It's about the dropping of most of the listing pages, and the arrival of Choire's The Guide. To be honest, I hadn't really noticed, but apparently a lot of people have.
I think they should hire me to adapt the ArtCat infrastructure for a new listings system.
Just a few weeks earlier, The Times had tossed the venerable columns of agate type that had filled so many pages of the Arts & Leisure section for so long, with as many as 300 cultural events acknowledged, however briefly, in a single edition. In what seemed to be their place, a single page featured slightly more than 20 cultural items, tucked in and around some less than enlightening photographs, under headlines so opaque as to be incomprehensible. Down the side of the page, in very large type, marched the days of the week. The items aligned next to each described a few events or productions scheduled for those particular days, but in several cases they were events that could also be enjoyed (or endured) on many other days. To many readers, this was not just confusing; it was replacing a symphony with a jingle.
Inside The Times, there were several knocks on the old listings: They were dull. They were so absent critical judgment that readers, said Arts & Leisure editor Jodi Kantor, were "lost in a sea of names and titles." Culture editor Jonathan Landman believed they were "cryptic and hard to use for all but highly expert arts consumers." Kantor, Landman and others assert that because much of the information was available elsewhere, the old listings were redundant, and therefore vestigial.
There may be something to these criticisms (I'll certainly go along with the dullness charge), but each bears the scent of journalistic arrogance. Journalists like to do journalism; they're much less excited by the compilation of largely uninflected data. The old listings required great care, but they called for neither enterprising reporting nor graceful style nor, really, for critical judgment. Kantor told me that "we find it hard to believe that those listings, so skimpy they didn't even list prices, created much of an audience for events." But that "lost in a sea of names and titles" argument is refuted by the results. If the listings didn't create much of an audience, why are audience-chasing producers so upset that they'd join, or even inspire, an organized protest effort?
Landman's only-for-experts argument is simply condescending. It also sounds like the view of someone who's not a terribly avid arts consumer. Sure, the average reader could stumble through much of the listings pages puzzled by references to obscure painters or outré theater companies or little-known dance troupes. But that same "inexpert" reader could open the paper on a Sunday morning, see a reference to a Chopin recital at a church in Murray Hill that afternoon, and extract a very pleasant day from it. Additionally, what Landman imprecisely calls "highly expert arts consumers" are not such rare creatures in New York. If you've already made the commitment to peruse the jazz listings, then it's likely you already know quite a bit about George Coleman and Lou Donaldson and Steve Turre. That doesn't take an expert; that takes a fan, and this city - cultural capital of the nation - is home to thousands upon thousands of fans.
Then there's The Guide - well intended, and somewhat improved with each passing week, but nonetheless an ill-conceived failure. Kantor says the range of items included "is a testament to the richness of New York's cultural life." But it's also testament to a narrowing down so severe, and so individualistic, that its arbitrariness is unnerving. I've got nothing against Choire Sicha, the author; the enormous range of arts events in New York filtered through the sensibility of a single individual wouldn't be any more useful if the sensibility was Edmund Wilson's. Interesting, sure, but it's simply wrong-headed to represent it as useful. And for a newspaper that considers itself the leader in cultural coverage, "useful" is an admirable goal.
It's a bit brutal toward Choire's gig (what did you expect from readers that complain when the Travel section writes too much about hotel rooms under $400 per night?), but I love the part about fans. That's how James and I describe ourselves. We get recognized by people because we show up at so many galleries and theater events, so when people ask if we're in the arts, we say, "No, we're art fans!"