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August 22, 2010

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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August 22, 2010 7:58 AM | | Comments (5)


Though I do appreciate my name in a headline and (since the headline is read on an electric screen) up in lights, Mr. Moon's response is actually directed at John Rockwell's initial, tentative proposal.

And though I--as do most people in the arts who keep an eye and ear on the world at large--agree with Mr. Moon's description of the general situation of art writing, I don't agree with his implied prescription. Or with what I think is his prescription; he's against "build[ing] magnificent temples, sponsor[ing] contests and think tanks and publish[ing] fulminating treatises about the woeful state of arts journalism" and that covers a lot of ground. So while I concur that, after a certain point (that point being RIGHT NOW), great wailing and gnashing of teeth does no good, I still think that NAJP could and should create a publication of some sort.

1. THINGS SHAKE OUT. In my own critical field, there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of websites and blogs covering contemporary art. I used to visit a few dozen every month. Now I know the good ones from the crap ones, and I visit four or five every day or two. Once in a while one of those sites or an e-mail informs me of something elsewhere worth checking out. My artist and art-audience friends operate in much the same way. The point: That more astute, intelligent, sophisticated, sensitive and, yes, expert voices make themselves known as such.

2. PEOPLE WANT TO KNOW. Notwithstanding a tendency on the part of some people to hole up in their own little niches (e.g., sit in front of a computer with earphones on and do nothing but listen to The National and read hagiographic articles about the group) people want to know about things they don't already know about and whether they're any good or not. And many, if not most and certainly enough, want to hear about that from voices described in the last sentence of (1), above.

3. PEOPLE CHANGE. Justin Beiber fans grow up. Alt.rock fans get less of a charge out of the "alt" per se. Kids who saw "Avatar" nine times mature and prefer such movies as "The Lives of Others." Guys who want to watch the jiggle of the bosomy daughters of a famous defense lawyer get tired of it and them. The point: A good chunk of the youthful audience for popcult mediocrity matures into an audience, albeit a smaller one, with better taste in the arts and a desire for better writing about the arts.

4. POPULAR CULTURE ISN'T ALL OF CULTURE. At the risk of incurring the wrath of Mr. Christgau and a few others in NAJP, not all of us arts writers are plagued with the likes of Justin Beiber and the Kardashians. The most overrated and overhyped phenomenons in art, theater, classical music, dance and hardbound fiction don't come close to similar dreck in pop music, television or movies, nor do they take up as much room in their particular art form. (All right, there's Bravo's "Work of Art," but you understand what I'm saying.) The point: An NAJP publication could go kind of high-road, covering a lesser portion of what's merely newsmaking in popcult, and a greater proportion of what's newsmaking in art, theater, classical music, dance and hardbound fiction. (Note: That wouldn't mean pop music, movie and television writers would get less space or frequency, but just that they could say, "Fuck the Jonas Brothers, I'm writing about [fill in the blank with an arty obscure band].")

5. PRACTICE WHAT WE PRAISE. We all write admiringly about artists (in the broad sense) who defied the odds, broke through a perceived dead end, boldly went where no artist had gone before, revived this or that mode long thought obsolete, etc., etc. The point: Let's defy the death-of-authorial-voices malaise and start some kind of publication.

Briefly, because I have this piece I'm working on, two points. The first is that I'm with Plagens on the main thing, which is that Moon's mood is unrealistically dark. Like Plagens, I have little doubt that over the medium haul some good writing will rise to the top. Where I don't concur is with his unsupported assertion that there's any obvious reason to make the top this writing will occupy economically viable. In nothing he's written here has Plagens shown any appreciation of what a rare thing a good publisher is--someone who likes good writing enough to persuade people with money to invest in it over the medium and long haul. Second point's smaller. Justin Bieber is neither the enemy nor the point. Twelve-year-olds have every right to their own heroes, and to kvell over them in public too; moreover, good rock criticism has always existed alongside the Justin Biebers, in neither opposition nor support. Lady Gaga is another matter, and a more substantial one, at least as worthy of exegesis right now as John Baldessari, and getting it. So is the current state of r&b, traditionally a major source of substantial pop, though my respect to Drake and The-Dream and whatever dynamite single I'll learn about at the end of the year.

A correction--the spam filter ate the first draft of my comment. Rapidly retyped second said "any obvious reason to make the top this writing will occupy economically viable" when it should have said "way to make the top . . ." Big difference. We're all here because we think there are reasons galore.

Guilty as charged re my generally dark view. Not sure how unrealistic I am, though: Lately the Times has been running interesting stuff on an almost daily basis about about “media ecology” and the impact of technology on cognitive function (Matt Richtel’s excellent story today, which for some reason in the reply mode I'm not able to link to....apologies!).

Many of these stories point to a pronounced change in the ways people read, process complex thoughts, engage books and periodicals, consume art and music, etc. Much of the indifference I describe has little to do with the authors and lots to do with the times. I, too, believe in the lifechanging power of good writing – and I share Bob’s faith that it can rise to the top, at least sometimes. All I was trying to say was that in the general handwringing happening here, which mostly falls under the category of “what’s an underemployed arts journalist to do?,” we might spend some time thinking about end users – the ways they might be reached, what they might actually be looking for, how incredibly besieged they are by the information torrent, etc.

Some of Peter’s comments go to this, but where he seems to have missed my point is in his line about how “not all of us arts writers are plagued with the likes of Justin Beiber and the Kardashians.” I’d argue that even if we’re so high up in the tower that we don’t have to comment directly on Beiber and his ilk, all of us have to contend with conditions on the ground, with the time demands and attention-span issues and yes, ever-rising dreck levels polluting the reservoirs of art. Isn’t our charge to be engaged in the culture our readers inhabit – not the one we wish for them? These days an elegantly argued commentary (on Baldessari, Renoir, Lady Gaga, whomever) rarely has a fair bandwidth fight; it’s up against ranting and celebrity sightings and absurdly trivial distractions (this just in from Twitter: “cousin Lisa spilled waffles and syrup all over the floor at breakfast!”). Someday not too long from now, that hamster on the piano could seem like some meta-art statement.

Peter says that “a good chunk of the youthful audience for popcult mediocrity matures into an audience, albeit a smaller one, with better taste in the arts and a desire for better writing about the arts.” How, exactly, is that accomplished? A listener doesn’t usually transition from Beiber to Arcade Fire or Albert Ayler by happenstance. In the “old days,” at least Circus magazine and Rolling Stone could be found on the racks right next to Tiger Beat. It takes some agency, some fundamental interest in exploration, to develop “better taste,” and usually that means somebody has to drop a breadcrumb or ten. Maybe it takes critics who are interested in more than their own voices, who are committed to developing discernment within an audience. That for me is one difference between the “pro” and “amateur” ranks – too often, the blogger holds his nose while deriding Beiber (or whomever), clinging to the tiresome rightness of his opinion (never mind that he or she rarely needs to venture outside of a microslivered “home” area of specialty). The pro endeavors to show up with an open mind (itself a challenge in this cultural moment when opinions are held so dear), attempt to explain the phenomenon, tell what happened at the show, and maybe slyly offer suggestions for other folks to check out.

Bob’s right: Beiber’s not the enemy, not the point. Neither are his 12-year-old advocates, who of course have every right to champion whomever they please. My point was simply that the definition of “expertise” has expanded to include superfans, and that has bigtime implication for those of us who aspire to be something other than fans – or windbag old-media “authorities” – while making hopefully intelligent and worthwhile contributions to the ongoing, protracted, ever-more-diffuse discussion about the arts.

1. Stoked to see multiple comments on a post!

2. Twelve-year-olds are indeed entitled to their heroes. That doesn't mean that serious arts writers should write stuff for those twelve-year-olds, or think they have to in order not to be fuddy-duddy non-inclusive. (Writing for adults about what the Justin Bieber phenomenon means is another matter entirely.)

3. I didn't say nothin' 'bout no Lady Gaga.

4. I do appreciate what a rare thing a good publisher is. But because they're rare we give up on trying to find one before we start?

5. Loathe as I am to find myself slipping into a "You won't have old Nixon to kick around anymore" frame of mind vis-a-vis an NAJP publication (actually, John Rockwell is more entitled to invoke it than I am), the impetus is there.

Somebody makes a perfectly nice, optimistic and open-for-change "what if" suggestion (Mr. Rockwell's "Castles" musing) and what he gets in the end (pun intended)--from A BODY OF WRITERS WHOSE OUTLETS AND PAYCHECKS ARE DRYING UP like spit in the desert--is a) an enormous silence, and b) a host of reasons why nothing can be done.

I'll be 70 next turn of the odometer; among two pensions, sale of a painting every now and then, book contracts, some semi-regular art-writing gigs, and a professor spouse, I'm all right, Jack. So why am I beating my head against a wall in the cause of an organization that--and nobody ever really answered this part of my screed--doesn't really do anything much more than this blogsite, and a publication that nobody seems to want that's not going to do me, personally, a whole helluva lot of good? Because it'll feel so good when I stop, I suppose.

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