Arts criticism has been transformed by COVID-19

Philip Kennicott

THE WASHINGTON POST – Like many of my colleagues who write about the arts, I panicked when the pandemic shut down museums, galleries, theatres and concert halls. What would I write about?

Eight months later, I’ve never been busier. That’s a profound blessing. But it also signals significant changes to how criticism has been transformed by the crisis, and why it may never be the same.

The pandemic, and the social fissures it has exacerbated, including stark divides along class and racial lines, has scrambled the usual categories of American life, including those that once governed the arts. The pandemic has helped tip the balance of some of our most painful and persistent conversations, upending the usual rules.

After decades of anguish and argument over monuments to people who used their power and privilege not for the public good, but in service to white supremacy, suddenly those statues started coming down in cities like Richmond, where they were once thought too historic, or somehow too sacred, to touch. Symphony orchestras, late to the game in almost every way when it comes to social change, were no longer gatekeepers when it came to defending the old “canon” against music by women, people of colour and composers outside the Western tradition.

Critics were also freed from some of their old habits, which no longer seemed particularly helpful. Schedules weren’t dictated by major arts institutions, and with no shows happening anywhere “in real life”, it was just as easy to write about accessing art virtually from across the world as it used to be to cover a show across town.

Freed from the obligation of keeping up with a regular calendar of exhibition openings, or a concert schedule or a weekly march of theatrical premieres, critics have written more about the personal experience of art rather than the specific content of art in particular.

Visitors tour the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York during the August 29 public re-opening. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

Perhaps the pandemic made people, including arts writers, more raw to art as well, more aware of the intellectual and emotional processes that help us make sense of it, and better able to describe them.

This more reflective, more personal moment in arts criticism may widen the audience for arts writing. Because critics deal with art on a daily basis, they sometimes fail to communicate something more fundamental: the daily, lived experience of having art in one’s life, the “why it matters” that keeps you coming back, again and again, year after year.

The pandemic has also made it clear that artists exist in categories quite different from what we might have imagined. The common conception of artists before the shutdown – a view that wasn’t particularly accurate and was largely determined by stereotypes left over from the “culture wars” of the past century – is that they belong to the so-called coastal elites.

They were perceived as having more in common with knowledge workers in Brooklyn or technocrats in Silicon Valley, than, say, people who perform the necessary duties of a service economy in small communities all across the country.

The devastation of the arts economy, the personal privation of artists, performers, small entrepreneurs who run galleries and nonprofit leaders struggling to keep community arts groups afloat, has unravelled the old stereotypes. Artists may be wildly more creative than many of the people who are routinely lumped into that tired old category – the creative class – but they have suffered far more from this enforced period of disconnection than people who spend most of their days moving data on screens.

But as the pandemic has freed critics from their usual patterns, the arts world seems larger, richer and wider. And the more there is to write about, the less bitter the old battles and disputes become. A critic can follow his or her own whim, from thing to thing, enthusiasm to enthusiasm, no longer obliged to pass judgement on things that aren’t of interest.

I find that, since the pandemic began, the arts seem more desperately important than they ever have, and that I don’t have time for anything that doesn’t matter.

I pick the books I read with more care and read them more slowly. And I find myself disciplining my mind the way teachers sometimes do wayward students: If you’re not going to pay attention, then do something else.

Perhaps this is most apparent to me in my social life, greatly circumscribed and radically transformed. It’s not just that I see fewer people and for less time.

But when I do see people, we don’t waste time. Conversations get more quickly to the essence, feel less performative and ritualised.