This piece by Lydia Perović was originally published in the Final Word section of our summer 2021 issue. To check out the full issue, or to see our subscription options for exclusive content, click here.
I had a lot of time this year to think about what factors brought on the demise of Canadian arts criticism. The pandemic added the final chapter to a decade-long process which saw the internet disrupt every corner of Canadian journalism. If anybody ever writes a history of this transfer to digital, we’ll find out what Canadian media managers prioritized in the process: content—that is, what used to be called the quality of writing—certainly wasn’t it. In Canada, Arts coverage disappeared, then Ideas, then Books, then longform in general, then a huge chunk of the in-depth reporting in other beats too. Staff were bought out, retired and laid off in waves. Diversity of opinion shrank. Permalancers were shed, freelance budgets thinned out. Of course the content will suffer—in deprioritized beats in particular—and once you shed entire beats, deprioritizing will creep into other sections. We can live without X? Let’s try without Y. After arts and culture, off went foreign correspondents, regional and municipal news, media and tech analysis. The New York Times‘ European Culture Editor Matthew Arnold recently said in an online master class that the paper has “about 25 critics on staff.” The entirety of Canada I believe now has the grand total of two—the Globe & Mail’s theatre and TV critics.
Why have things ended so differently in Canada? Was it the mettle and the tastes of our media managers? Canada is without arts and culture journalism today in good part thanks to their decisions. But there is a harder question here for us writers and editors: how did we contribute to this demise and are we entirely blameless? When I started blogging about opera in 2010 and writing in specialist media, I entered the final period of the era of the ensconced critic: the dailies would usually have one per discipline, unavoidable, long in the tooth, taking his platform as god-given. There wasn’t really a buzzing diversity of freelancers around our arts beats: there were small sets of permalancers who were hired to cover what the Main Man couldn’t be arsed to cover. Both parties had their preferences, their friends, their frenemies, and all kinds of entanglements in the industry. There were and still are a ton of ex-musicians or part-time musicians among music writers and—feel free to disagree—but I believe that music writers should not come from the pool of retired, failed or amateur musicians (nor actual working musicians with existing loyalties to people and institutions). This is because we primarily write for a non-musician readership that has all kinds of non-musical interests, and also because writing should never be a second choice. Classical music writing often speaks in a tone of reverence for the practitioners and creators and this is a kiss of death. “How dare you write about music when you don’t have a music degree?” I was asked at least twice over the last ten years. “Why bother selling tickets to people without one?” would be my response.
How much are we ourselves to blame as writers and critics for the demise of music writing in Canada? Were we curious enough, did we read voraciously, look for new experiences and subjects, avoid sinecures, question the comfortable, fiercely advocate for the continuation of our profession as its own thing and not an adjunct to heilige Kunst? I’ll leave you with those questions.
Lydia Perović is a Toronto-based arts and culture writer. Her third book, a collection of personal & political essays, is due out next year with Sutherland House. Find her newsletter ‘Long Play’ on Substack.