Ye Olde Arts Journalism
Watching the travails of print journalism, and spending time with Doug McLennan (which I do because of our shared involvement with the National Arts Journalism Program, my contributing all too rarely to a blog on his ArtsJournalism site and because he's a friend), one spends a lot of time pondering the future of arts writing on the Internet. A worthy subject for pondering, to be sure. But with all due respect to Marshall McLuhan, sometimes the message does, or should, trump the medium.
By that I mean that it's easy to overlook what one traditionally considered with arts journalism, and what the old, once lavishly funded NAJP used to do: foster the actual quality of the criticism and reporting of the arts. (In fairness, Doug still does that, too, especially with the various NEA institutes for theater critcism and that of the other arts.) It's tempting now to question the place of the seemingly burgeoning arts-journalism programs, mostly Masters programs, at our leading universities. They can't all be just places to park recent college grads who don't know what to do with themselves and who don't want to go to film school and whose parents have money.
What these programs do, aside from maybe helping aspiring journalists make contacts, is hone basic skills. Good writers may have an innate gift. But that gift can be polished. Knowing about the field you aspire to criticize; getting the facts right; learning how to dig for facts when their possessor doesn't want to divulge them; writing on deadline -- all these are craft skills. Instruction (or, for a lot of us, on-the-job practice) can count for a lot, no matter whether the end result appears in print or on line.
So while we fret about the loss of formerly well-paying jobs and consider alternate business models, it's salutary just occasionally to remember that good criticism and good arts reporting need to be sustained, too, and to have a little faith that the need for those skills will seem so self-evident to society that ways will have to be found to support them.
Speaking of retro, qualified kudos to City Arts NYC (or however you spell it; the logo is too fancy to tell), a new monthly arts publication, its third (May) issue now out. Essentially a repository of arts writers who filled the back pages (and often, some of the front page) of the recently terminated New York Sun, City Arts offers articles, essays, reviews and listings. The Sun, a neo-con rag sustained against all economic good sense by right-wing supporters who wanted a New York vanity outlet, specialized in the high arts, lots of it, which suited its political stance (pro standards and classics and purity, anti messy populism and transgressive innovation). Some of its writers were pretty good, some not so hot (and some also in the New Criterion and, now, the New York Post). But one had to admire (from way across the ideological divide) any publication, no matter how quixotically, that devoted so much attention to the arts. And now City Arts is trying to carry on the crusade.
It will be interesting to see if they can keep it going. It's published by Manhattan Media, which also puts out the New York Press and a clutch of neighborhood tabloids. I haven't seen the Press for awhile, but it used to be cranky-rightwing-libertarian, though with more of a pop slant in its arts coverage. Whether Manhattan Media or City Arts makes money or has any reasonable hope of making money or is once again propped up by a political agenda, I know not. It has a web site (www.cityartsny.info), but that echoes the print version. So this seems another exercise in retro business models and old-fashioned arts coverage. Can it plant the flag for its kind of fustian "universal" quality in an era so obsessed with hipness and progressiveness and the Internet? We shall see.