A year-end commentary? Hmmmm.
There’s a fable from World War II that may apply, the one about the bored Navy yeoman on the obscure Pacific island outpost who had so little to do that he began keeping a tally of the flies caught each day by the office flypaper. Before he lost interest in the game, he had even begun submitting to headquarters a monthly report on the total fatalities.
And, naturally, a couple of months after he ceased sending in the tallies, his boss got a blast from headquarters: “Where is last month’s flypaper report?!”
That’s kind of the way things continue to evolve in the news business, where lists fascinate readers and online success is measured by how many clicks can be lured with a headline like, “Ten Everyday Tricks for Better Orgasms.”
My original list of the season’s best shows (or whatever) was merely another way to fill the hole in the Sunday entertainment section during a time when nothing much was happening in early-60s Shreveport, LA. Since nobody complained, I made it an annual tradition, leaving only 49 other holes (time off for vacation) to fill each year.
When I found a home at The San Diego Union in the late 1960s, I brought along the concept. After a couple of years, I was ready to move on. (More was happening here than in Louisiana.) And that’s when the Flypaper Effect engaged.
“Where’s your best-show story?” growled the editor. “In the works,” I shrugged, and the albatross was hung around my neck for good. In fact, the next year that editor degreed that all of the reviewers should do a “yearender.”
Inevitably, things turned cutesy. “Memories from a Banner Year.” “Our Holiday Presents.” “Sugarplums or Coal?” Editors had so much time on their hands. When I left the biz, too many yearenders later, the concept had deteriorated into stroking big arts donors as “Angels.”
At SanDiegoStory.com (originally SanDiego.com, a whole different story), click-bait has never figured much in the plan. Instead, we hope to attract readers who want to participate in honest discussions of the art available around us. My colleagues, though, seem to feel that yearenders are a useful park of that package and, I’m told, click-statistics back them up.
But as Duke Ellington said with a song, I “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.” The hearthside seems more comfortable than ever, so I limit my evenings out to openings at the Old Globe and La Jolla Playhouse, an occasional roadshow at the Civic Theatre, selected Symphony concerts, some opera and a smattering of art shows, smaller-budget theatre, very selected dance offerings. Nudges from the fields I used to be so professionally responsible for covering.
So how can I do any meaningful list of “best” or “most grabbing” or “breakthrough” art?
I can remember some things I liked. Broadway’s Hamiltonis close to a masterpiece. Classics can still stand reexamination, as the Globe did with an intimate new translation of Uncle Vanya and LJ Playhouse didn’t with a failed Trump take on Richard III. It was good to see my old friend Bob Matheny get a definitive one-man show (at the San Diego History Center). And the competent Globe revival of Barefoot in the Parkgave me a chance to contemplate time’s working on popular entertainment since Liz Ashley and Robert Redford opened in the Broadway original.
But I’m well aware that I did NOT do the required work of a full-fledged critic. I did NOT get to experimental shows. I was NOT a regular at museums. I skipped a couple of personal favorites because, well, it just seemed short of the urgency that would haul me forth of an evening.
Besides, there is this business of comparing one piece of art with another. Really, how can there be “better” and “lesser” art, when the whole mysterious relationship between art and artist is such a personal, ephemeral matter? That’s why I avoid participation in the awards industry, understood by insiders to be a useful commercial squeeze and ego tickler but little else.
So, I think I’ll let go of yearenders starting now. From my perspective as an avid consumer of San Diego art for over a half century, I can say that things have rarely looked better. Instead of the Globe’s Craig Noel rounding up amateurs for the latest Broadway comedy or studios giving contract actors four weeks off for a summer vacation at the La Jolla Playhouse, we now have numerous professional managements paying artists at least survivor-level salaries. Visiting shows back up their trucks to local loading docks with confidence now. Maestros see from local podiums a sea of professional musicians, not teachers doing extra jobs.
Talent flows through the city and some of it sticks for awhile. If the producers are serious, a space for shows will be found, a real advance from 40 years ago. Technical standards of lighting, costumes, sound and scenery are higher than the dreams of previous decades.
And my dear, beloved local audiences, so curious and open, remain the city’s greatest single asset. Not counting the weather.
Without me offering a sliver of hindsight, then, art is alive and well in our paradise. So, who am I to fuss over the past when the future awaits?