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March 19, 2009

London as a ye olde model for life on the Internet

No filings to ARTicles or Rockwell Matters for weeks and now these two today. Maybe I'll put some product into the RM pipeline before I decamp for Europe next week. Like Bob Christgau but in a different way, I've been busy.

Anyhow, during a recent National Arts Journalism Program board conference call, it occurred to me that the traditional career pattern for arts journalists in London provides an odd, inadvertent model for the situation of suddenly cut-loose arts journalists in the United States today.

In the U.S., despite all the freelancing and blogging afoot now, the standard model for an aspiring young arts journalist has been to win a staff position on a leading newspaper or magazine. Attaining such a position provided the promise of a steady, even lifetime job, health benefits and a pension. Mortages could be paid and children sent to college.

Now, that's all slipping away, and journalists who've spent a lifetime working on staff find themselves freelancers or worse (worse being no outlets at all). And yet in Britain (which means in London more than "in New York" is in any way synonymous with "in the United States), staff arts writing jobs have long been rare. I can remember my shock when a decade ago Andrew Clarke, the classical critic for the Financial Times, told me he was the only staff music critic in town. And he was the arts editor, too, which probably got him his job.

For decades English critics, even famous critics, have cobbled together all manner of disparate assignments to make a living. Yes, they may be the grandly prestigious music critic of the Times or the Guardian. But they also write program notes and freelance magazine articles and scholarly essays or teach or consult to arts organizations or edit magazines or even present concerts and festivals. Shades of Joe Horowitz or Greg Sandow here.

This can lead to the kinds of conflict of interest that might shock the old-time U.S. staffer, secure in his position to disdain muddying the waters between art and commentary. The London model also encourages the sort of genteel gentlemen critic who has immunity from real life and popular culture by virtue of an independent income.

But whatever the ethical and practical advantages and disadvantages of both systems, the American one is broken. American arts writers are now putting together mosaic careers, in print and on line and in the classroom, that mirror the British tradition. So our brave new post-newspaper world may not be so new, after all. And to judge from the generally high quality of British criticism, our upheaval hardly means the death of intelligent arts commentary in this country. Or of some sort of viable way to make writing about the arts into a viable profession.  

 

March 19, 2009 3:30 PM | | Comments (0)

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