Zero All Around: A (Delayed) Response to Peter Plagens
A crazy thing happened as I read Peter's post entitled One Across The Bow from July 23. First I found myself nodding my head, which is unlikely enough given my general crankiness. Then I found my thinking going down darker and ever more dystopian avenues. Generally dour thoughts I've been avoiding, or ignoring. Peter, this missive pulled together a bunch of ideas and questions that have been rattling around in my fevered head for weeks. Not just about the broke-down state of this particular jalopy, but also the enterprise of arts journalism itself. That string of zeroes you mentioned has plenty to tell us. About how, leaving the problems of NAJP aside for a moment, there's likely not much of a market for these wares. Maybe, just maybe, it's Game Over and we're simply slow to face reality?
I'm not entirely clear if ARTicles is supposed to be a platform for actual arts journalism or a forum for discussing issues surrounding its practice, but either way, the indifference to what's on offer, here and elsewhere, is deafening. Are we paying attention? Or (as Anne Midgette points out) are we too busy scrambling for the next crumb of a gig that pays terribly and is destined to be ignored by all but our closest Facebook friends? The critics and writers assembled here are justifiably proud of long years of experience and laudable achievement and all the rest, but for the majority - ie., those not affiliated with the New York Times or the handful of other outlets still attempting to cover the arts in serious fashion - the reality is that our Very Important Work doesn't have much prayer of traction next to that hamster who "plays" the piano. Much less anything Kardashian. Demand is not there, on any real level. Of course that alone doesn't mean it's time to give up, but it does suggest that perhaps some rethinking is in order. Look around: There's little demand for the posts, even the passionately argued and beautifully crafted ones, on this board. It's not there in the realm of print media, as our legion of the downsized can attest. Examine blogs about the arts carefully, and you realize that lots of them are ghost towns. So, by all means, let's start a magazine!
Could it be that we're looking at this from the wrong end? Wringing our hands over lost jobs (the arts blog is down in Sacremento! mobilize the letter-writers! cue the funeral music one more time!) and expressing concern over the "survival" of arts journalism, we've somehow missed the oozing story. Which has to do with a fundamental shift in demand. There's a dwindling number of readers - engaged readers - out there, period. The market for ambitious writing, of all types, is evaporating, or at the least drifting to the lonely margins of the culture. Within the population of remaining readers, only a sliver gives a fuck about any substantive "conversation about the arts." The lofty mission of the critic, to develop discernment and provide the context that helps readers engage with and appreciate art, seems like a quaint relic in the age of superfast Metacritic aggregation. The alert arts journalist now functions as one voice in a thundering herd of undifferentiated wisecrack dispensers, his or her comments part of a glib and relentless din, no more relevent than the ravings of a 12-yr-old Justin Bieber expert. Excuse me, "expert." What does expertise even mean anymore? Whole industries are being flattened. Notions of quality are revised, often downward, every day. Popularity (expressed in sales figures and "hits") now serves as the primary meaningful metric for the arts - and, crucially, for those who would cover and comment upon the arts. Those zeroes are talking: We can rally our forces all day long, build magnificent temples, sponsor contests and think tanks and publish fulminating treatises about the woeful state of arts journalism. To what end? And who has time to process all of this anyway? The Kardashians are on.
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