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May 17, 2006

Last call

by About Last Night

I’m off to a dinner and won’t be back until late, so I thought I’d take my leave of the discussion with a few summary observations.

I’ve been following what other bloggers have been writing about “Critical Edge.” Some find us “windy” and “ivory-towerish,” others compelling and challenging. (Go here to read some of their remarks.) Add in the reader comments posted directly on this page and you can see that a whole lot of people have had a whole lot to say about what we’ve been saying. Needless to say, all these folks are entitled to their opinions—but the fact that I’ve been able to keep up with them in something close to real time is almost as interesting as the opinions themselves.

Whether or not we meant to do so, the participants in “Critical Edge” have just given a striking demonstration of one of the most significant aspects of Web-based information technology, which is the way in which it facilitates direct and immediate interaction between writers and readers. Indeed, the distinction between “writers” and “readers” is growing increasingly artificial: those of you who have contributed to this electronic conversation by posting your comments are no less involved in it than those of us whom Doug McLennan initially asked to take part.

It may well be that blogs as we now know them will no longer exist five years from now, or will have evolved beyond easy recognition. What’s definitely here to stay is the democratization of the cultural conversation brought about by the rise of the new media. It remains to be seen how critics will shape that ongoing process—though I can already tell you that those who decline to participate in it will have no effect on it. For my part, I’m delighted to have gotten in on the ground floor of what I believe to be a revolution in journalism. My thanks to Doug for opening the door.

See you around—and if you haven’t done so already, stop by my blog!

Posted by tteachout at 1:51 PM | Comments (3)



Sigh. I don't particularly think of myself as an "MSM type" -- whatever that is. (I quote my personal favorite blogger, Jon Swift, on this usage: "MSM...is what we bloggers like to call the mainstream media because it is easier than writing out the words m-a-i-n-s-t-r-e-a-m m-e-d-i-a and the time we save by not writing out the words "mainstream media" can be spent doing more research to back up what we say." http://jonswift.blogspot.com/2006/04/jill-carroll-vs-blogosphere.html.) I've written in all kinds of contexts, including online. And I've been blogging all week.

There is also a difference between making a "killing" and making a living, though that Tyler Green would conflate those ideas is itself revealing. I do appreciate Terry Teachout's patience (which I seem to be exahausting) with my posts; he's taken a pretty balanced, reasonable position. But the world of blogging is democratic sort of in the same way that the rest of our society is. As long as you don't expect to be paid for it, you can pretty much do anything you want. And as I said in my first post (two days and what feels like five million years ago) the relationship of talent to posturing seems to me to be about the same in blogs as in -- oh, OK, I'll say it -- the mainstream media, except that there's a lot more of it.

As for newspaper and magazine editors combing blogs to find new (and, needless to say, often younger, cheaper) writers, fair enough -- good writing can turn up anywhere and everyone deserves a shot. It's also symptomatic of a failure of confidence. They hope the Internet and its presumed demographic will save them, too.

And, who knows, maybe it will. I don't have a remedy, as Maud Newton, points out. But, then, I never claimed to.

Posted by at 10:44 AM | Comments (1)

Comes now the shibboleth

by About Last Night

Whenever I see the word triumphalism surfacing in a discussion of new media and the arts, I reach for…oh, I don’t know, maybe earplugs? Or perhaps a butter knife with which to slit my wrists. Of course there are those out there in the ’sphere who indulge in foolish triumphalist rhetoric, but I haven’t seen any of it in this space, just the kind of realistic enthusiasm that naturally goes along with being fortunate enough to have witnessed and participated in the emergence of a new cultural technology whose effects on the world of art appear so far to be almost entirely benign.

No, blogging is not going to replace newspapers, and yes, I knew lots and lots of “smart, interesting people with whom to discuss my ideas” long before I went on line, even though I wasn’t fortunate enough to grow up in New York. (I might add that my parents both worked for a living, as do I.) Instead I spent the first half of my life elsewhere, and learned in the process that elsewhere is damned interesting. For those unaware of this fact, however, the blogosphere is likely to be a revelation. What’s more, it is turning “elsewhere” into a technology-enabled community that is extraordinarily diverse and stimulating.

Blogging is also democratic, and that’s something new under the media sun. I think it’s mostly a good thing, too, though I've noticed in the past couple of years that certain old-media types seem to find it threatening. Of course it also has its undesirable aspects, as anyone knows who’s been trashed on amazon.com or gotten caught in the crossfire of a flame war. But that goes with the territory, and it’s (usually) a small price to pay for the compensating benefits.

One last thing: serious arts journalists get paid poorly because the market places a comparatively low value on their services, just as it does on serious art. So be it. If you want to make a lot of money, write about The Da Vinci Code or American Idol. (Or pop music, for that matter.) Or get a real job. Me, I don’t make a whole lot of money, but I do manage to make a living, and I also get to spend my days and nights immersed in that which gives me more pleasure than anything else in the world. What’s more, I like to think that in so doing I help in my modest way to increase the size of the market for serious art.

Posted by tteachout at 10:09 AM | Comments (1)

Thoughts from a "little honeybee"


I started my blog in the summer of 2002. I didn't expect to make a dime from it. And I haven't. Not directly, anyway.

A couple of years ago, though, newspaper and magazine editors I'd never met started emailing and asking me to review books or write articles for them. What led them to think this was a good idea, I can't say. Nor have I ever known, after finishing an assignment, when the next invitation would come -- or if it would. But I do know that my writing would not have appeared in The American Prospect, The New York Times Book Review, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, and Newsday had I not started a blog.

Mr. DeCurtis ("blog on, my little honeybees, blog on") seems to view blogging, or any kind of unpaid writing, as a quasi-unethical act.

Let's assume, purely for the sake of argument, that the arts benefit more from the old system, in which a handful of mainstream media critics tell everyone else what to think, than from the new, in which anyone with a computer and an opinion can join the conversation.

What remedy, in his ideal world, would Mr. DeCurtis propose? That we shut down the Internet? That we allow only credentialed journalists to discuss the arts? That we place warning labels on blogs: "writes here 'for nothing or next to it'"?

At an Internet panel held for a group of book publicists last year, one eager young guy kept challenging the bloggers to explain their relevance, to convince him that, in the fleeting and transient world of the Internet, they would be able to help him sell books tomorrow. (Don't get me started on publishers treating blogs as potential marketing venues.) Returning to something I'd said earlier, he asked me this: "If you won't treat your blog as a business, why should I care about it?"

My answer, which began, "I guess you can't expect a room full of publicists to understand that someone might talk about books because she loves them," didn't win me any friends that day. But as someone who never expected to profit from my blog, I'm mystified by corporate and old-media antagonism toward the free and spontaneous writing bloggers do.

Sure, the quality of blogs is uneven. Reliability varies. People like me who hold down day jobs will go silent for days or rely on quick links. But so what? Nobody's forcing your browser to load About Last Night every morning. If you don't like what a blogger does, don't read the site.

Posted by at 9:56 AM

What Money Honey?


Yes! One of the reasons I couldn’t weigh in on this blog as much as I would have liked has everything to do with the money issue—I’m overworked, understaffed, underpaid and so damn relieved to not be freelancing…there you have it--I’ve settled for less. The freelance budget I have been given to work with is an embarrassment, yet there are great writers who will step up and do the job. And they deserve more. We deserve more. Insult to injury are the contracts that we are all required to collect from freelancers (not to mention the contract I was expected to sign that does not allow me to write elsewhere … so I guess they own these here words. Hello!) NAJP has always been a refuge from the reality of our profession's deterioration. So, what do we do?

Posted by at 9:29 AM

An artist belongs in the studio


Not really, but we don’t need artists to write to improve the state of cultural journalism, we need arts journalists to be supported in their work, to be given space in their sections and the front of the book and to work with arts editors not generalists bumped over from sports or whatever (there we go again with sports). The artist/writer role has always existed, bravo—go hang out at the College Art Association. But having read a fair amount of artist/writers, interviewed artists (many brilliant, inarticulate ones) and having waded through my share of ridiculous “Artist Statements,” I know that what we need does not exist outside of our field. Yeah, this is one of those "the power is within" ideas with a touch of protectionism but I think that it might take care of the "objectivity" concern.

Posted by at 9:04 AM | Comments (4)

Missing the point


It amazes me how often MSM types miss big, important points about blogging -- and how they then mask their cluelessness with condescension. ("Blog on, my little honeybees, blog on.") The likely explanation is that they don't read blogs... but that they feel so threatened by them that they lash out at bloggers.

I don't know anyone this side of Nick Denton who is trying to make a living off of blogging. (I'm not, and that isn't the point of this conversation anyway.) Many bloggers make valuable contributions to critical discourse. The bloggers I've spotlighted here this week include: a gallerist, a software engineer, and a management consultant. Some of my favorite bloggers are retired investment bankers, museum staffers, and artists. They blog because they feel like they have something to add to the discussion about art in America, not because they're trying to make a killing living. (Not sure how this one word changes my argument, but DeCurtis seems to think it's the most important thing I wrote.) That should be admired and appreciated, not ridiculed. Furthermore, MSM editors and writers should be concerned that many blogs are covering art better than they are and in more interesting ways than they are. Instead of beating-up on bloggers, they should be trying to learn from them.

Posted by at 8:59 AM

Money, Honey


To be honest, I had questioned whether or not to come to the NAJP bash in Philadelphia because I thought it might be too depressing. After all, people are losing their jobs all over the country, freelance rates (which were often insultingly low to begin with) are getting lower, and the very program sponsoring the conference had been put out of business.

So I'm frankly amazed to encounter the febrile triumphalism, a kind of crazed good cheer, about blogging and its innumberable joys and possibilities that has characterized so much of this conversation. I get that it's fun -- I've had a great time doing it all week. But maybe it's a function of growing up and living in New York, but I've never lacked for smart, interesting people with whom to discuss my ideas. Maybe it's because I mostly write about popular music and teach, but I'm used to interacting with people much younger than me, as well as my age or older.

And maybe it's a function of growing up working class, but I've never had any particular enthusiasm about working for free. I've done it when I've had to or as a sort of pro bono thing, but it's never been something I've wanted to do all the time. And I've tried to instill that ethic in others. As an editor at magazines and of books, I've always tried to get writers the most money I could -- and I've always tried to get paid as well as I could myself. The self-interest in that is obvious, but it also has a broader effect. Once editors pay someone a certain rate, they can't go back, and it's harder to deny others that same rate. I've been on both sides of that negotation, and I know it's true.

The (joyful!) willingness of writers, however, to work for nothing or next to it has finally come home to roost. I remember someone at a record label asking me to write liner notes for an absurdly low fee. When I refused, he said, "I thought you were a fan." I was a fan, but I also wanted to get paid. I asked, "Why would you assume that I would write because I'm a fan, when you didn't ask the photographer if he was a fan. You didn't ask the person designing the booklet if she was a fan." But fabulous lovers of the arts that they are, writers have always been willing to work for very little pay. It's almost a point of pride with some people. I've heard the hurt surprise in editors' voices when I've simply asked what their budget was or -- heaven forfend! -- insisted on getting more. I've even asked editors what they're getting paid, and if their freelance rates reflected that. Think of someone like Don Forst at the Village Voice (may it rest in peace) making more than 300K while cutting the paper's already ridiculously low rates.

Look, I've done very well for a long time and, by the standards of our profession, at least, continue to. But I am concerned about our future. So, to paraphrase Muddy Waters, blog on, my little honeybees, blog on. But know that it's likely to be its own reward for a long time. If you're doing it to promote yourself or as a way of lining up paying work, get it while you can -- those jobs are going, boys and girls, and they ain't coming back. If your ideal world is a utopia of enlightened amateurism -- meant in the best possible sense, as someone said earlier -- welcome to it. But if you want to make a living, hard times lie ahead.

Posted by at 8:51 AM


Enrique writes:
"Criticism could be stimulating discussions about culture pegged to cultural artifacts or creators... Such discussions are not free-for-alls, however, which is where I fear online bogs (blogs?) down."

I don't mean to pick on Enrique here because nearly everyone posting here has done this: But how about some specific examples? I'm not inclined to take a comment like that very seriously when the writer doesn't support it with any evidence. I realize it's hugely popular for MSM types (and I'm one myself) to rip blogs and to accuse them of being a mess. (Romenesko feasts on links to this kind of half-thinking.) While MSMers love to say things like that, I don't think those charges hold up very well when it comes to art blogs. In fact, the overwhelming majority of visual arts bloggers are pretty chummy and we often have smart, considered cross-site discussions.

(Here's some help: I have an extensive blogroll. So does Terry.)

Posted by at 6:46 AM

Nonprofit center

by About Last Night

O.K., so why have I spent the past three years pouring so much time and energy into a medium for which I don’t get paid a cent? I can’t even begin to list the reasons, but these are the big ones:

(1) Total control. I can blog about anything I want, whenever I want, at whatever length I want. All this is in and of itself pleasurable.

(2) Self-fertilization. It’s also creatively stimulating. The act of blogging gives me ideas that sooner or later find their way into my print-media work.

(3) Self-promotion. If you read my blog, you know about whatever I happen to be up to at any given moment: speeches, radio appearances, my latest print-media pieces, whatever. You can also use it to read my bio, buy my books, and send me e-mail.

(4) Dialogue. Not only does blogging put me in touch with readers who have interesting things to say, but it’s introduced me to countless new writers whose blogs I now read daily, some of whom have become good friends.

(5) Rejuvenation. Most of them are younger than I am. Some are much younger. The older you get, the more inclined you are to start looking inward—which isn’t a bad thing. But blogging has had the unintended consequence of putting me in closer touch with new points of view at the precise moment in my life cycle when I might have been more naturally inclined to pay less attention to them.

Yes, I can “afford” to blog because I’ve already established myself as a professional writer. On the other hand, most of my blogger friends haven’t—yet they continue to blog. Why? For all of the above reasons, with special emphasis on (3). As recently as five years ago, one of my stock pieces of advice to young writers was Write as often as you can, wherever you can, for free if necessary, for peanuts if not. Back then you needed a stack of clips to prove to editors that you knew how to write. Now my first piece of advice is Start a blog. If you’re just getting started in the writing business, you can’t afford not to.

Posted by tteachout at 6:44 AM | Comments (4)

A Phantom Is Haunting Cyberspace


Marx was right. It's all about economics. Print publications are asking their staff to contribute to online as well, and the inevitable question comes up: Are we going to be compensated for doing that extra work? And the inevitable answer: no. It already happened some time back. When computers took over the magazines and newspapers, the subtext was that writers and editors were being turned into typesetters -- even as that profession was phased out. Then the online revolution came on full blast and the bosses (full disclosure: sometimes I've been one of them) started toying with going online, with not a thought to paying anyone for it. In the end, they (we) had to pay -- hiring web designers and managers. The working stiffs? No extra pay for them. (Boy, was Marx right!). Add to that the fact that, as Doug and others point out, a) bloggers do it for free (print journalists of the world, maybe we should worry about *them* taking over our jobs instead of the brouhaha about illegal aliens), b) print journalists are badly paid to begin with. With print going out of, well, print and a free workforce out there to write all the news that's fit to blog.... do the math. Perhaps journalism will turn into what academia was in earlier times, when gentlemen scholars taught for free -- or a miniscule honorarium -- at the Ivy League schools.
And speaking of academia, where I've done time, the nature of criticism was discussed -- and dismissed -- there a couple of decades ago, when critical theory (structuralism, semiotics, deconstructivism, etc.) swept over the land, much as blogging swept cyberspace later. The consensus was: criticism has nothing to do with the judgment calls journalistic critics (a term we used pejoratively, also calling the field "naive criticism") made. While some of those esaggerated poses have, mercifully, gone away, there was a point there worth hanging on to. Criticism, which has fallen into the Consumer Reports (hey, I've been relying on their tests and recommendations forever) mold in the popular media, could be something else. Criticism could be stimulating discussions about culture pegged to cultural artifacts or creators. That was the nature of the review/essay that The New York Review of Books did so successfully when it was launched. Such discussions are not free-for-alls, however, which is where I fear online bogs (blogs?) down. It should be both challenging and bringing the reader along for the ride. This is part of the notion of new paradigms for journalism that some of us old-timers have been harping about in this group blog. Perhaps the medium is not the message, to riff on a prophetic voice who was, it's important to note, a serious academic before he became a media guru. Perhaps, it's the content. I return to what I said originally: make criticism more interesting and let's see what happens. Question the assumptions -- of blogs as well as newspapers -- and if they don't hold water, change them. By any means necessary -- oops!, I'm showing my age.

Posted by at 6:43 AM | Comments (1)