldn't be surprised if Detroit is the first one.  This also has something to do with the cities themselves, but also with the nature of the market.  The papers that flourish will be papers that serve a national audience, like my own paper, The Wall Street Journal, like the New York Times.  Papers that have figured out how to make the transition to the electronic platform that aren't simply providing a duplicate experience of the words on paper experience, but are doing something that arises organically from the new electronic medium. 

And the smallest local papers will probably also survive, although it may not be on paper.  Eventually they are not going to be any newspapers on paper; we’re very close to that now.  It's really just a matter of finding the right platforms for the way people want to read newspapers.  I mean, maybe it will be the iPhone.  But one way or another, newspapers on paper are just not really going to exist to any significant degree within a decade. 

This affects the role of critics.  The smaller newspapers probably won't have any critics at all.  Maybe that's not such a bad thing because there's a certain level of seriousness that you can't get with a small newspaper for critics.  I mean the Podunk Times is not going to have a good dance critic, I absolutely promise you that.  There's just not enough dance there. 

Again, there will be this mix of people like me who write for major national newspapers and amateur critics, practitioner critics, whose primary way of distributing what they talk about is through blogs and on the web.  The line between professional and amateur criticism will become increasingly blurred.  The problem here is that if you want to do this for a living, you have to be able to earn a living doing it.  In a world without any criticism at all, although there are many actors who would think they would be delighted to see that happen, would in fact be a far more problematic world than they could ever imagine.

Virgil Thomson, the great classical music critic, who was also a composer, but said that criticism was the only antidote he knew to pay publicity.  And that's a very interesting and subtle way of putting it.  Critics at their best are independent voices people take seriously their responsibility to see as many things as they can see, put them in the widest possible perspective, educate their readers, I really do think of myself as a teacher.  Newspapers that don't carry arts criticism at all while not fulfill this function.  And probably their arts journalism will be deprived as a result.  It's not enough, so your regional newspaper, and I like to use this example, in your local museum buys a Picasso, that's news especially if they've spent $10 million for it.  But if you don't have a credit on your staff then you don't have anybody who's confident to say whether or not it was a good Picasso, might even be aware of the fact that there are bad Picassos.  Arts journalists who don't have the experience of criticism, the skill of criticism, don't think in terms of critical evaluation are not going to be as good a journalist as they might be.  And arts journalism will be seriously deprived if newspapers ceased to employ people like that, people like me.

I mean, if the Wall Street Journal ceases to employ me, and I'll go do something else.  There are other things I can do.  But I believe deeply in the value of what people like me do.  And I don't want to see it go away.

Recorded on November 17, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen