The loss of newspaper cultural critics hurts us as citizens
I miss the critics.
The theater, music, movie, fashion, book, dance and architectural critics who once populated the nation’s media have been systematically eliminated at our beleaguered newspapers. As print circulation and advertising have declined, journalism’s new business model has prized clicks over culture.
In Chicago, Minneapolis and Washington, cities where I worked as an editor, the arts organizations and venues far outnumber athletic teams, yet sports coverage remains robust while arts coverage has become frail.
Critics have long been indispensable guides in teaching us how to be cultural citizens, illuminating our interior world with ideas and providing history through the lens of arts commentary. They grow our horizons, prompting us to imagine different perspectives. They are needed now more than ever as our country grapples with small ideas, diminished vision, polar thinking and insularism.
Recently, I’ve grieved the loss of The Washington Post’s legendary critic Sarah Kaufman, whom I worked with for eight years. When she was laid off in November, she was one of just two full-time dance writers remaining at a major news organization. Left standing is Gia Kourlas at The New York Times.
Only the second dance critic to win a Pulitzer Prize — the first was the Post’s Alan Kriegsman in 1976 — Kaufman will be inducted into the Medill School of Journalism’s Hall of Achievement at Northwestern University on May 18. (She received her master’s degree in journalism there in 1987.)
It was from a dance critic’s essays that I found my calling as an arts editor. I started reading The New Yorker as a pretentious college student desperate to be an intellectual. Arlene Croce taught me more about dance than I learned even at the Edythe B. Rayspis Professional School of the Dance in Berwyn. With her dazzling descriptive and acerbic essays, Croce introduced an art world of beauty, inspiration and insider intelligentsia.
Her reign at The New Yorker lasted until 1998, but she harmed her reputation in 1994 with her piece “Discussing the Undiscussable,” in which she boycotted Bill T. Jones’ “Still/Here,” a multimedia piece about AIDS, death and suffering. The choreography was informed by real people living with fatal diseases, as well as Jones’ own HIV diagnosis. Croce dismissed it as “victim art.” It is now considered a masterpiece.
When the myopic Croce did not foresee that dance was pushing beyond the George Balanchine world of pretty, the path opened for critics such as Kaufman. In fact, one of the pieces in Kaufman’s 2010 Pulitzer-winning portfolio concluded that dance companies’ infatuation with New York City Ballet’s artistic director, who died in 1983, hindered the art form.
Of Balanchine, who choreographed more than 400 works, Kaufman wrote in 2009: “In his wake, ballet’s range of expression has narrowed, not expanded. Gone, in new work, is theater, spectacle, satire, flesh-and-blood characters, the ache of real life, the escape offered by a sharp, piercing little story. Now more than ever, American ballet, artistically speaking, is a homogeneous entity. We are a thoroughly Balanchine nation.”
Kaufman’s take on dance was broad. She was interested in everyday movement, whether it was chefs in a kitchen or roadies at a rock concert. She wrote about a wedding dance party in St. Paul, Minnesota, described Cary Grant’s grace, and picked six drag queens to follow on YouTube.
She reported on the #MeToo movement, including abuses at New York City Ballet. She covered Alvin Ailey dancers’ boycott of a fundraising gala in 2018 because of unmet salary demands. She wrote about how the international dance community mobilized to help Ukrainian dancers.
Her shimmering prose ran for more than 25 years in the Post. In her final newspaper review, on Ballet Hispánico’s “Doña Perón,” she wrote: “Dance artists brim with illuminating stories to tell about our world and our lives, and I dearly hope that dancer-led stories continue to be embraced, examined and celebrated. This isn’t the time, it seems to me, for a narrow outlook. This seems a particularly important time to enlarge it.”
A sanguine Kaufman is moving forward teaching arts criticism at Harvard Extension School, as well as working on a book about writing. She, like many critics before her, is discovering there is great satisfaction to be found outside the rigid confines of a newsroom.
It is the readers and dance companies that fare worse. Since she left, we have missed her take on Rihanna’s Super Bowl halftime show; Jenna Ortega’s viral Wednesday Addams dance; United Ukrainian Ballet’s performance at the Kennedy Center; the robot’s sinister movements in the film “M3GAN”; and the revival of “Bob Fosse’s Dancin’” on Broadway.
Without informed, interrogative critics who champion the art form, we are left with the endless navel-gazing of TikTok dancers.
I plan to attend Medill’s ceremony honoring Kaufman along with seven other alumni. It is almost certain that I will tear up as the nation’s second-to-last dance critic is inducted. She won’t be forgotten; she’s a singular sensation.
Christine Ledbetter is a former senior arts editor at The Washington Post. She lives in downstate Illinois where she writes about culture and politics.