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February 11, 2007

What is Art.Rox?

John Stoehr

This blog is an attempt to continue the vibrant conversation that I and Joe Nickell, the arts reporter for the Missoulian in Missoula, Mont., experienced during the USC Annenberg's 2007 NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater and Musical Theater. We felt strongly that something more than a listserve between Fellows from 21 states in the union was necessary to keep the dialogue (and the excellent writing, I might add) going.

Moreover, this blog is an expression of the different perspectives of the art world and practices of art journalism outside the big media centers of New York City and Los Angeles. Case in point is the adaptation we saw of August Strindberg's "Miss Julie," currently playing at the Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles.

Set in 1964 Greenwood, Miss., Stephen Sachs' stunning interpretation will no doubt resonate differently to a media-savvy New York critic than it will with an African-American audience in the South, where the dynamics of racial power and the paradoxes of Jim Crow are still deeply felt. While the necessity of such an adaptation might not be apparent to a effete Northerner, the need (at least from the perspective of this Yankee living in Dixie) is abundantly clear to an audience of a certain aesthetic sensibility in the South.

Joe and I had the good fortune of hearing a presentation by Doug McLennan, the editor of Artsjournal.com and regular contributor of cultural journalism for papers throughout the country. His presentation painted an astonishing picture of the future of media and the role of cultural journalists in that future.

In the next 20 years, the very notion of mass media will be undermined, perhaps to the point of extinction, by emerging technologies that are creating ever more diverse niches of affinity and inquiry. That is to say, the all-things-to-all-people model of journalism won't make much sense in a information universe organized by smaller and smaller categories and made available on-demand.

Most newspapers aim for the lowest common denominator, hoping that if they hit their readership right down the middle they will gain wider circulation numbers. That means stories are getting shorter, less provocative and less interesting for those with curious minds and a need to understand the world around them. (Those with curious minds, ironically, are probably the very people that newspapers would like to have, since they tend to have more education, more interest in their communities and more money.)

The recent death of Anna-Nicole Smith is instructive. Within hours of her death, the country knew about it. Yet the next day USA Today played the story above the fold as if it were breaking news. Why use that coveted place in the print edition for something most people knew about already? Why not give that to stories developed over time, that are well written and that cannot be found anywhere else?

No doubt the newsroom logic is that the paper's readers want to know about what happened and so they feel they are giving readers what they want. The irony is, however, that they already know by way of blogs, cable news, websites, text messaging and so on. So the question not being asked is, what value does such a story add to what's already known?

I think this kind of thinking has a lot to do with arts journalists. If the newsroom is aiming for the lowest common denominator, then it's pushing out more nuanced, more niche-oriented, more thoughtful stories, like what's happening in local communities, what artists are doing in those communities and how arts organizations play an important role in the lives of real people.

Moreover, the concern in the newsroom is how to get people who don't read to read the paper. Answer? Stories like the death of Anna-Nicole Smith, a story that everyone already knows. The question not being asked is, why are we trying to get people who don't read to read the paper? People who don't read have already gotten the story from someplace else. People who do read are looking for something else in their newspapers, like why geographical context would affect the perspective and ultimate aesthetic of a new adaptation of "Miss Julie."

Joe and I also had the pleasure of seeing a live interview with Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. Gioia came on board as attacks on the NEA and its support of "The Piss Christ" and others were peaking. His legacy will be changing the perception of the NEA from a federal agency that supports artists to one that serves Americans by providing them with art and artistic experiences. "It's not about artists; it's about Americans," Gioia said.

Likewise, we arts journalists need to start changing the perception of the arts in our newsrooms. The focus shouldn't just be on quality of the arts, but also on the meaning of the arts to people. With our hyperfocus on assessment (thumbs up, thumbs down), we are playing into the "service journalism" philosophy that is one of the bedrocks on the all-things-to-all-people mentality. Is it worth spending the money on? Such an approach is a commodification of arts journalism. As a result, we are slowly writing ourselves out of a job because commodified journalism can be done so much better outside newspapers.

What newspapershave historically done better than anyone else is tell people what's important, why and how, and they have been a wonderfully eclectic catch all for the interesting things that happen in our communities, full of everything from news to comics to political columns to arts journalism. Art.Rox attempts to address some of the issues facing the arts, artists and arts journalism. Joe and I hope to hear from you and hope to keep the conversation going.

-- John Stoehr

Posted by John Stoehr at February 11, 2007 4:11 PM

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COMMENTS

Hey:
Y'all might be interested in this survey from Time Out New York about New York critics:

http://www.timeout.com/newyork/Details.do?page=1&xyurl=xyl://TONYWebArticles1/584/features/judgment_day.xml

This is Curt Holman, NEA Fellow of 2005. Sasha Anawalt pointed out the existence of this blog. Cool.

Best,
Curt Holman
Creative Loafing Atlanta
http://curt-holman.livejournal.com/

Posted by: Curt Holman at February 12, 2007 3:00 PM

Hey Curt, thanks for checking in; hope you'll stay with us.

Interesting survey; at least in the world of classical music I agree with their top two picks, judging by what I've read. Poor Anne Midgette, though -- "A mean-spirited, deeply biased menace" -- YOWCH!

Posted by: Joe Nickell at February 12, 2007 7:42 PM

Are we to assume that the Savannah summers have sweated any trace of "effete Northerner" out of any Buffalo natives residing there? ;-)

Thanks for hitting the ground running with this site. I'll try to chip in whenever/wherever/however I can.

cheers,
Marty "Matzoball" Hughley

Posted by: Marty Hughley at February 13, 2007 8:18 PM

Hey Marty,
I admit it. I am one of those effete Northerners. No amount of Savannah heat can sweat that out of me. I'm a lifer. But it's all about context. I may be effete, but I live among Southerners, who definitely see the world differently. It's my job to try to understand that perspective.

Posted by: John Stoehr at February 15, 2007 10:27 AM