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May 17, 2006

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 May 17, 2006 10:09 AM


An invigorating discussion all around, and I'm enjoying following it. I'm slightly dismayed, however, that some of the discussion has focused on money and on matters of numbers (the difference in numbers between traditional media critics and bloggers). I certainly understand that part of this venture is to debate the current state of cultural journalism, but I wonder just how much the issue is really about the traditional place of critics in the press and their numbers (dwindling or not) and the rising number of "amateur" voices on the internet; I wonder if the issue is equally one of the quality of content. Terry, you raised a very interesting point in an earlier post: "The only way for critics to earn their authority in the age of new media is to be interesting. Nothing less is good enough." You also wrote that the blogosphere is "teaching us that the world is full of non-professional writers who have compelling things to say, but who in the past lacked the means (or desire) to say them loudly and frequently enough to be heard by a mass audience."

To this I say: bravo. Due to the ease of setting up a blog, and to the lack of all sorts of intangible but heavy constraints (space, time, editing, advertising, peer expectations and pressure, and so on), culture bloggers have raised the bar for content. Within the time I've been reading blogs and developing my own, I've learned more about film (to use but one example) than I have from most of the traditional media that I read, and that includes The New York Times, The L.A. Times, and The New Yorker. Blogging has given rise to some brilliant, wise voices who write with forimdable knowledge and passion and who, I believe, are making real contributions to the discussion not just about film but about the arts in general. The fact that these individuals write for free on their own sites, and not for major publications, has no bearing on the quality of their work. Sure, the most accomplished, worthwhile "amateur" critics are a small part of the blogosphere, but they're out there. Which leads me to this: several here on the Critical Edge have remakred that "traditional" critics need to break the rules to survive in the digital age. This is true, but they also have to meet the rising bar for content.

Regarding Anthony DeCurtis' post about writing for money: if Anthony is writing from the vantage point that writers should write only if they can be paid because good writers deserve it and our culture should reward them, I can see where he's coming from. But if he's saying there's no point at all to writing without monetary compensation, then I'm with you Terry -- I'm going to be looking at the butter knife for purposes other than slicing butter. I blog about culture for two main reasons: 1) to engage with culture on a deeper personal, intellectual, and emotional level; 2) to attempt to make a contribution, however humble, however miniscule, to what I believe is a crucial human endeavor: experiencing the arts. If a bone fide media conglomerate came my way and offered me a job as a critic, I honestly don't know if I would necessarily take it. It would depend on the nature and purpose of the publication and whether or not I would be able to raise the issues that I believe are important. I don't get many offers via my blog, but I've had opportunities to take on reviewing tasks from time to time, and I've always turned them down precisely because they weren't the proper avenues for me -- and I mean that in an artistic/critical sense, not on a financial or professional one. I can say on my blog things I could not necessarily say elsewhere.

In the field in which I do publish -- academic history -- I never get paid for what I write (with one exception in seven years). Sure, publishing is necessary for any academic who seeks professional advancement, but I do it regardless; I do it because I believe that I have something to say and that I can contribute to the ongoing discussion about the past. If I didn't feel this way, there would be no reason for me to do it. I approach culture blogging in a similar way. You know, when William Buckley, Jr. was asked, after running for office, what he would have done if he had won, he said, "I'd demand a recount." He was running to raise issues, not for gain. And though I don't believe that Mr. Buckley is the reason to get out of bed in the morning, he was on to something. Anthony tells us bloggers that blogging is "likely to be its own reward for a long time." He's right, and that's exactly why I do it.

Posted by: Michael S. at May 17, 2006 1:38 PM

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