We're a few weeks late, but it's time again for the Critical Eye to celebrate our anniversary. Hard to believe, but it has been 30 years since our first arts column saw the light of day in Western New York.
Originally, the column appeared in Thursday's newspaper. I had been writing theater and music reviews and covering the governments of the Village of Bemus Point and the Town of Ellery for a number of years, already.
At the time, I was teaching at Maple Grove High School, and it seemed to me that the largest single impediment to my students' learning, wasn't the lack of textbooks, nor the number of students per classroom, nor any of the frequently-cited reasons.
It was the fact that the society as a whole was teaching them that the things they learned in school didn't matter. I decided that if the local newspaper celebrated the things of the mind, occasionally, it could help the schools to convince young minds to open wide enough to at least listen to what they were being taught. After all this time, I hope it has done so, at least a bit.
When I wrote that first column, I promised readers that I would devote the anniversary column, each year, to giving advice about getting better coverage for cultural events, and to ''talking'' with the readers about the state of the arts in our area. That was the last week of March 1980.
This year, when our anniversary rolled around, there were arts organizations in the area who needed to get information printed right then, or it would be too late, so it seemed only reasonable to postpone the anniversary column for a couple of weeks. So, let me start with how to get the best coverage in this column, and then we'll talk about the arts.
ON ARTS JOURNALISM
Once per month, usually on the last Saturday of the month, we print general advice on how things work around here. We've been doing that for more than 10 years. Despite this, we fail to help people and organizations who probably want and certainly could use our help, in really distressing numbers.
And yet, when we try to tell people how to get their news included in the column, you would probably be amazed how many times people tell us not to bother telling them.
More than once, I've been told by a person who was being paid a full-time salary plus job benefits to get some organization's news into the newspaper, that he or she didn't care what my deadlines were. Those were my problems, not their employer's.
Part of the problem is that I do two different kinds of writing. There are columns and there are reviews. Reviews are the shorter pieces which describe my observations at a concert or a play or an art exhibit or a dance, and my opinions on whether there were problems with the presentation or elements of the presentation which deserve to be called to the public's attention for praise.
Reviews are written the same evening as the presentation. If I get them done in time and if there is available space in the next day's paper, they often appear right away. It can be any day of the week, and it might appear on any page on which the editor on duty chooses to put it. I never know until I get the actual newspaper, whether it will be in, and where it will appear.
Columns are written at least a week in advance. They always appear on Saturdays, and always on the next to last page of the section of the paper called ''Saturday.''
If people want to get angry with me, over something I cannot control, they're welcome to do it, but I really do want to do the best job I can.
For example: someone asks for a review. I go to the performance and write one, but they're angry because they didn't really want a review, they wanted advance advertising that they're going to do a performance.
I once got a phone call from an angry citizen whom I quoted in a news article about the Ellery Town Board. He shouted into the phone, ''I know it's what I said, but it wasn't what I meant.'' Let's be real here. It's my job to describe what you do. It's your job to do what you mean to do.
People get angry because they want their coverage on a different page, or they want a bigger headline, or they want it printed on a different day, or they wanted the photo to be printed in color, but it's like being angry at your wife because the weather has spoiled your golf game. It isn't up to her.
Reviews are immensely useful for organizations which take pride in doing the best possible job at what they're doing. It's embarrassing if you tell me there is a piece of toilet paper stuck to my shoe. On the other hand, it's better to be embarrassed once, for a brief moment, than to look foolish for an entire evening.
There are always people who wish to be praised, no matter how well they do what they do. Please understand: that's pointless. Because I tell what I believe to be the truth, if you do something wonderful, people who read the review will make a special effort to buy tickets and attend. Even if your presentation won't repeat, so the review won't help future sales, it can establish a reputation for quality which will attract support, over the long run.
If I praise all performances whether I think they're good or not, the review won't influence anyone and won't attract one ticket sale. If the review hides the truth that what seemed impressive to you, as you were doing it, didn't impress a neutral observer, you're not likely to change it, and it's not likely to be any better, the next time.
My opinion is only one person's opinion. It's the opinion of someone who has been going to hundreds of performances and exhibits per year for 30 years, so I believe it deserves respect, but it's subject to my tastes, my prejudices, the fact that I might have had a sore throat or had a flat tire on the way home from the performance, etc. If you don't agree with it, dismiss it. The greatest threat to our blessed country's future, in my opinion, is the fact that more and more people can't bear to hear someone say an opinion with which they don't agree.
Someone says, ''I don't agree with Senator A or Mayor B,'' and we read that the speaker has ''slammed'' the politician. That's a sickness that will destroy us, if we don't root it out. Courteous disagreement is a sign of respect, and it is as basic to a democratic republic as breathing is to you and me.
On the other hand, young artists need some time to gather self-confidence. For that reason, we have drawn the line at high school graduation. Performers from birth through the end of high school are not reviewed in these pages. We name them and describe the role they play, or the songs they sang, but we don't evaluate how well they did it.
I so clearly remember an occasion, a year or so back, when a man approached me at intermission of a performance. ''I think it's ridiculous that you refuse to review children,'' he said. ''My daughter is just as good as any adult up there.''
''Well, she has been singing off key, much of the evening,'' I replied.
''How can you say that about a child?'' he stormed. To me, that's point proven.
On the other hand, if a person has reached college and can't deal with someone not appreciating his or her performance, I think it's time some work be devoted to helping him to do so. I always think that directors have a responsibility to help developing performers to deal with the real world, where there are critics - right or wrong - and they're not all in the newspaper.
If you want an event covered in this column, please don't just sit there and hope I'll call you. I get so many contacts from people - dozens if not hundreds, every week - that I am not out looking for more. Contact me, well in advance - at least a month in advance of when you want the publicity to appear - and we'll do what we can do to help you.
And please, tell me specifically what you hope I'll do. If you want a telephone interview with someone who is going to appear in town, or you hope I'll go to Cleveland and review a professional performance by someone from this area, or the like, don't hesitate to say so. I'll do it if I can, and if I can't, I'll tell you why I can't, and what I might be able to do instead.
If all you want is an announcement of who's performing, where it will take place, what the tickets cost, etc., you don't need me. That's a news article. You can contact the city or region editor and they'll assign a reporter to help you.
I write full pages, which include things such as photos and historical background. If there isn't enough material to fill a full page, or if I've already written a full page about the person or the event in recent memory, it's pointless, and it looks ridiculous for me to do it again. No matter how much I like someone or something, hearing me rattle through it all again, isn't helpful to anyone.
There is so much more coverage of the arts in this newspaper, than there was, even a short while ago, that I can clearly see how much different the world seems to students today, than it did back then. There are dozens of people involved in putting out the paper, and thousands of readers, and they all have different opinions of what should appear in its pages, and how it should look.
All we ask is to have our oar in, among all the others.
ON THE ARTS AND EDUCATION
If you want to see Chicago, having an accurate, easy-to-follow, and up-to-date map is not a guarantee that you'll get there. It does make it much more likely that you will get there, however.
Art and entertainment have many similar qualities. So do dogs and wolves, but it isn't wise to get them confused.
Our lives are full of uncertainties, and probably should have more than they do. By that, I mean that many times we're certain of what we should do in a given circumstance, when in fact, that's the last thing in the world we should do.
I know that it's possible to spend too much time, smiting our foreheads with the backs of our hands, wondering what we should do. On the other hand, if it comes to a choice between doing that and tramping through life like a bull in a china shop, we're probably better off to do a bit of smiting.
The arts can show you life from a different point of view. If you have a quarrel with your neighbor, a play or a novel can show you what the situation looks like from a different point of view.
We say that if we had known the bridge was out, we never would have driven out onto it. But all too often, there are big signs which say ''bridge out,'' and we ignore them.
Not long ago, I took my winter coats to the dry cleaner's, only to find myself trudging through the snowflakes in a light, nylon jacket. I know what the weather's like in our part of the country. But, I was sick and tired of winter weather, so I let myself believe that all those warm days meant that spring had come early, and I let myself believe what I knew wasn't true.
We all do it. If I had used the good sense to dig out the photo albums of all those Mother's Day celebrations, always in May, with snow on the ground, I might have had the good fortune to have kept home one warm coat, for a few more weeks.
I can't tell you how often I have sat in a theater, waiting for a play to begin, and have heard someone near me announce some version of ''I hope this play is funny. I don't intend to sit here and do a lot of thinking.''
It would be more sensible to try and live on a diet of nothing but ice cream and marshmallow fluff, than to try to live without thinking about what you're doing, and what you should be doing.
Having had the good luck to have lived in other countries, I have learned to love this country deeply. But, I have also seen some of the weaknesses in our society. People who think they're perfect and they don't need to make any changes, are like people who take their winter clothes to the cleaners when there is probably more snow in the future. They're miserable, and it's their own fault.
We Americans have a gift for getting aboard a bus which is headed toward Pittsburgh, and complaining that it isn't headed for Cleveland. If we paid better attention before we started the journey, we'd be much more likely to be going where we want to end up.
Recently Newsweek published an issue with a blackboard on the cover. On the board, someone had written ''The most important way to improve American education is to be able to get rid of bad teachers." It made me want to vomit.
That suggests that our schools are full of students who are desperate to learn, but lazy or incompetent teachers refuse to teach them. That's nuts. It isn't true.
Certainly, some teachers are better than others. Some are terrible. I'm a parent, and I know the frustration of having a teacher who was discouraging or frustrating my children. On the other hand, I suspect you'll find that the teacher who helped you to learn the best, well might not have been the best person to teach your sister. A child is more likely to survive a period of time with an unsatisfactory teacher, than he is to survive being taught that he can twist any system to his whims and desires.