July 2007 Archives
A bit of housekeeping: Some readers have tried e-mailing us directly at the address on the right-hand side of this page: email@example.com. Due to a bit of logistical confusion, the four of us were not able to access this e-mail account until today. If you've sent us a message recently, we apologize for not getting back to you promptly. We'll get caught up soon. Thanks!
This week, for my regular Tuesday spot, I decided to crib from the networks and do that time-honored summer maneuver: a rerun. As some readers of this blog may have noticed, we've only been on ArtsJournal since mid-June but our archive has over 140 entries. This blog had a short-lived, alternate incarnation before getting a new name and new home on AJ. Before our blog moved here, we had few readers and even fewer comments. Since one of the pleasures of doing this group blog has been engaging with fellow journalists and arts folks, I wanted to throw out something I wrote previously (in April) and see what people think.
Here it is:
The NEA Institute has had me thinking a lot about the critic's role in his or her community, and how the theater we see relates to our communities. I live in
Tied to this is a concern about how we value art (in the broadest terms, not just locally). A few things have struck me in recent weeks, one of which is a marketing e-mail I received from the Milwaukee Art Museum (MAM). The e-mail urged me to go see the major Francis Bacon exhibition before it closed this past weekend. It read in part, under a section headed "What It's Worth": "Your $14 ticket provides you with the opportunity to see paintings that are being sold for $30 million at auction. Learn more about the value of your ticket here." That last bit linked to a news item on the BBC Web site about how Bacon's "Study from Innocent X" is expected to sell for upwards of $30 million at auction in May.
There are a couple reasons for MAM's pointing out on the monetary value of Bacon's paintings: it signals to an audience largely unfamiliar with Bacon that this is an "important" artist; it makes people feel OK about spending $14 on their ticket; but the third, and most potentially troubling, reason is that most of us get a kick out of seeing something that we know is worth a lot of money. (To be fair, the e-mail also links to a podcast of curators discussing Bacon, so the effort to provide real context is also there.)
John Stoehr's post last week, in which he drew connections between quite a dizzying number of cultural forces over the past 30 years, rightly generated a good bit of discussion, with contributors from all over the country spicing the stew of ideas in ways that I'm sure John wouldn't have expected.
I don't have any real meat to add; but I have an inclination to stir the pot a bit.
Both John's post, and much of the discussion that followed, seemed to imply that our culture and our newspapers' coverage of culture is spiraling down the drain. Multiculturalism has dissipated standards to the wind, the Internet has dissipated authority to the wind, and this isn't good for us. Perhaps I'm taking some of the contributors to this discussion wrong; but I don't think one can read the whole lot of it in one sitting without coming away with a vague consensus that we're on a path that must be reversed before it's too late: "We need to reclaim the public sphere," says Gary Panetta, while Mike Boehm has suggestions "to reverse this trend" and John worries that "the big-tent version of culture is in serious danger of becoming meaningless."
I tend to view cultural change more in terms of transition than trajectory; as such, I guess I'm not so worried (in the big picture, anyway) about what's going on with the media landscape or popular knowledge of the arts, or about the larger cultural shift going on as relates to our so-called "Web 2.0." In fact, I see reasons for celebration.
First, this whole idea that further democratization of media is a bad thing - brought to the fore recently by Andrew Keen in his book, "The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet is Killing Our Culture" - kinda cracks me up. Just because more people can publish their ideas online, doesn't necessarily mean that those people's ideas are any more influential than they were pre-Internet. The noise floor of our public discussions of culture has certainly risen as a result of this new use of the medium; but mistaking the hit-count at YouTube as some kind of roundhouse kick to the face of cultural standards strikes me as backwards thinking.
Let's remember, after all, that it was during the last great age of amateurism that some of western culture's finest art and deepest theoretical inquiry emerged. The ubiquitous piano of the 19th century - which pretty much everyone knew how to play, at least a little - is today's Internet-connected, multimedia computer. The 20th century, with its sudden and unprecedented explosion of world-wide mass media and mass art, was the truer anomaly. I would argue that the state of artistic and journalistic standards that we're grappling with today emerge more as a consequence of this century of mass media than from the relatively new changes brought on by the Internet.
Of course, what mass media eventually exposed, and what Web 2.0 has only further illuminated, is the fact that not everybody is interested in big ideas and cutting-edge art. Fart jokes, it turns out, have broader cultural impact than the Piss Christ.
And this was a surprise...why? As David Sokolec noted in a comment to John's post last week, "the thing to remember is that art never attracted an enormous crowd."
The only real difference between today's dialogue about culture, and yesterday's, is that the water cooler looks different. We still mostly talk about the same things: the weather, our friends and families, politics, maybe something interesting we saw at the theater. Because these common conversations have now been democratized and dispersed, we have higher expectations than ever from the media we're willing to pay for: It must inform us and enlighten us about things we don't understand or simply don't know. If it's just a regurgitation of Google News and Wikipedia, it's not worth paying for.
This is bad news for bad artists and second-rate journalists. It is good news, I tend to believe, for the truly skilled, the deeply passionate, the innovative, and the informed among us.
The bottleneck is broken; the floodgates are now fully open. Now that anybody can publish their thoughts or their art for the entire world, it seems to me that the higher ground is the only safe place left for professional journalists and the companies that employ them.
It's been almost two months since we started "Flyover." Looking back, I feel it's important to express how very very pleased I am by the number of people who have joined the conversation and who have told us that a blog devoted to the arts, arts issues and arts journalism beyond America's major metropolitan areas is important and vital.
While we have a long way to go in terms of readership, we have made incredible strides in terms of the quality of writing that has gone into the many responses we get. For whatever reason, just in the past couple of weeks, I have seen so much thinking in these responses.
I am so glad to see this happening. I am so proud to be part of a vibrant community of thinkers and writers. I hope to see continue to grow. Who knows where it will go?
This week I start by offering expressions of gratitude and formal acknolowedgement of the people who've put all that thought and energy into writing us and who also strive to expand the arts discussion. Many of you are no doubt already familiar with these names. If not, please do yourself a favor and get to know these writers. They have not only a lot to say, but a lot of good things to say. Much respect.
Scott Walters of the blog "Theatre Ideas: Tirades, manifestoes, and musings on the role of theatre in American society"
Gary Panetta, who writes the "Bach & Lemon Shakeups" blog for the Peoria Journal Star
David Sokolec of the blog "Border Art Dialogue"
Mary Scriver aka Prairie Mary of the blog Robert Macfie Scriver Art
Nick (we don't know his last name) of the blog Rat Sass
Tony Reynolds of the blog Tony Reynolds: Making Objects
Joe (we don't know his last name either) from the blog Butts In The Seats:
Musings on Practical Solutions For Arts Management.
Rich Copley of the Lexington Herald-Leader and the blog Copious Notes
Glenn Weiss of the Artsjournal blog Aesthetic Grounds
Claude Rallins of the blog Gallery Guide TV: the Visual Guide to Visual Arts
Drew McManus of the Artsjournal blog Adaptistration
David Burke, a fellow at the 2007 NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater and Musical Theater, an editor at the Quad-City Times in Davenport, Iowa, and the keeper of the blog The Burke Show
Howard Mandel, the venerable jazz critic and host of howardmandel.com
And Mike Boehm, arts staff writer for the Los Angeles Times. We don't know if he has a blog, but you can read his brilliant work at latimes.com and calendarlive.com
The Music According to Lafayette Gilchrist
"When Lafayette Gilchrist celebrated the release of his 2005 album Towards the Shining Path at Highlandtown's Creative Alliance at the Patterson, he wore his gray Kangol hat with the gold piping at a jaunty tilt and stomped on the keyboard pedals with his basketball shoes. He would not have looked out of place in a Run-D.M.C. video, and the rhythms of his compositions hinted at the hours he spent watching hip-hop videos as a teenager in Prince George's County. But as Gilchrist's big hands massaged the keys of his Kurzweil PC88, the Bolton Hill resident did things to those funk and hip-hop beats that had never been heard on MTV..."
(Thanks to Geoffrey Himes of Baltimore City Paper)
Cultural leaders want property tax revenue set aside for the arts
"Cheered on by their allies in government, cultural leaders tried in the late 1980s to snare a fraction of Erie County sales tax revenue as a permanent hedge against budget uncertainty -- their own and the county's. They asked that one-eighth of the "temporary" eighth penny per dollar that had been added to the sales tax to bail the county out of fiscal hot water in 1984, and subsequently extended by the Legislature, be dedicated to the arts. The effort ultimately failed...
Almost 20 years later, the cultural community is gearing up to try again."
(Thanks to Tom Buckham of The Buffalo News)
Great Halls of Fire
The San Antonio Museum of Art has ripped out the nasty carpet, created more wall space, and put a bright coat of paint in the Contemporary Galleries.
(Thanks to Diana Lyn Roberts of the San Antonio Current)
'Portraits' of History
More than 2,000 portraits of returning survivors, relief workers, and rebuilders recently became this self-published, glossy, hardcover oral history coffee-table book.
Thanks to Michael Patrick Welch of the Gambit Weekly of New Orleans)
Telling It Straight: "Twice Told Tombigbee Tales"
Mills devotes chapters to the "Three Kings of Tombigbee Country" (Elvis, Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesus), former legislators Butch Lambert and Jerry Wilburn, former state Supreme Court Justice Armis Hawkins and Mill's life as a young legislator staying at the old Sun-N-Sand Motel.
Thanks to Jere Nash of the Jackson (Miss.) Free Press)
I live in a community that is in the process of transforming itself with several visions competing with each other for what the future will look like.
Lansing had always prided its stability on its three-pronged economy. We had the state government, the university, and Oldsmobile. When one suffered, another usually thrived, keeping things in balance until adjustments could be made. Well, Oldsmobile is now gone and there is little of the auto industry left here.
So the question is asked--as it is in many places around the country--what will we look like now?
Some that I've talked to over the past few months want the arts to become a central pillar of the economy. There is a dream that if the many existing organizations were to collaborate and obtain civic support, the arts could start generating the money lost by the auto industry.
It's a tough argument.
On one hand, there is some pretty hard data that the arts do generate money. There is also no lack for artistically talented individuals. On the other hand, there are very few artistic venues that could be called commercially successful. The majority of art organizations survive because they have passionate individuals working for them that are willing to sacrifice to create art. They labor with little expectation of a financial return.
There has also been uneasy partnerships between businesses and arts organizations. I've read John's entries about the Savannah Symphony Orchestra with increasing uneasiness. It feels like I'm looking into a mirror and seeing one of our local organizations. An organization that was once considered a cornerstone of the local arts community has been struggling for years in large part because it has a board with influential members who do not support its artistic vision. It is a board that is filled with people who have been successful in commercial undertakings but who have not been active members of the arts community. Rather than joining in the struggle to find solutions to the challenges the organization faces, they issue threats about closing the organization and demand that people are cut from staff--even those people who are bringing in grant monies that far surpass their salaries.
While I love the vision of a community that considers art one of its prime characteristics, I have to question what a commercialization would do to the life of art in the community. Would it continue to be art? Or would it become just another form of entertainment?
Business must value its bottom line. Art must value struggle.
For myself, I'm going to pursue more reading on the concept of the gift economy versus the market economy and how those economies can happily marry each other.
For this entry, I'd like to attempt a bit of synthesis, to make connections between various news reports and opinion pieces I've been reading lately, many of them discovered right here at Artsjournal, that have to do with the following:
1. The decline of American newspapers
2. High culture's weakness amid the dominance of multiculturalism
3. The rise of the amateur in the Age of Web 2.0
4. The brain drain being felt among newspapers in the American Outback
What in the world do these things have in common? Frankly, I don't know. I just have a feeling at this point that something is happening that we don't understand yet. We'll only have that I suppose when we're standing in the future looking back.
Connections: Round No. 1
My feeling about these connections began when I read Dana Gioia's brilliant speech given at Stanford University's June commencement. It's one of those speeches that in time may be seen as a turning point of ... of what? I don't know. Of something important. You'll just have to trust me; it's one of those speeches.
Gioia, who is the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, talks about, among many things, how high culture was valued and perpetuated 50 years ago. Every public high school had a music program, maybe dance classes. There were theater workshops and art classes. Schools had jazz bands and orchestras.
Gioia, the son of a poor Italian immigrant who grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Southern California, learned about high culture via popular culture.
Writers, artists and thinkers appeared regularly on "general interest" TV shows like Ed Sullivan and Perry Como. There, he saw the likes of Jascha Heifetz, Robert Merrill, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. He even got to know the names of acclaimed writers from TV: Robert Frost, John Steinbeck and James Baldwin.
"All of these people were famous to the average American -- because the culture considered them important," Gioia said.
Gioia goes on to articulate a feeling that I recognize very deeply. It's a feeling I hope is a familiar one among those who have worried about (and chafed at) the marketplace's attempted commercialization of the mind's ability to find value, meaning and pleasure in something the marketplace cannot stand: the ineffable.
"The role of culture, however, must go beyond economics," Gioia said. "It is not focused on the price of things, but on their value. And, above all, culture should tell us what is beyond price, including what does not belong in the marketplace. A culture should also provide some cogent view of the good life beyond mass accumulation. In this respect, our culture is failing us."
How did we get to this point? Gioia places blame squarely on the writers, artists and thinkers he wants everyone to celebrate. Since the 1960s, academics have gotten good at taking to each other about arcane ideas but bad at talking to the general culture, a position also argued persuasively by Greg Sandow in his provocative (his word) assessments of the future of classical music.
One of things that academics have gotten good at talking about among one another is the ideology of multiculturalism. This was touched on briefly in a recent Times piece by Edward Rothstein concerning the ubiquitous indifference to the plight of orchestras and the decline of classical music among average Americans.
"Why, in other words, should we care?" Rothstein writes. "After decades of arguments asserting that different cultures just have different ways of expressing themselves, that distinctions and assertions of value are tendentious, and that Western art music deserves no pride of place in a multicultural American society, it may be that even the problem is no longer clearly seen."
So here we pause for our first round of connections.
-- High culture used to be valued even by commercial enterprises like TV shows
-- High culture can help realize "the good life beyond mass accumulation"
-- High culture, over 30 years, lost ground to multiculturalism and commercialism
Connections: Round No. 2
Much has been said about Andrew Keen's treatise on the dangers of Web 2.0, "The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet Is Killing Our Culture."
Michiko Kakutani summarizes his position in a recent review for the Times: "Mr. Keen argues that 'what the Web 2.0 revolution is really delivering is superficial observations of the world around us rather than deep analysis, shrill opinion rather than considered judgment.'"
She continues her summary: "In his view Web 2.0 is changing the cultural landscape and not for the better. By undermining mainstream media and intellectual property rights, he says, it is creating a world in which we will "live to see the bulk of our music coming from amateur garage bands, our movies and television from glorified YouTubes, and our news made up of hyperactive celebrity gossip, served up as mere dressing for advertising." This is what happens, he suggests, 'when ignorance meets egoism meets bad taste meets mob rule.'"
And: "This book, which grew out of a controversial essay published last year by The Weekly Standard, is a shrewdly argued jeremiad against the digerati effort to dethrone cultural and political gatekeepers and replace experts with the 'wisdom of the crowd.'"
That last bit about "the wisdom of crowds" is veiled reference to the influential 2004 book by James Surowiecki called "The Wisdom of Crowds." In it, the author argued that decisions are often better made by the many than by the few. But it's also a reference to the utopian fantasy of the original Internet pioneers who envisioned a technological "democratization of the world: more information, more perspectives, more opinions, more everything, and most of it without filters or fees."
But crowds are often not wise, Keen writes. Slavery was very popular for instance. Group-think can also lead to questions of identity and intent. Take Wikipedia. It's been held up an a model of democratic accumulation of knowledge even though it is highly susceptible to fraud and hoaxes by contributors pretending to be someone they are not.
A similar sentiment was expressed by Mark Caro of the Chicago Tribune. In a recent column he noted the current transformation taking place in the relationship between art and the people who make it.
Caro, paraphrased on Artsjoural, writes: "'Years of paying your dues and trusting in the system are so yesterday .. Everything seems to be a lot more democratic these days, and that's good, right?' Well, no, not necessarily. Pricking the 'expert' balloon might feel good, but the fact is that audiences aren't qualified to pick Broadway leads, most self-produced rock songs are crap, and many performing arts just can't even be attempted without years of training."
At the same time this was being discussed, Roger Scruton, the British philosopher and writer, published a book, called "Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged," defending the high art of Western culture.
Starting in the 1960s, the beginning of the same the same historical period in which Dana Gioia noted the decline of the value of high culture in commercial enterprises like TV, there was a growing sentiment among intellectuals that low and popular culture should get the same treatment as high culture. This treatment influenced an entire generation of intellectuals and by the 1990s, we see something quite different emerge: multiculturalism.
I'll quote reviewer Bryan Appleyard in the Times of London at some length because he writes so well:
"In the 1990s was the appearance of a generation to whom the idea of blending high and low came as naturally as breathing. They had absorbed the idea from media studies or any of the humanities courses that had been invaded by the French. Structuralism and then deconstruction were ideas that had emerged from the French universities. They could be applied to almost any discipline and, although they were impenetrably complex in detail, they delivered a simple message to the students: that all human artifacts could be deciphered through the same critical procedures. As a result, there was as much to be learnt about the world from a can of beans as there was from Wordsworth's Prelude. To deny it was to assert old 'imperial hierarchies of meaning' that had, the students were told, been utterly discredited.
"This went way beyond anything intended by (Bernard) Levin or (Clive) James. They applied high-art standards to what had previously been seen as low art. James liked Randy Newman because of their common understanding of song through Verdi. That elevated Newman to the high-art pantheon, and that was the whole point. James was simply saying that high art did not necessarily dwell exclusively in the old categories. Who could disagree? But the structuralists abandoned the terms 'high' and 'low' completely, and in doing so, they in effect tossed out the term 'art.' That left a gaping hole. What word could be used to describe all this stuff? A big tent was needed to encompass this mountain of beans, poems, clothes, operas, pop songs, graffiti and game shows. The tent, the word that plugged the gap, was 'culture.'"
Bottom-line: Culture used to be literature, opera and art. Now it has more of an anthropological notion, what Appleyard calls a much bigger tent. Problem is that Big Tent of Culture is riven with contradictions and because everything is relative, the big-tent version of culture is in serious danger of becoming meaningless.
Now we pause for our second round of connections:
-- Over the same period in which Dana Gioia noted the decline in the value of high culture, there has been a rise in the "cult of the amateur," according to Keen.
-- Over the same period in which Dana Gioia noted the decline in the value of high culture, "the wisdom of crowds" has prevailed over the expertise of the few.
-- Over the same period in which Dana Gioia noted the decline in the value of high culture, there has been an assault against what was once considered art.
-- Over the same period in which Dana Gioia noted the decline in the value of high culture, everything has become as good as everything else, so what's the point in fighting for something as expensive and hard to access as, say, classical music.
-- And if everything is as good as everything else, what's the point of newspapers continuing to hire and support the work of arts journalists? Who needs experts when everything's equal?
Connections: Round No. 3
Over the same 30-year period that multiculturalism became the dominant mode of cultural discussion, there was a breakdown in communication between the owners of newspapers and the journalists who worked for them, according to John S. Carroll in a widely cited speech "What Will Become of Newspapers," cited again in a insightful essay by novelist Russell Baker in the New York Review of Books.
Carroll is the former editor of the Los Angeles Times before the Tribune company began gutting the newsroom and the newsrooms of papers around the country.
Carroll thought the problem is simple: Over 30 years in newspapers, there has evolved a fundamental dissonance between the professional ethics of journalism and the corporate concerns for the bottom-line, and between the journalist's need to serve the reader and the manager's need to serve the shareholder.
As Baker writes:
The new-style owners are often puzzled when their editors and reporters make the traditional argument that journalism's business is to provide a public service by supplying the information the citizenry needs for democracy to work. The new owners have a different view of duty. They are "sometimes genuinely perplexed to find people in their midst who do not feel beholden, first and foremost, to the shareholder," Carroll says."What makes these people tick? they wonder. The job of any employee, as they see it, is to produce a good financial result, not to indulge in some dreamy form of do-gooding at company expense. ... Our corporate superiors regard our beliefs as quaint, wasteful and increasingly tiresome."
This dissonance may end up having lasting impact on American journalism. Already there is a brain drain underway, with many reporters, editors and designers leaving the business to pursue work and interests someplace more amenable to their talents, expertise and creativity.
I don't have hard data to support this assertion, but anecdotal evidence suggests this is happening. In my own newsroom at the Savannah Morning News, half a dozen journalists have left the field. Some are talking about leaving soon. Others know and talk about colleagues who have left or are planning to leave. I wonder when the tipping point of this brain drain will become obvious. Probably when it's too late to do anything about it.
Terry Teachout draws a connection between this brain drain (though he doesn't call it that) and the world of arts journalism. In an insightful piece for the Wall Street Journal called "Whatever Happened to Regional Critics?" Teachout writes that arts journalism is faced with an impossible choice now that it faces industry cutbacks and the increasingly popularity of the blogosphere: that choice is either cutting arts coverage or cutting the arts journalist's job.
"It's hard for medium-size regional newspapers to attract serious critics, but it can be done. Indeed, a well-edited regional paper is often the best possible place for an up-and-coming young critic to learn his trade. I got my start reviewing second-string classical concerts for the Kansas City Star 30 years ago. Now that such entry-level jobs are drying up, I fear for the future of arts journalism in America," Teachout wrote.
So do I.
Now we pause for our third, and final, round of connections:
-- Newspaper began abandoning high culture to meet the demands of commercialization.
-- Journalistic notions of serving the public (or, for our purposes as arts journalists, serving the public as critics and reporters) came to be seen as "quaint, wasteful and increasingly tiresome."
-- Amid job cuts, the opportunities for regional critics began to shrink
-- Amid job cuts, regional newspapers are undergoing a brain drain
One of the notions that's stuck with me from the NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater and Musical Theater six months ago is something put forth by Erik Ehn on the first day of the program. (Ehn is dean of the School of Theater at CalArts and also head of the Writing for Performance program.) Ehn stressed the idea of the critic as "co-creator" or "co-maker" of the theatrical experience, not merely a recorder of something frozen. He also argued that it's not the critic's job to sort out good and bad, but to create, right alongside the performers themselves, the meaning of the theater work.
Frankly, I wish I'd felt a little more lively when our group met with Ehn. After waking at 4 a.m. and heading hundreds of miles west to make it to L.A. from Madison by noon--not easy to do, even with the time zones working in your favor--I was drained. I agree with some, but not all, of what Ehn had to say, and that's why I find his thinking so intriguing.
This idea of a work of art being unfinished until a viewer/audience member engages with it is not new, especially to those with a background in visual art. And, on some level, all audience members are always (mentally, internally) co-creating an evening's performance given what they as individuals bring to a performance in terms of life experience, knowledge (or not) of the playwright or script, etc. But I feel Ehn took things a bit farther than the basic truism that we are always co-creating art in our minds along with the artists who've put it out there. Since Ehn was talking specifically to a group of critics--those of us with the privilege of "co-creating" publicly and in print--this idea of co-creating takes on higher stakes.
And not only was Ehn talking specifically to journalists, but to journalists from smaller markets (the focus of the NEA Arts Journalism Institutes). At its worst, co-creating could turn into pandering or picking up slack for plays that fall short of the mark (along the lines of "What they really meant to do was..." or "What they were really trying to say was..."). At its best, however, co-creating keeps us in that frame of mind that truly is criticism, not just reviewing. We think not just about what happened or how well things were executed, but a performance's larger meaning and context.
Where co-creating gets thorny is when our own personal ideas don't match up with the playwright's (artist's, dancer's, etc.) ideas. We may disagree with the ideas being put out there, but still admire the originality, rigor and passion with which those ideas are conveyed--and this is perhaps why it's hard to let go of notions of quality (conveyed, one hopes, in a way that goes well beyond mere "good" and "bad"). I can dislike something on a personal level yet still appreciate its quality or significance.
One final thought from Ehn, worth revisiting at another time, that has also stayed with me: "If theater is a conversation, where are the real conversations [in our local communities] being had?"
While Russell Baker muses on the fate of newspapers in the wake of scandal, executive bullying and plummeting circulation for the New York Review of Books, David Shumway thinks about the rise and fall of musical celebrity -- mostly James Brown -- in the current Age of the iPod.
Can newspapers learn anything from the Napster-inspired travails of the music industry?
CD sales dropped a whopping 20 percent in the first quarter of 2007, following already precipitous plunges in sales. Before you say people must be buying their music online, consider this: Experts estimate that a billion songs are traded illegally every month, undermining any semblance of control and authority that the major labels, radio companies and even the Almighty MTV used to have. All they can do now is scare college kids with legal letters.
What can small-town newspapers in the American Outback learn from this?
...an entry by the prolific Terry Teachout ("Hot Stuff") that addresses some of the same themes we have been of late: reviewing as a type of reporting, and the role of passion in an arts writer's job. Interesting stuff (including letters that Teachout has received), and worth a read.
Like many industrial cities in the Heartland, Cleveland wants art to remake its image. The words "arts", "culture" and "technology" could surpass "the Browns,'' "industrial wasteland,'' "burning river'' and "LeBron,'' if the creators and staff of the Ingenuity Festival have their way, that trio of nouns will easily roll off the tongues of locals and visitors."
The festival spent its first two years establishing its concept of presenting a mix of traditional artistic disciplines, such as visual arts, music and various dance forms, with performances in which tradition, innovation and technology intersect.
James Levin, co-founder and executive director of the festival, said organizers attempted to make 2007's event the most diverse yet. However, he said, he believes that there is still a public misconception about the purpose and contents of the Ingenuity Festival that he hopes to lay to rest this year.
"I think for people who have never been to an Ingenuity Fest before, I'm trying to make it more clear that it is really dense with performance,'' he said. "If (people) want to forget about the technology, it's a huge block party, a four-day block party in downtown Cleveland."
(Thanks to Malcolm X Abram of the Akron Beacon Journal)
As the Flint Youth Theatre celebrates its 50th anniversary, professional alumni sing its praises, some going so far as to say that there is nothing in New York that compares to the sense of community provided to young people by the Flint theater..
When New York opera/cabaret singer Suzanne Carrico reminisces about her early experiences at Flint Youth Theatre, you can hear the sense of awe in her voice and imagine the stars in her eyes.
Performing in FYT's production of "The Masque of Beauty and the Beast" as a teenager was "like being in a fairy tale," she said.
"FYT was about community awareness," she said. "Here, it's more of a show-business attitude, making kids into stars. I wish there was something that held up to (FYT's) standards here."
(Thanks to Carol Azizian of The Flint Journal)
"Lori Bradley recognizes the impact the creative economy is making in New Bedford. As a ceramics/mixed-media artist and as part owner of a six-artist cooperative gallery downtown...Bradley is also part of the creative economy that has spurred mill renovations, mixed-use developments and a host of new businesses to emerge in New Bedford."
(Thanks to Natalie Myers of the Providence Business News [Rhode Island])
"A shipment of shiny brass horns and everything needed to make a string quartet many times over is expected to reach the Somerville public schools before the end of the summer... [T]he city plans to buy $100,000 worth of new instruments to be played by elementary school students citywide. The hefty investment in the music programs follows years of cutbacks to arts and music programs nationwide."
(Thanks to Andrea Gregory of The Somerville News [Mass.])
"When local mixed-media artists Martha Miller and Alex Rheault hatched an idea six months ago to collaborate with multiple artists in a serious game of Exquisite Corpse-meets-chain letters, they had no idea the effort would lead to the overwhelming amount of material displayed at "Metamorphosis: A Journey of Dolls"... They also didn't know that personal beliefs and interpersonal dynamics would produce both deep conflict and intense conversation as the project progressed."
(Thanks to Ian Paige of The Phoenix [Portland, Maine])
I'm enjoying the discussion far too much this week to change topics.
I'd like to pick up some threads that Jennifer wove into the discussion on Tuesday.
Early in my journalism career I had an editor who pointed out that it wasn't necessary or right to be objective about everything. He said he wouldn't be objective about rape, about murder, or about war. He held that he would be a poor journalist if he didn't hold an opinion about those things.
My father was a community journalist in the truest sense of the word--he was an editor who believed that he had to be a part of the community that he was covering. How could he do a good job as a journalist if he didn't care about the community he lived in and the people who populated it?
So it has never seemed dissonant to me that one should love--and love deeply--those things that you cover. Why would an editor want someone who lacked passion covering anything? When there is no passion, there can be little commitment. When there is little commitment, the writing will be dull and shallow.
Last week featured some insightful comments on the growing national issue of quid pro quo between writers and readers, artists and audiences, newspapers and the communities they cover. I like how Joe started this week by picking up where we left off. Jennifer did, too. I'd like to continue.
The tyranny of service journalism
First, an addendum to the oft-heard excuse from editors: "If a show happens only once, what's the point of a review?" Joe implied rightly that this kind of remark is rather daft. You never hear this applied to sports or legal reporting or the cops beat or any other subject of newsgathering. But it's commonly applied to the arts.
As Joe noted: "Newspapers exist to document the things that happen in our communities, and how those things spin together into a community's sense of self and trajectory of advancement. And sometimes, the most important thing that happened yesterday wasn't a murder, or a football game, or a lawsuit filed against the state. It was a concert."
I would add this: that this remark -- "what's the point of a review?" -- reflects the tyranny of service journalism as it is applied to arts coverage. Like Roger Ebert, we arts journalists, according to this consumer-oriented logic, are supposed to act as guides, helping readers determine the best use of their entertainment dollar.
If a production only happens once, then a review won't do any good in helping people decide what to do with their entertainment dollar, because, of course, there was only one show to go to. By this way of thinking, the core question returns: What's the point?
From pulpit to switchboard
While I think there's merit to service journalism, it may be a industry trend that fast coming to an end. Why? Because a thumbs-up/thumbs-down review is increasingly the preserve of the blogosphere. Bloggers do it better, faster and, assuming that editors continue to pressure critics into being consumer guides, bloggers are undermining our jobs. Just as an illegal immigrant's willingness to work for less dilutes the labor market, bloggers are doing what Roger Ebert's been doing for yeard -- only they're doing it for free.
To be sure, this is no nativist defense of our privilege as arts journalists. On the contrary, I think there's much to look forward to in the world of blogging. I'm not convinced that much of it is worth my time, but much of it is, as Terry Teachout noted recently in the Wall Street Journal. I merely note that the old writing conventions of arts journalism -- the consumer-oriented Ebertian thumbs up and down mode of rhetoric -- cannot be maintained in light of this strange new world of the blogosphere.
Indeed, there's no point in writing a consumer-oriented review when there are people writing faster and better and with far more passion. The consumerist review made a lot of sense in a 20th century dominated by mass media, a time when we were the gatekeepers to what's good and what's bad. But there's less and less mass in contemporary media these days, because there are more and more gates to be kept by more and more people. If critics are going to turn the pulpit into a switchboard (a nice turn of phrase, incidentally, by our Montana Man Joe), we're going to need something new.
Or, considering the wealth of commentary last week, maybe what we need is in fact old?
Down with reviews, up with criticism
Many Flyover commentators noted that newspapers need to stop reviewing and return to the lost art of criticism -- an old-fashioned writing convention employing the somewhat quaint (according to the logic of service journalism) modes of insight, analysis, commentary, historical context, aesthetic sensibility and other modes and forms of respectful, honest and sensitive literary engagement.
Habeas wrote: "Newspapers get little response to 'reviews' because most are not 'criticism.' They're reviews. There's little to respond to when the theatre 'article' consists of a quick plot summary, a compliment or pan to a few of the actors and production details. Why would I write to a paper -- to disagree with the reviewer? What's the point, since I'm unlikely to alter that person's opinion?"
James A. Weaver wrote that critiques aim for illumination rather than mere evaluation. "They establish what aesthetics are intended to accomplish," he said, "and they distinguish the difference between good and bad art."
Mike Boehm, of the Los Angeles Times, said provocative arts criticism is the best way to spark quid pro quo. But provocative criticism, like negative critiques, requires the backing of management: that is to say, the inch-count to develop your arguments with specific examples, fleshed-out analysis and illuminating comparisons. I'd say at least 20 inches, but most reviews are shoe-horned into 10.
As Mike notes, with a bonus caveat: "First make sure your editors WANT provocative criticism ... Oh, and when the symphony or museum board chairman calls his/her country club buddy, your publisher, be sure your editors have trained said publisher to say the journalistically correct thing, and mean it."
These comments addressed criticism as it appears in print. But what about this brave new world of the Internet? We've already discussed (and will continue to discuss) the good that comes from being able to respond to arts writing quickly when it's worth responding to.
Can blogs -- especially as they are currently perceived and operated by newspapers in the American Outback -- fuel a move away from service journalism and spark a resugence in genuine criticism? Can the internet lift the old restrictions enough to allow for a new flourishing?
As always, let us know what you think.
I'll pick up where Joe and commenters left off yesterday. And heck, I'll even swipe Joe's numbered format for this week's post:
1. I thought it was intriguing that Joe used a sports-vs.-arts-coverage comparison in his first point (sports writing as a type of reviewing). While I think there's truth in these similarities, there's also a gaping difference that often works to the disadvantage of the arts writer. Namely, arts writers are often expected to make people care about / like / understand the arts in a way that would never be expected of sportswriters.
Simply put, sports pages are read by sports fans. These people will know if the sportswriter gets some bit of team history or stats wrong. They already know the rules of baseball or football. The sportswriter can assume the sports reader has a base of knowledge, otherwise he or she wouldn't be reading the sports pages.
Arts writers, on the other hand, are expected to do that difficult dance of making things accessible to the general reader with no specialized background, but also hold the interest of those who do know something about dance, visual art, theater, what-have-you. It's a tough trick to provide background and still have space for original, critical analysis in a review. While there are times when I feel I've pulled it off, there are plenty of times when, looking back, I'm disappointed at how much space I wasted on sketching out a play's plot, for example.
2. Habeas (in yesterday's comments) make some great points. I think what I've written in #1 is connected to what habeas says. While knowing decades' worth of arcane team trivia is an asset for a sportswriter, having in-depth knowledge in a particular arts discipline is sometimes treated as a liability (not at the paper I freelance for, fortunately). Frankly, habeas, your level of knowledge probably scares some potential employers off. They worry, perhaps, that you won't be able to write in this magically "accessible" style (that's an unfounded fear since the clips you already have show whether you can do it or not).
There was some provocative discussion along these lines a few years back in ArtsJournal, on a page I've long had bookmarked since there was so much good stuff. Here's a tidbit from a letter by Colin Eatock dated May 2002 that hits it on the head:
"[An editor under discussion] appears to distrust expertise--at least in the arts. Presumably he believes that a sports writer should know all about the nickel defense and the three-deep zone, whatever on Earth they are. But arts writers are suspect if they know more than the average reader--or perhaps more than their editors...[A particular editor's] idea of the perfect arts journalist seems to be someone who approaches theatre, jazz or visual art with equal indifference, and not too much book-learnin'."
3. As for habeas' point about "creating more pulpits and opening up the field": I also agree. This is why I think freelancers can be so crucial; they can be a way for papers without a staff writer competent to cover a certain area to access that knowledge (assuming they have a budget for freelancers). Of course, this is still unsatisfying for the freelancer who would love a full-time position--and I don't know what the answer to that is. Perhaps one of my co-bloggers can take that question up; as I write this, I'm too tired to!
In the past week several Flyover posts have been focused on the question of reader / critic dialogue. Jen has bemoaned how few readers write letters to the editor about arts coverage, and how this usually gives the appearance (at least to our editors) that arts don't matter as much as politics or other "harder" news topics; in the bigger picture, this lack of feedback basically means that the public discussion of local arts tends to fizzle at the proverbial starting line.
John made an interesting argument that maybe newspapers need more reviews instead of fewer, as is the trend.
I have a few random notes I'd like to add to this conversation.
1. John talked about that all-too-common attitude from editors: "If the show happens only once, what is the point of a review?" I've heard this one myself before, though thankfully not from the editors at my current employer. I always scratch my head at this one, since it usually comes from an editor who is pouring plenty of resources into daily local sports coverage.
What is a recap of last night's high school basketball game, if not -- in essence -- a review? Oh, sure, it has lots of numbers and statistics and some quotes from the coach, which might make it seem more objective. But the best game recaps -- the ones that editors at major dailies pay big bucks for -- turn those numbers into high drama. They offer analysis of how this one game fits into the bigger picture for the teams in question. They focus on the turning points -- the dramatic twists, if you will -- when one team pulled itself together and "went on a run." They talk about the crowd reaction.
And, importantly, they answer the editor's question implicitly, by saying, "this was an important event in our community, and as the newspaper of record in our community, we're telling you what happened."
This defense can go on ad nauseum, using every other activity of any responsible newsroom as a reference point. Why write a story about what happened at last night's city council meeting? After all, it too "only happened once." Why recount the sordid timeline of a murder that happened last night? Spectators can't gather to watch that happen again, either.
Newspapers exist to document the things that happen in our communities, and how those things spin together into a community's sense of self and trajectory of advancement. And sometimes, the most important thing that happened yesterday wasn't a murder, or a football game, or a lawsuit filed against the state. It was a concert.
2. I don't want to belabor this point, but in the discussion of last week's posts, the point was made that there aren't many great performances in small towns. This is true, but it must be taken in the proper context: There usually aren't many performances, period. In my experience in big cites and small, the ratio of great performances to .... just performances .... is usually about the same where-ever you go. The fact that there's always something great to write about in the New York Times is, as much as anything, simply a reflection of the fact that there is SO much going on in New York at any given time.
3. Finally, another point I don't want to belabor: One problem that plagues small-town arts criticism today is that there are only so many educated and thoughtful critics in the country, and they tend not to be evenly spread around the country. More often, you'll find that the person who is conscripted to write a review of last night's symphony concert has no background in classical music -- even if she's the paper's arts reporter.
I'll hold myself up as a shining example: I am a trained classical percussionist who worked his way into journalism. I am now the sole arts reporter AND critic at my newspaper. If someone is going to critique a show at the Missoula Art Museum, or a production at Montana Repertory Theater, or a program by Headwaters Dance Company, I'm probably the man for the job. Am I qualified to give a learned opinion? Usually not. I can only hope that people will credit me for having my heart in the right place, my head deeply in my task, and my homework done adequately, on short notice.
So here's my radical thought for the day: Maybe the problem we should be discussing is how few critics deserve the pulpit they've been given, and what we ('we' as in, those of us who know better than to think we really deserve to be the only voice in town opining about arts occurrences) can do to turn that pulpit into a switchboard. Last week's discussion sketched the broad issues of blogs versus print and how editors devote resources to each; that discussion deserves fleshing out.
Curbing exodus of graduates
Maine gets creative competing in the 21st-century, knowledge-based economy: "Any resident who earns an associate or bachelor's degree in Maine and then lives, works and pays taxes in the state is eligible for a maximum tax credit of $2,100 per year, or a total of $8,400 for the four years of schooling. And there's this twist: The new law that takes effect in January allows employers to make the loan payments for graduates they employ and claim the tax credit."
(Thanks to John Kostrzewa of the Providence Journal [Rhode Island])
Street shooter: Pioneering photographer Marty Cooper turns her camera on a struggling Baltimore neighborhood
"When Martha Cooper first spied the green and white of the empty sidewalk chairs, matching the trim on the Fulton Avenue rowhouse, the photographer had one reaction: She vowed to come back and meet the person responsible. On a block in Southwest Baltimore lined with empty homes, she knew, a splash of paint is a promising sign of street life. Marty Cooper's presence itself speaks to the street's stealthy vitality. A New York-based photographer, Cooper, 64, became a hip-hop pioneer by documenting graffiti and break dancers. Now, the traveler who has passed through dozens of countries and communities has returned to her hometown to chronicle 'a neighborhood over time.'"
(Thanks to Stephanie Shapiro, Baltimore Sun)
A moving summer experience: Jacob's Pillow is a stellar showcase for the best in dance
"Jacob's Pillow has always been a unique environment. With its bucolic setting and its celebrated history, being at Jacob's Pillow is as close to dance heaven as one can get. That environment has evolved for 75 years, starting in 1931, when dancer, teacher, choreographer and modern-dance pioneer Ted Shawn purchased an abandoned farm... Since then, Jacob's Pillow has been a summer retreat that showcases some of the world's leading figures of dance and movement."
(Thanks to Frank Rizzo of the Hartford Courant [Conn.])
Music licensing companies come calling for royalties
Coffee shops, bars, and other establishments that provide a venue for live music are questioning whether they will be able to continue as licensing companies hunt down royalties.
(Thanks to John A. Torres of Florida Today)
Perhaps one of the reasons the Flyover blog mission resonated with me so much is because theater has become so integrally connected with place in my mind.
Yes, theater is about art. I might argue, though, that it is more essentially about connection. While the primary connection may be between people, a strong tie exists between theater and place.
When people ask me, I say that my home is Lansing. This is despite the fact that I spent half my life in Westland. Westland is where I was born (well, OK, Garden City, but close enough), where I was raised, and where I met my husband. It's also where both my family and my husband's family lives still. Yet, even when I go back it is as a visitor and I no longer even think of it as "coming home."
The reasons for this are very much tied up in theater. Theater is what makes Lansing more than just a geographical place where I reside. It is what makes it home. It is the place where wherever I go, I'm going to run into someone I know despite being in a town of more than 100,000.
I do try to see theater when I travel and one of the things that I've discovered is that theater has a different flavor wherever I go--even when the same shows are being done. Much of that flavor comes from the audience and what the audience is giving back to the show. Anyone who has gone to see the same show multiple times will attest to the fact that every performance is different no matter how much the performers try to make it the same. It's different because each audience is different.
So it isn't surprising when communities become possessive about their theater--referring to it with possessive pronouns even when all the production efforts are done by individuals with little to no outside support. It's because the theater is part of what has turned their community from political boundaries on a map to a home where there is a shared memory of connecting with other individuals about what is important to them on a very local level.
I'm going to start this post by picking up where my Flyover compatriot in Wisconsin, Jennifer A. Smith, left off yesterday by discussing the lack of participation in the cultural dialogue by readers interested and concerned about all things cultural.
Jennifer and I exchanged a couple of comments each but this really needs to be fleshed out more, as the notion of a ongoing conversation between journalists and readers, artists and audiences, newspapers and their communities is quickly building momentum in an era that is quickly seeing the rise of a quid pro quo sensibility.
As Doug McLennan, our Sage Blog Guru and host here on Artsjournal.com, has noted in myriad ways on his own blog (called diacritical), the paradigm of mass media, which dominated most of the 20th century, is now in the 21st century being undermined, questioned and reexamined by the seemingly endless media choices available to consumers.
Even once immovable titans like the broadcast networks are now worried about competition from these niche markets. I don't remember the specifics, but sometime this past spring NBC was hoping few, especially advertisers, noticed when it reported viewer ratings were as low as 6.5 million -- in a week.
Last time I heard, there were, like, 300 million people in this country. Mmm.
Anyway, like NBC, newspapers (daily and weekly) have historically been the gatekeepers of mass media. This has been the case for cities everywhere, but especially, I think, in cities like mine (Savannah, Ga.), where the gate is even smaller and the hoary-headed keepers of the gate don't remember where they hid the key. Here, there's only one daily newspaper, the weekly newspaper is impotent, the TV stations don't care and there's no room on commercial or even public radio.
If an artist or arts groups wanted to get the word out about a exhibit or production or performance, the primary issue was access: go through the right channels, persuade the right people, and bang!, instant publicity.
That was the case as long as newspapers were the only game in town, and as long as newspapers were the leading authority of what was good, what was bad -- how, why and does that come with a money-back guarantee?
This was fine and dandy as long as we were the gatekeepers. Even as arts criticism succumbed to the spirit of the marketplace -- thumbs-up/thumbs down reviews, is it worth my ten bucks? -- newspapers like the Savannah Morning News could issue its judgments (if it bothered to review at all, which I'll get to in moment) and no one was going to say boo, because we were, after all, the gatekeepers.
Now that there is more than one gate and now that readers are figuring out that there's more to the media than newspapers and even TV, this gatekeeper philosophy of power is just not working.
And now that spirit of the marketplace has become fully entrenched to the point where readers expect a thumbs up or down review even without a critical-historical-aesthetic foundation on which to base it, the whole notion of a review is becoming pretty problematic.
Anyone with a computer and a blog can write a review. When virtual reality has become Wikiality, why pay someone a salary and benefits when you can get readers to do the same thing for free?
Suddenly, what critics do isn't so special. The authority, privilege, access and power we once enjoyed are not what they used to be. With the cost of newsprint and the industry-wide push for a presence online, there's little incentive among management and staff to make room for reviews where there was once plenty.
In the words of one editor here: If the show happens only once, what the point of a review?
In the words of my designer: Why do I want to be reminded of what I missed?
What's the point of talking about reviews? Especially in the American Outback, where one can presume with some confidence that art-making, such as, say, theater, may not be of the highest caliber (I've seen two shows recently. Dreadful stuff. 'Nuff said).
The point is that while news reports, features, interviews and previews serve a purpose, they are unlikely to spark the urge to participate in a community-wide dialogue about the arts that Jennifer and I believe is the hallmark of a healthy community, one that makes it clear to newspapers that they need to cover the arts.
What does, however, get people's juices flowing is an opinion, an insight, or a thoughtful commentary. Jennifer noted that people, even well-heeled and highly educated people who care and think about the arts in Madison, where she lives, are less likely to fire off a letter to the editor over the arts than over politics.
"That gets me more fired up," she was told by someone she admires.
Perhaps more reviews, not fewer, are what's needed to engage a newspaper's readership. A good review offers insight, context, perspective and meaning. Even if, say, the theater production wasn't very good, it may be an opportunity, as I tried to do in this "arts notebook" piece some time ago, to address larger concerns facing the arts community and the people it serves.
The problem here is that management's answer to this would be, "Sure, you can do more reviews. That's what blogs are for." Without the space constraints online that editors face in print, they have no fear of news ideas. But they have no fear also, I think, because there's not much at stake in a blog. And there's not much at stake, because ultimately management doesn't take blogging by journalists all that seriously.
As Doug mentioned in a hugely insightful post called "The Great Newspaper Comments Debate," editors are unequal in the time and resources devoted to story comments and the time and resources given to letters to the editors. Letters are vetted, balanced, edited and verified. With story comments, it seems anything goes.
Same with an arts blog.
An ambitious critic wanting to write more reviews in order to satisfy some highfalutin desire to enhance the overall dialogue of the arts community is no skin off editors' noses, because it's not going to cost them anything in time, money and manpower. Ultimately, such a disparity seems to me a comment on management's misunderstanding of quid pro quo.
Is this the legacy of a mass media mentality? Is this a fair and constructive question?
I'll end this by quoting Jennifer's comment yesterday.
"These things [discussion boards but you can substitute story comments and blogs] attract some intelligent conversation and lot of not-so-great stuff, and then you get this whole online stew that is not well integrated with the whole of the paper ... how do we have genuine, high-quality, two-way dialogue?"
A few weeks ago, I had a brief conversation about local arts writing with someone I greatly admire. A third person had asked me how often I get letters in response to what I write in the local alt weekly, and I told him it didn't happen that often. Mostly (as one might assume) people write in when they're unhappy with something in a review; the positive comments I get are more likely to be personal notes directly from artists, not something published in the public sphere. At any rate, I asked these two educated, connected people why they don't think more people write in to papers about arts coverage and one of them responded, "I'm more likely to write in about a political issue. That gets me more fired up."
I hear her. Politics are one of my other main passions in life, and the times in recent memory I've sent a letter to the editor, it's been about a local or national political issue. But this got me fretting again about one of my pet issues: why don't readers write in more to their newspapers about arts coverage? Especially now, in this time when many are lamenting cuts in arts journalism positions, why don't people send in letters to show editors they're reading arts coverage? Whether the comment is a positive or negative one about a writer's work is of less interest to me; it's like that adage that any PR is good PR. What I want most is to see that readers care about the quantity and quality of the arts coverage available to them.
One caveat: I'm talking specifically about print coverage here. One of the great things about the blogosphere (a dumb yet efficient term) is the ease with which it enables give-and-take. Responding to something in a print publication takes a little more work--one can fire off a letter via e-mail but still needs to wait to see when (or if) it will be published. Things are slower and more static.
It should also go without saying that I'm also not worrying about that segment of the population that is not interested in arts coverage. I skip the sports page, they skip the arts, and that's OK. We don't all need to have the same interests. What intrigues me are people like this woman that I know--highly intelligent, culturally involved--who don't usually respond to arts coverage.
It's been going on since at least the 1980s and, judging from responses to a post I wrote last Monday, the debate rages on: Will new venues bring new art -- and new money -- to cities that currently suffer from outdated theaters and concert halls?
John Stoehr mentioned the controversy about plans in Savannah to spend $80 million in public money to build a new event arena. Deirdre Hanna mentioned the various capital improvement projects that city leaders in Toronto have been pushing, in hopes of making Toronto more of an architectural and artistic destination.
Here in Missoula, a group is pushing for an 1,800-seat multipurpose performing arts center smack in the middle of downtown. If completed, it would cost more than the last five major civic projects combined. Backers hope to convince taxpayers to fund this in part with a $20 million county bond.
As the arts reporter here in Missoula, I've followed the local story for several years. Heck, when I first started covering it, the people pushing the idea were saying they hoped to have the thing built by early 2007. But at this point, the group is facing an August deadline from the City Council (which has reserved one of the prime pieces of remaining downtown real estate for the project) to simply show that there is the potential to raise the money needed for the project. The group hasn't announced any actual, significant fundraising success to date.
The local performing arts center proposal has its own problems and challenges, some of which are unique to this place, some of which are unique to these people, and some of which are all too common for projects such as these.
But from what I can see, chief among the problems the backers face is that they haven't convinced anyone around here that a fancy new hall will really be supported, either by the ticketbuying public or by an increased quantity or quality of artistic presentations.
Missoula is still a long ways from nowhere. That creates a double-whammy for venues and promoters: It's hard to get shows here; and it's hard to get people to attend those shows. Unlike most American cities the size of Missoula, the population of the surrounding region is practically insignificant. My old haunt of Bloomington, Ind., may be about the same size as Missoula; but part of the reason it can attract a large number of major touring shows is that Indianapolis is just a hop down the highway.
I don't mean to get this conversation mired in the particulars of our local situation. But I do think Missoula is a somewhat extreme example of how the whole concept of "build it and they will come" is questionable in the world of the arts -- especially considering that, by the time we complete our "state of the art" performing arts center, some other community will be busy one-upping our achievement. In fact, groups in several Montana cities are engaged in the early stages of projects essentially identical to this one.
The whole thing begins to smell of an elaborate and expensive game of tail-chasing.
According to our Blog Guru, we here in Flyover country have been ghettoizing our entries. We post "official" blogs, then we just let commentary hang at the bottom. It would be better, he said, is we responded to comments in regular posts. That way, we'd have a much more dynamic blog, more of a free flow.
In the spirit of dynamism, I thought I'd revisit a comment by one of my co-Flyover writer Jennifer A. Smith, who wrote in the wake of two blog posts last week by Joe Nickell, in Montana, and me, in Savannah, about the NYCentric perspective.
Joe's comment centered on Alex Ross's piece in the New Yorker. Mine centered on "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: A Savannah Story," by John Berendt. Both of us took issue with the gee-whiz attitude toward things these New York-based writers didn't expect to find outside New York. This approach, though ostensibly complimentary, we argued, is simultaneously condescending.
For Ross, it was the discovery that there are quality orchestras in the American Outback. The issue is a little more complicated for Berendt, but it has to do with applying Southern stereotypes to a narrative loosely associated with reality.
After reading my post, Jennifer added to the conversation a concern about the authority of those who write about the Outback. "Who should tell the stories about our communities?" she asked. "Or, more pointedly, who has a right to?"
She continued: "I believe the answer to that should be as broad as possible, even if the results don't always satisfy. What I'm concerned about ... is that if we swat away writers from the major-metro publications, we're effectively saying 'Don't try to write about us, because you'll just get it wrong.'"
I think that's a great point. As Drew McManus, of Adaptistration, notes in his comment to Joe's post, others like him have been taking a whack at the problem of Big Apple sensibilities being applied to the rest of the country for a long time.
If we, as writers, journalists and thinkers in the American Outback, hope to add something constructive and meaningful to the national conversation, we have to aim for something constructive and meaningful -- not just spew bile at fancy-pants city slickers from NYC (I'm exaggerating, of course, but you see my point).
My answer to Jennifer's question is the point of this post and I hope you have stayed with me while I circuitously get to it.
In a nutshell, my answer is simple and complex, just as the practice of being a news reporter is simple and complex: Get the story, get it right, be fair and be balanced. But we must also try to represent reality with as much fealty to the truth as you can, while living with the frustrating existential knowledge that representing reality is an endeavor often easier said than done.
Though Ross's article suggested a gee-golly-there-is-some-fancy-art-making-going-on-out-here-in-the-sticks kind of attitude, I believe, from my experience reading him on a weekly basis, that he strives to represent reality objectively and truthfully -- though he might need someone to point an error on occasion.
Berendt, however, is another story.
In "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," he was conscious of what he was doing -- setting out to find a sensational story (in two senses of the word) and writing a fabulously sordid and intriguing international bestseller.
Problem for me is that even though I love the book -- it's wildly entertaining, and it has influenced my own writing in terms of learning to master characterization, narrative and scene development -- it's still, in the end, disingenuous.
This is not to detract from the positive influence of "The Book," as we call Berendt's nonfiction novel in Savannah. It has done this city enormous good.
Tourism is our second biggest industry. Tourists are fueling an arts resurgence. Tourists are spreading the word about Savannah's beauty. Baby boomers on the verge of retirement often decide to relocate here, bringing with them cultural expectations that are almost always higher than those that came before.
Still, Berendt's Savannah isn't the Savannah I know. I am a journalist who believes reality is often not as easy to understand as it we might think. Sometimes what we think we "know" can turn out to be wholly erroneous.
To use a historical analog, White America used to think it "knew" African America. In the post-Civil Rights Era, though we haven't wholly overcome the ravages of racial bigotry, at least most of us, even bigots, are aware of what racial bigotry is and know that it's illegal in some cases, unethical in most.
To take this analog even farther, when I think about how Berendt applied what he thought he knew about Savannah, and by association, the South, to his book, what comes to mind is how, in the late 19th century and early 20th century, whites (and eventually blacks) performed around the country in blackface.
They did this mostly for white audiences, using the language and gestures that audiences then perceived to be an accurate representation of Southern blacks. Obviously, blackface is tasteless and racist. But, setting aside the obvious overtones of violence, hatred and white supremacy associated with the institution of slavery, representing blacks in this way was also incongruent with reality.
It was entertaining, but is was also disingenuous. That didn't matter, of course, to white audiences. They "knew" what African Americans were like and those entertainers, some extremely famous and talented (think Al Jolson in "The Jazz Singer), who smeared pitch on their faces were just like African Americans.
Berendt was writing for a reader who did not live in the South and he was giving them what they would expect from a story about a murder, scandal, homosexual love and a cast of characters that could only be found in a sleepy town in the still-exotic Deep South. He gave them, in a way (minus the evil dimensions of racism), what minstrel showmen gave their audiences.
Entertainment, but disingenuous entertainment all the same.
Preschoolers get an early taste of the arts
"Grow Up Great is the PNC Financial Services Group's $100 million, 10-year investment in school readiness. As the largest initiative of its kind in the country, Grow Up Great focuses on the cognitive, social and emotional growth of young children"by training preschool teachers to incorporate the creative arts.
(Thanks to Jennifer Marie Zeberkiewicz of the Wilmington (Del.) News Journal)
A History Lesson in Hate
As early as the late 1800s, Berlin was a bustling liberal city. It boasted numerous gay clubs and drag bars. Organized gay groups were common. Shows featuring female impersonators had become almost passé.
(Thanks to Deanna Sheffield of Orlando Weekly)
Art classes may become mandatory
"Drama class might go from being an elective to a requirement for graduation. Superintendent Bill Harrison has suggested that every high school student should have to take an art class, starting with the freshmen entering in 2008. He plans to formally ask the Board of Education to approve the measure this summer."
(Thanks to Andrew C. Martel of the Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer)
More mandatory arts in school finding a lot of support
"The [Louisiana] state Legislature is on its way to approving increased arts education in elementary and middle schools in an effort to improve student performance and the nation's perception of the state's education system. . . . SB 299 would specifically require art education rather than allow for it to be an optional part of the curriculum and would change the way in which art is currently combined with other activities such as physical education."
Thanks to Amy Giglio of the Shreveport (La.) Times)
"This is a Frank Lloyd Wright story of Buffalo. The great architect came back to visit one of his early works and was enraged that it hadn't been kept precisely as he'd designed it. Seeing the Graycliff estate near Buffalo as an old man of 91, a few months before his death, Wright was annoyed..."
(Thanks to Bruce Fisher of Artvoice, Buffalo, NY)
On the Corner: Newest local art gallery occupies one highly visible corner of an up-and-coming area
"Housed on the corner of Lanvale and Charles streets one block north of Penn Station, it is hard not to envy the premium real estate this gallery now occupies. Even though large parts of the Station North Arts and Entertainment District are still considered fringy by some standards, there is a very active few blocks radiating out from the 1700 block of North Charles Street. Here you can find all the essentials--lively bars, after-hours clubs, theaters, restaurants, and now finally an unthreatening exhibition/performance space."
(Thanks to Jason Hughes of Baltimore City Paper)
Not-so-secret confession: though I met my Flyover co-bloggers at the 2007 NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater & Musical Theater, I'm really a visual art person at heart. I began arts writing focusing strictly on visual art, then branched out into books and eventually theater. For me, writing about visual art presents certain challenges and pleasures that are unique to the discipline.
But surveying the state of visual arts writing in the Outback, I'm a little dismayed. While we can probably all lament the amount of coverage in local media for all arts disciplines, I sometimes wonder if visual artists don't have the worst lot (or at least art vies with dance for that dubious distinction). Either there's a dearth of staff writers and freelancers competent to cover visual art, or editors just aren't giving it much space. When it comes to the amount of coverage, I feel that theater and music generally fare better, and this is somehow tied (in ways I can't fully articulate yet) to their more communal nature - performers and audience meeting together for a shared experience, as opposed to the viewer having a solo encounter with a work of art. That one-on-one engagement with art remains either foreign or daunting to many people.
Also, while many small community theater organizations have a volunteer who handles PR, visual artists have a tough time getting coverage, particularly if they're not in a show at the moment. While it seems reasonable to have that news hook of a current show to justify a profile on an individual artist, that expectation probably is not so reasonable if the artist is living in a smaller community where venues for an emerging or mid-career artist to have an exhibition are few and far between.
Here in Madison, Wis., we've long had two main anchors of the visual arts scene: the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (MMoCA, previously known as the Madison Art Center) and the Chazen Museum of Art (formerly called the Elvehjem). While MMoCA has its Triennial of contemporary Wisconsin artists and the Chazen does a quadrennial show of University of Wisconsin faculty artists--among other chances at those venues for state artists to be seen--the MMoCA and Chazen focus on artists who are relatively well established or at least accustomed to the workings of the larger art world. Another significant venue, the James Watrous Gallery of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters, focuses exclusively on contemporary Wisconsin artists and has a strong exhibition program. At the other end of things, there are coffee-shop shows in which you might see something wonderful or something dreadful. It's that in-between level, between the funky local coffeehouse and the accredited, established museum, that is often lacking in cities like Madison. As a result, serious visual artists may find it hard to locate a suitable venue for their work, thus depriving them of that "news hook" that may gain the attention of local media.
There are some bright spots, though: artists are banding together (as I know they are in other cities) to raise their profiles. Madison Area Open Art Studios is an annual event in which roughly 150 local artists open their studios to the public over a fall weekend. It's established itself as a reliable yearly event and draws the expected and well-earned media coverage. But with 150 artists, coverage tends to be on the event as a whole, with only limited attention given to introducing any one particular artist. Group visibility sometimes comes at the price of individual visibility.
As one might expect, coverage in Milwaukee, Wisconsin's largest city, fares better. Some examples: the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has a talented reporter/critic (Mary Louise Schumacher) devoted exclusively to visual art, and the online magazine Susceptible to Images posts intelligent articles and discussions.
I'm not sure I've reached a cohesive, conclusive point on any of this--but that is part of why I wanted to throw this out here on the blog. I'm curious to hear from others in smaller or mid-size cities. How is visual arts coverage in your town, in terms of both quality and quantity? How does it compare to your local performing arts coverage? And if you're a visual artist in a smaller or mid-size city, what is your vision of ideal--or at least good--coverage of the local art scene?
Richard Florida has done a lot for the American Outback, at least the economist and urban theorist has for this small Southern city, whose politicians, business leaders and civic boosters, previously no more than luke-warm enthusiasts of the arts, are now calling Savannah, in full-throated unison, the capital of the "Creative Coast."
The author of "The Rise of the Creative Class" made, and continues to make, the case that the more arts-oriented a city is, the more likely it is to attract educated, inventive and motivated young people who have little concept of America's former economic paradigm -- based on industry, manufacturing, the making of stuff -- and who are now actively engaged in the paradigm of the future -- base on knowledge, innovation, the thinking up of stuff that others make.
Florida didn't stop with the arts. On a recently appearance on CNN, he reported finding that "gay-friendly" cities are like arts-oriented cities -- their culture of tolerance tends to attract the best and brightest minds -- and the companies that need those minds -- companies that are "knowledge-based" like telecommunications, software, graphic design, advertising and so on -- are moving to those same cities.
As his research into the arts has taken root, we have seen a dervish of economic impact studies in cities like Savannah that aim to demonstrate the feasibility of the arts to people -- i.e., politicians, business leaders and civic boosters -- who have in the past appeared virtually allergic to attempts to quantify the feasibility of the arts, much less the economic benefits to the community.
The motherlode of economic impact studies came last month when the advocacy group American for the Arts released its massive survey finding that Savannah saw more than $46.6 million in cultural spending in 2005: Arts groups here spent $21.8 million; audiences here spent more than $24.7 million.
It was the first time Savannah joined the study and surely not the last. Savannah wants to be a part of America's new economic paradigm. That's why the Savannah College of Art and Design, the largest, officials here say, of its kind, was given a collection of African-American art worth as much as $10 million.
That's why the Telfair Museum of Art built a new $25 million annex to put itself as the center of all this cultural development. That's why the nonprofit Creative Coast Initiative strives, under the auspices of the Savannah Economic Development Authority, to convince "brain-based businesses" to take up residence here.
Typical of cities in the American Outback, Savannah doesn't have enough mass appreciation and understanding of the arts to fuel a resurgence of the arts. But combined with economic impact studies that demonstrate a clear cash incentive, the city's power brokers are starting to get in formation. The arts, thanks to Richard Florida's Merlin-like ideology, seem to be nearing a turning point.
There are numerous good things to say about this, not the least of which is the raising of artistic standards, increased cultural options and a build-up of the arts community. But the issue I feel needs exploring here is not that but this: Amid all the talk about the arts being good for business and therefore good for the city, I worry that we're making promises for the arts that they ultimately cannot, and perhaps should not, keep.
An obvious problem with economic impact studies is that they suggest a direct correlation between cash input and output that can't be conclusively measured. The "impact" of spending by arts groups on the local economy appears soft, to say the least, because of lot of those expenditures go to touring groups, who, after the performance, leave town the next day.
A more abstract issue is that economic impact studies attempt to quantify something that's inherently unquantifiable: like trying to measure the cash-value of the moral benefits of the Ten Commandments. Moreover, shoe-horning the arts into a quantifiable shoe-size creates an intellectual climate in which what's permissible is what's demonstrably beneficial, which places prohibitive restrictions on what artists can do, or even dare to think about doing.
But I wonder if this is less worrisome than something else, something that we didn't have to face 100 years ago: too much focus on the production of the arts and not enough on the experience of the arts.
In 2005, researchers for the Rand Corporation, in a report called "The Gifts of the Muse," found that, in addition to economic impact studies suffering from "noteworthy weakness" and "holes in the evidence," such surveys distract from what really needs to be done: namely, creating new and future audiences for the arts.
Rand researchers suggested creating environments in which people can experience the intrinsic value, not the instrumental value, of the arts on a regular basis. This means less supply-side thinking -- i.e., putting on shows and exhibits -- and more demand-side thinking. There should be more attention paid to arts education, in other words. Once demand is established and growing, supply can then naturally follow.
Savannah already has an abundance of artists and art-making. The most common complaint I hear from artists is the lack of audience involvement. The situation reminds me of a Times piece I read recently by Anne Midgette that explored the troubled nomenclature of chamber music. As one source noted, there's an abundance of chamber music and chamber musicians, but "at the moment supply outstrips demand."
"After many years of programs and grants to increase supply," John Steinmetz, a bassoonist and composer active in the chamber music field, told Midgette, "arts organizations are only now starting to think creatively about how to increase demand."
If Savannah buys wholeheartedly into the idea of beefing up arts organizations to attract the best and brightest minds, who in turn will attract the "brain-based businesses," who in turn will transform the city into an exemplar of America's future economic paradigm, there's still one thorny issue: that demand for art is being separated from the arts organizations that produce it.
Case in point is classical music. While orchestra boosters are shelling out millions to build new concert halls, audiences continue to shrink and age. Meanwhile, demand for recordings of classical music seems to be experiencing a kind of renaissance: iTunes, which controls more than 70 percent of the music-download market, saw classical music account for about 12 percent of sales last year.
Critic Pierre Ruhe rightly points out the obvious in a book review of Joe Horowitz's massive and utterly cynical tome, "Classical Music in America: A History of Its Rise and Fall" for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: that most people experience classical music in the form of recorded media.
This might be a bad thing for orchestras, like the bankrupted Savannah Symphony Orchestra, but it's a good thing for the classical music.
"Young composers are likely to find smashed musical boundaries exhilarating," Ruhe wrote in 2005. "The current situation [described in Horowitz's book] is that stodgy symphony orchestras, outposts of a once-glorious empire, have piloted themselves toward the margin. For some of these institutions, it might lead to an early extinction."
The weak appeal of arts organizations is even starker for dance. Even as institutions like the Oakland Ballet and Ohio Ballet are disappearing, new trends, ideas and sensibilities are taking shape in the digital realm. As writer Jody Rosen observes for Slate, the rise of YouTube may have spurred a new era of dance and dance crazes, as evidenced by the rise in popularity of an obscure dance video called "Aunt Jackie," which has since being posted become its own dance move.
"Whatever repercussions the rise of online video has for music and the music business, it's doing wonders for dancers," Rosen wrote recently. "One can't help but suspect that we are entering a new dance craze golden age, in which the emphasis will be laid firmly on the dancing in dance music."
Rosen's focus is mainly on street dance and hip-hop, but the full pantheon of dance styles can be seen on YouTube and others like it. In fact, readers of my blog for the Savannah Morning News in recent weeks have seen more dance styles in digital format than they may ever see in the analog world.
One can guess with some certainty that among the downloaders driving 12 percent of classica music sales on iTunes and among the throngs fueling the popularity of dance -- from ballet to popping-and-locking -- on YouTube are the very same members of Richard Florida's Creative Class that cities like Savannah are trying to attract.
And if they are -- and why wouldn't they be? -- then what is meaning of a economic impact study of arts organizations when those same arts organizations must compete for the attention of the coveted Creative Class with the art that they themselves produce?
What then for cities in the Outback?
Whatever the answer, I don't think it can deduced from an economic impact study. Something more is needed. What that is, I don't know. What I do know, or at least I suspect with good reason, is that the arts, and the cultivation of creativity, is going to become an increasingly important issue in cities like Savannah in the decades ahead
As Dana Gioia, the head of the National Endowment for the Arts, said in a commencement speech at Stanford University last month: "If the United States is to compete effectively with the rest of the world in the new global marketplace, it is not going to succeed through cheap labor or cheap raw materials, nor even the free flow of capital or a streamlined industrial base. To compete successfully, this country needs continued creativity, ingenuity, and innovation."
When Jen first suggested that we call this blog "Flyover," I couldn't have thought of a better metaphor for the place I live and the peculiar circumstances of our local arts culture.
My chosen home of Missoula, Montana, sits next to Interstate 90, which is the northernmost east-west corridor in this part of the country. To give some sense of perspective on how sparse the population is in this part of the country, the closest city to the west that boasts a population over one million is Seattle. That's about an eight hour drive, if traffic works in your favor. To the east: Minneapolis. Estimated driving time to get there, while staying within the speed limit: about 16 hours.
Look north, and the closest city of that size is Edmonton, Alberta. That's a ten hour drive. South? Salt Lake City, which -- only if you count the metro area -- barely qualifies. It's about 7 1/2 hours of driving from here.
My point is not to one-up Missoula on the remoteness scale. Rather, it's to point out a noteworthy factor in the world of touring arts: Missoula simply isn't convenient to other cities where arts events can be counted on to draw a paying crowd.
Over the years living in Missoula, I've talked with promoters of rock concerts and classical arts, museum directors and theater fanatics. What I've learned is that our local exposure to touring shows is limited severely by the logistics of bringing those shows here. In a nutshell, the prevailing wisdom is that artists and shows only stop in Missoula when they happen to be driving between Minneapolis and Seattle, and could use a little gas money.
Needless to say, this puts limits on the types and quantity of shows that stop here. Small-time bands that need to play every night for gas money will usually stop. Big-ticket rock bands rarely bother to stop; it's easier to just have their gear trucked the distance, and fly the performers right over Missoula and the rest of the sparsely populated Pacific northwest.
For Broadway shows, this is a netherland, a vast swath of costly mileage between here and there. Most seem to avoid I-90 like the plague.
Orchestras? Forget about it...It's been years since a touring orchestra came through this part of the country.
Visual arts? Well, we get a smattering of touring shows (there's a fine exhibit of works by Faith Ringgold at the Missoula Art Museum right now); but there's only one museum in town, it has limited gallery space available, and -- to its great credit -- its primary focus is on important art from the nearby region.
So what we have in Missoula, in terms of art you can reach out and touch, is primarily locally made art. And in the same sense that nationally touring arts shows are rare in this town, so too is it logistically challenging for our local artists to grow their reputations beyond the local arts scene. Locally "famous" artists are our greatest treasure, but -- with a few exceptions -- you've surely never heard of them if you don't live here.
There are myriad issues that these facts raise. Locals seem to fall into two camps: the people who believe that Missoula is the "Paris of the 1990s" (to quote author John Updike) and "the next Athens, Georgia;" and the people who turn their noses up at anything that reeks of local origin.
In this milieu, not surprisingly, the cultural role played by the Missoula Symphony Orchestra, the Missoula Art Museum, and other local cultural organizations is much different from that played by orchestras and museums of similar budget size and artistic caliber in larger cities. After all, they're quite literally the only show in town. They must embrace at once the educational, artistic, and civic roles that are often split between complimentary organizations in larger cities.
Is this good, bad, or indifferent? I answer the question differently every day. But one thing's certain: assessing the accomplishments of these organizations against a scale calibrated by the accomplishments of arts organizations in major cities is a fool's errand that serves no-one.
So the Missoula Symphony isn't the Cleveland Orchestra. So what? Does that begin to tell us what's actually interesting about our local orchestra? I think not.