The fizzling future of arts journalism
Post #1401 • October 7, 2009, 8:05 AM • 56 Comments
This past Friday, the National Arts Journalism Program hosted a summit concerning the future of arts journalism. Summit organizers chose five of more than a hundred submitted projects for presentation in Los Angeles, and they will now vie for cash awards. The project I submitted was not among them, to my enormous relief, as it would have had me producing reviews five days a week. It is a sin against taste to force it to do something it will not. Normally, I say as much when people willfully sacrifice their taste for the sake of a supposedly higher ideal, such as when Becky Smith, upon closing her Chelsea gallery, announced proudly (emphasis mine):
I always tried to have a distinct voice and point of view, represent as many women as possible, curate from my values and not my taste and get behind artists whose brilliance and concepts were apparent in their craft.
In my case, I was setting up to force my taste to march instead of amble in the serendipitous way that it should. No good would have come of it. John Link wrote to me to say that Clement Greenberg, at one point in his career, was called upon to write on a slightly less punishing schedule than that, and he produced some of the weakest work of his career. If a man with his talents couldn't pull off such a thing, I conclude that it is not worth attempting.
Paddy Johnson, who submitted her own site, felt rather differently about her rejection, and said so in a post with a distressing amount of content retracted due to inaccuracies.
Personally, I found this whole process very confusing. First there were going to be 5 finalists, each demonstrating sustainable business models. The finalists first announced were non-profits. Non-profits usually aren’t described as business models. I don’t see why the grant application page couldn’t have used the words “sustainable philanthropically supported, and commercial business models” (though given the breadth of projects it would seem to make more sense to have two separate awards - will this be the case?).
Tyler Green, reverting to his main prowess as a writer - scolding - chimed in:
My post on MAN responded to the RFP, which was clear. The RFP stated that contest entrants must have “viability, both as a business and as a journalistic enterprise.” Non-profit organizations are not businesses. The IRS is careful not to describe tax-exempt organizations as “businesses.”
If you've ever witnessed the apoplexy that Tyler suffers when the facts reported by Lee Rosenbaum change out from under her, you have to wonder about this. It doesn't take much negative capacity to hold "viability as a business" and "nonprofit" in mind at the same time. Nonprofits are not free to hemorrhage money. The non-profit model allows an entity to allocate its resources in a different way than a for-profit entity, but everybody doing business with or within the organization has to be paid in real bread, and therefore it must use a sound business plan to bring said money into the building. The distinctions made by the IRS don't enter into the argument. (For bonus laughs, see what the runt of the Artsjournal litter had to say about the matter. Chloe Veltman, who attended the summit, posted the only worthwhile first-person take on it that I could find.) Tyler, you may not be surprised to learn, is circulating a whitepaper to "potential funders and potential partners" about a wholly nonprofit solution to the problem of dwindling arts journalism.
I didn't find the NAJP submission process confusing, but it became clear shortly after the submission deadline that they were flying by the seat of their pants. Towards the end of August they indicated that finalists would be announced on August 28, the Friday before the initial announcement date of September 1. The 28th came and went, then the 1st did as well. A note popped on the site stating that reviewers were overwhelmed by the number of submissions and an announcement would be made soon. It finally appeared, if I'm not mistaken, the weekend of the 10th. (This has all disappeared from the NAJP website, so I apologize if that's not exact.) At that point, there was a change of plan: five finalists had been chosen, anyone who hadn't heard from the committee was not among the five, and instead of disclosing them, they would pop up at the summit to do their thing. We would discover their identities then. I breathed a sigh of relief, and considered that with friends like these, arts journalism doesn't need enemies. Only one thing irritated me: an early version of the announcement, now disappeared, applauded the single individuals working tirelessly on behalf of some subject, but it did so in condolences, as a group. I inferred that such projects had been dismissed from consideration en masse. The selection of finalists bore that inference out. I would have been saved an enormous amount of trouble had I known in advance that my project was going to get tossed on the basis of not involving enough contributors. If the rules changed in midstream, as Paddy and Tyler claim, it was on this point. I can only assume that the NAJP didn't realize until the review process was underway that they weren't interested in single-person projects, much like I didn't realize that I wasn't all that fired up about singlehandedly remedying the shortcomings of art criticism until I was mired in my own attempt to do so.
As recounted in Darwin's Worms:
John Cage tells the story somewhere of going to a concert of music composed by a friend of his. The composer had also written the programme notes for the music in which he said, among other things, that he hoped his music might go some way to diminishing the suffering in the world. After the concert his friend asked him what he thought of the event and Cage answered, "I loved the music but I hated the programme notes." "But don't you think there's too much suffering in the world?" the friend asked, obviously put out. "No," Cage replied, "I think there's just the right amount."
A common presupposition of beleaguered arts journalists and those who would improve their lot (or at least keep it from worsening) posits that forces beyond the control of traditional journalism, and lack of an intelligent managerial response to those forces, has caused the diminishing of arts coverage. In his whitepaper, Tyler notes:
There is no data that points to a lack of American interest in journalism or information about art and the arts. Instead, commercial media companies are losing interest in including coverage of the arts in newspapers and magazines, the places where Americans have traditionally found their news.
I won't try to disprove that negative first sentence. I will, however, point out that the phenomena described in each sentence don't necessarily correlate with one another. Tyler envisions a nonprofit-supported arts journalism project, which once implemented will naturally attract an audience of art aficionados who would be reading the paper if only they had some content aimed at them. I tend to think, instead, that this audience was never very large in the first place, and newspapers addressed them anyway because it made the paper look more credible. This audience was small enough to sacrifice when bad times came. What's worse, though, is that arts coverage stopped making the paper look credible. The aforementioned runt of the Artsjournal litter was a gainfully employed art critic at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer until her firing, and her M.O. is to take felt truth to its solipsistic maximum. People had been rightfully complaining about the Miami Herald's art coverage for as long as anyone could remember when I decided to involve myself in the problem, almost ten years ago, and nothing has improved. Holland Cotter, an uneven writer, at best, given to bouts of anti-authoritarianism unbecoming a person more than sixteen years old, just won a Pulitzer. I don't know how it is in other genres, but mainstream visual art coverage is wackadoodle - poorly argued, poorly formed, and based on poor observations, if any. Such writers take their vices along as they migrate to the Web, where they have no editors to tell them to shut up and do some real journalism or criticism or something. I wonder if anyone at Creative Capital or the Warhol Foundation feels buyer's remorse when they see that they gave $30,000 to Paddy Johnson so she could post things like this (NSFW). (An interesting exception to note here is the lifestyle magazines, who gain credibility when they feature the kind of coy sashay through the art world that Brett Sokol has become so skilled at producing. Sokol's as good as he is because in the midst of providing all the breeziness required by the form, he sneaks in careful mentions of solid, sincere work, like that of Mary Malm, and pans the overly theoretical nonsense that threatens to overwhelm the ostensibly serious effort behind it all. Sokol is one of the few true subversives.) As Piri Halasz astutely put it yesterday:
In the realm of art, the sad fact is that almost all of the sort of people who look at and even buy contemporary art in New York have what I consider lousy taste, so they will only read the Times if the reviewers point them in the direction of the sad kind of art they already like. I don't think the reviewers quite realize this themselves (if they did, they might have to quit, the way I quit Time 40 years ago). But they're nonetheless hired because they very sincerely like the kind of contemporary art that I consider second-rate, nor has this changed over the past 60 years (I did my dissertation on NYC painting in the 40s, and it was the same story then - which explains why nobody remembers the names of the NYTimes reviewers from those days, whereas Greenberg, who knew and praised the good art of those days in the Nation and Partisan Review, is very well remembered indeed).
Here's an ugly possibility that I haven't seen anyone deal with yet: people don't pay for art journalism and art criticism because they're not worth buying. Survival as a critic, and entree as a journalist, require subscription to a contemporary canon that correlates to the slack taste of a relatively tiny population, only a vanishing fraction of whom have any real money. Thus people with credibility have insufficient taste, and people with taste have insufficient credibility. The latter writers can rant their hearts out to no real effect except the gratification of their circle. In the case of the former writers, critical opposition to developments in contemporary art comes in two flavors: politely doubtful, and ersatz, such as when Jerry Saltz celebrates human bullshit dispensers as "human bullshit detectors." Bill Wyman had this to say back in August about a paper where he once freelanced as an arts writer:
The editor of the page told me, quite explicitly that pans were not allowed. She didn’t want readers to see something unflattering about their favorite artist over breakfast. That’s anecdotal, but I’ve got a lot of anecdotes like that, and the pervasiveness of this attitude has been obvious in papers for decades. The New York Times does better work than most papers, but even it is not immune. One of its managing editors, Jill Abramson, just began a weekly series on her adoption of a new puppy.
If my hypothesis is right, then there is no solution. Arts journalism is going to slink off to the Web, where it will muddle along in the care of people with other revenue streams to support them. A collector recently scooped a journalist on the recent improprieties at the New Museum. Said journalist lamented that "market madness is now corrupting the ethics and curatorial/scholarly authority and independence of some of New York's museums," apparently oblivious to a fact that we non-subscribers have known for years: that such corruption is commonplace at contemporary institutions the world over. I try to envision a nonprofit able to support local arts coverage at any meaningful level of comprehensiveness or scrutiny, and I see an organization that depends on the very same players that the nonprofit exhibition venues depend upon. In other words, if you think there are unacceptable conflicts of interest now, you ain't seen nothin' yet. Scholarship, too, at least verbiage that passes for it, can be had for a price.
I'm doing some web development for an art gallery. I am advising its proprietor to start assuming that arts journalism doesn't exist, and find ways to connect directly with his audience. I say this because I believe that one day he will have no choice about the matter. Writers are not demanding enough of themselves, their medium, or the art that they're looking at, inured as they are to art that in turn does not demand enough of itself. They matter less and less to both the reading public and the people putting gas in the art machine. Art will never die. Arts journalism I'm not so sure about. It is suffering just the right amount.