The City Without a Newspaper « PREV | NEXT »: When Artists Are Asked To Answer for Their Country

February 28, 2009

Is it possible to start a journalism movement? On thinking about Tobi Tobias

An email written by Tobi Tobias just ping-ed into my in-box, announcing that she and all other arts freelancers have been let go from Bloomberg News. Will we get used to this decimation of critics? What are we supposed to do? Tobias doesn't think we ought to take it no more, which got me thinking about a class I attended of director Peter Sellar's earlier this week, "Art as Moral Action" at UCLA. His guest speaker was Josh Viertel, president of Slow Food USA. Josh told the story of a lucky friend of his who had a 15-minute audience with Obama in which she pressed for changes of a nature I really can't remember. But the point is this: At the end of the 15 minutes, Obama asked her, "Where's the movement? Show me the movement. If you have a movement behind you, then I can make good decisions."

Hmmmmm. Tobias is lighting the match. Are journalists ready to pull together, get organized and march on Washington, raise money through social media mechanisms cent-by-cent and build a narrative? Is this possible? Journalists are by nature fractious, doubtful and independent. Followers we ain't, but the stakes are high.

Tobias writes: "I wish we could, as a group, find more ways to do the work we love without taking a vow of poverty."

Poverty is real; she is not kidding. Can we get active as a group and find smart, creative ways to continue writing about the art we see, the art we hear, the art that asks questions and keeps our democractic values sharp and attuned -- and be paid? Why does this matter?

Think about it. What will the artists do? What are they doing now? Does informed criticism matter?

I think a good start is sharing the different economic models you come across that are working. Let's start pooling info and also looking at how theaters, music groups, dance companies, musuems and individual artists are adjusting to this new reality. Are there partnerships? Do critics and artists care enough to come together at least to talk? Most artists have been dealing with poverty and lack of recognition and respect far longer than the critics. It wouldn't be the first time we have learned from them -- in fact, that is the way we are most comfortable. Isn't it?

Start the movement, then maybe we can make good decisions.

February 28, 2009 8:09 PM | | Comments (2)

2 Comments

Miscellaneous Thoughts:

There is a March 1st Chicago Tribune article by Mark Boehm that discusses the personal and public relation Barack Obama has to the arts (“Will the Obamas' interest in the arts create an inflation of appreciation?”); and it is, of course, encouraging, just as the fact that Barack Obama had an arts advisory panel assembled before he was elected. Of course, more specific recommendations will have to be made to him.


There are different aspects to what is happening to critics and arts journalists, some of which has to do with the crisis of the economy in general and the crisis of print publications in particular; and some of which has to do with the place of the arts in American lives. How many critics and arts journalists think of themselves as workers first? How many journalists are actually thinkers rather than just observers and reporters? How many artists and critics think of what they do as having relevance to most people, rather than an appeal to a minority, and do their work accordingly, not expecting significant public interest?


There are different kinds of journalist groups, such as the Society of Professional Journalists, National Writers Union, Freelancers Union, and Unity—Journalists of Color, as well as critics’ groups for different disciplines. It might be interesting to know more about what each group is doing for its members at this time and whether these groups are beginning to interact. (A quick scan of some of their web sites doesn’t answer those questions for me.)


“Erica Smith has a job as a graphics designer for the St. Louis Dispatch… Smith tallied 15,554 newspaper job cuts for 2008, and she was still updating in January,” reports an article (“Is There Life After Newspapers?) in American Journalism Review (Feb/March 2009), an article that discusses a survey of the job search (sometimes quite successful) that took place after people were first laid off.


There are already publishing and writers and critics’ organizations in place, and some of them are about training journalists or networking or listing of available jobs or granting awards. And, there is already research available regarding the importance of the arts (for education, for the economy). How these are marshaled now and in the future—whether there will be a significant public movement on behalf of journalists during this economic crisis, as you suggest—is an interesting question, but it is a question tied up with other, larger matters.

Since, as an artist, I've spent plenty of time starving and dealing with poverty, I've thought about this subject a lot.

Generally, artsy people are taken for granted to the point that it's exploitation. All of the ideas, and beauty produced by artists simply gets absorbed into the mainstream without a thought.

Everything about this is issue is ephemeral. I've been percolating ideas of how to write about it. There are too many intangible elements to grasp.

I have thought of a title. "The Age of Exploitation of the Artist."

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