AJ Logo an ARTSJOURNAL weblog | ArtsJournal Home | AJ Blog Central

« Critics as co-creators? | Main | Art as a community pillar »

July 25, 2007

What's happening here?: Connections

John Stoehr

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

Posted by John Stoehr at July 25, 2007 1:14 AM


Hi John, There's a lot to chew on here! I've read most of the things you cite and also found them interesting. I liked the Teachout piece about regional critics in the WSJ but this one sentence, which you quote, felt off to me: "It's hard for medium-size regional newspapers to attract serious critics, but it can be done." I think about the comments of habeas, who has an arts-related Ph.D., on this blog last week ("[T]here was a good five-year period where I would have killed for an arts criticism job. The papers in the small(ish) towns where I've been living require a journalism background for such jobs, but not an arts background.") I also think of the many freelancers (of which I was one) at the NEA Arts Journalism Institute earlier this year. Sure, a number of those freelancers have other, full-time jobs and may not want to be full-time staff writers, but I'm sure many would if that opportunity were available to them. Teachout rightly notes that such jobs are going away, but this idea that there aren't good, serious people to fill them is, in my opinion, not accurate.

But that's nitpicking one small piece of all that you've said (and actually my quibble is with Teachout, not you). I think the issue of multiculturalism is also interesting, but I see it in a less conflicted and much more positive light. I think it has given the cultural dialogue a much-needed jolt and, if we want a society in which people care about the arts, they're not going to get there if they don't feel included or represented. The arts should be (among many other things) a way to learn about people other than yourself, but we all need to see our own experiences reflected, too.

Posted by: Jennifer Smith at July 25, 2007 8:45 AM

Hi Jennifer,
Thanks for replying. The blog seems slow today.

Your point about Teachout's piece is well taken. But I wonder about Habeas' comment. There are in fact loads of people in journalism who do not have journalism degrees. It's one of those fields that still values time-in-the-trenches over education. I can speak from experience. I never went to J-school. This is my first newsroom job. I broke into the field by freelancing my butt off -- I wrote about whatever was asked of me and never ever said no. It seems unlikely that Habeas would get a staff job without first acquiring that experience. To get a staff job, he'll have to freelance and write and write and make contacts within newsrooms and write some more. It's as simple (though not easy) as that.

That said, I do feel Teachout is right in that newsrooms need to have more people that have a special combination of expertise and journalistic acumen. Both of course need to be acquired. But only one can be gotten in the field of daily (or weekly) reporting. Critics these days must know what they are talking about and they must know how to be skeptical, inquisitive and how to cultivate sources like news reporters. That doesn't come from PhD in Art History, but it can be learned. The problem according to Teachout's piece is that there may be fewer and fewer opportunities to learn those skills.

Posted by: John Stoehr at July 25, 2007 11:44 AM

Hello John:

The hidden theme in the four developments you mentioned, in my opinion, is a one-sided drive for profit -- a pernicious ideology which maintains that only what sells is really "real" or important.

This is obvious in the case of newspapers; Baker's essay illustrates the problem all too well. Quality journalism simply won't survive capitalism if the latter is too rigidily enforced.

The restless drive for profit also at least partially explains the eclipse of high culture. The benefits of high culture are intangible and elude quantitative, profit-driven thinking. If someting can't turn a profit, it must not be any good, right? And if the marketplace is the final arbiter of goodness, why invest in the public sphere at all, including the arts?

The trendy philosophies undergirding multiculturalism, ironically, abet this market-driven mentality. By "multiculturalism," I do not mean the inclusion of non-white or non-male artists and writers into what used to be the literary and artistic canons. I mean instead of all those obtuse academic arguments that try to maintain that one thing is just as good as another and that all social relations boil down to power.

Such arguments are not progressive but reactionary. If "excellence" is strictly relative, then there's nothing wrong with letting the marketplace decide what's good. You can only critique the market if you have some place to stand outside of the marketplace. But no such place exists if the very idea of excellence (or justice, or mercy) is reduced to mere opinion. Sanity becomes statistical.

Finally, the rise of the online amateur completes the circle. Some of these so-called "on-line amateurs" are striving to be responsible citizens. More power to them. But many others are simply consumers with a megaphone. They like what they know and they don't know much.

What's my point? It's simple: We need to start articulating a sense of value that has nothing to do with the marketplace, that transcends the marketplace and that questions the marketplace when it steps outside of its proper bounds. We need to stop acting like consumers and start acting like citizens. We need to reclaim the public sphere.

The truth is that no one is likely to get rich making art or responsibly reporting the news. But we need people who do both if we're going to have a worth while society.

Posted by: gary panetta at July 25, 2007 12:48 PM

I think looking to the economy is always a good idea when trying to explain mass phenomena. In the arc of time John's addressing, major currents included the fall of worker-intensive American manufacturing, ending the chances of many families to be blue-collar middle class.

The two-earner household became a necessity to hang on to middle class status, leaving women less time for one of their traditional roles: instillers of culture as organizers of dance and piano lessons and of visits to librarys, museums, theaters and concert halls. Just stating fact, folks, not saying that should be a mom's role more than a dad's.

The depopulation of rust-belt cities crippled newspapers right off the bat; most of you can't even remember when each city had competing papers. Now the winners of that round have lost their advertising monopolies to the Internet.

Citizens and corporations who were mainstays of the culture scene in cities now moved to the suburbs, and philanthropic and attendance ties weakened. The suburban haves kept arts education in their schools; the rest went to the devil.

Taxation and government became dirty words, so, as Gary P. points out, public education and other public programs became handmaidens to business rather than servants of a broader, non-monetary notion of the public good.

The ongoing revolution in home entertainment technology further diminished the communal tug of an arts commons that requires real-time presence and the inconvenience and risk of encountering the unexpected. Marketing and the explosion of consumer products trained Americans to "have it your way" and to worship convenience -- developments antithetical to an arts experience requiring that they surrender their time and sensibilities to creative folks, some of whom habitually serve up new, untested, effort-demanding and potentially discomfitting experiences.

I'm skeptical that multiculturalism has been much of a force in determining the fate of the arts, compared to these bread-and-butter issues. And as for job-starved arts critics, I'm afraid their problems don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world we're left with.

Except this: to reverse the trend, the big issue isn't whether art experts can get journalism training, it's whether journalism honchos who make the decisions have had enough experience of the arts to appreciate the paradox of arts coverage: day to day, it's possibly the least important thing in the paper (although hardly the least absorbing, provocative or relevant).

But over time, the personality and achievement of a city or region has no better measure than the culture it produced and supported.

Posted by: Mike Boehm at July 25, 2007 2:13 PM

During this same 30 year period universities have become more and more "corporate" with the driving force being the enrollment numbers game. Enrollment is determined by the tastes of the entering young people with the result that classes have become amusement park rides. If a class is "fun" and easy the professor gets high enrollment in the class ... and, high praise from the corporation. If a class is challenging, enrollment is low to nonexistent ... with serious repercussions up the line.

Having just left academia after nearly 15 years teaching theatre, I can only speak directly to arts education. However, over and over again, I have even seen course content seriously impacted by the politically correct, multicultural mores of the moment. When universities define harassment, sexual or otherwise, as "anything which makes the participant uncomfortable," education in an art is going to suffer ... not to mention opportunities to present that art.

I can tell you that more and more education in high culture is being taught by those who have no real exposure to, experience in or understanding of the art of that which they propose to teach. And yet, it can be argued that academia is one place in this country where we spend substantial money (government and otherwise) subsidizing arts and culture.

I realize that this is a generalization and that there are many talented, experienced, dedicated artists trying to teach in our nations colleges and universities, but they are becoming fewer and fewer as the years pass.

With the content of education being watered down and the ideas of art being mediocritized, we are only going to move further and further away from appreciation of the benefits to society of high culture.

Posted by: Rebecca Fishel at July 26, 2007 7:23 AM

This is an extremely thoughtful essay filled with many valuable ideas, and I would like to add my two cents worth.

Much of this could be ascribed to a "dumbing down of America," but while that is true, it offers too incomplete an explanation.

Once upon a time popular culture upheld certain standards to which people might aspire. When people saw Cary Grant, for instance, they wanted to be like him. They knew they were not, but he could be considered a role model. We have gone from that to a culture which celebrates doltism.

What we are seeing in general is a refusal to have criteria by which to judge art, and a fear of even wanting to apply or create such a standard. Of course, it is important to realize that for much of history, art might be said to constitute a dialogue between new artists and those who had preceded them. Even if the dialogue consisted of the new artist shaking his fist in disgust, this was still a conversation from which standards could be erected and debated.

Of course, a handful of critics holding tight to standards led directly to the need for a salon refuse, but nevertheless everyone was on the same page or at least was familiar with the book. However, for the last half century or so, when artists started dumpster-diving for their art supplies, that dialogue completely ended so it is hard to make any sort of assessment based on any previous art knowledge. This and the fear of being labeled Philistine or out of date or elitist is perhaps one of the reasons why there has developed a tendency to describe art rather than judge it.

Others have correctly brought up money and certainly once the idea was to make everything a commodity designed for the greatest number of people mediocrity was bound to follow.

When I compare arts coverage in the Financial Times with that in the New York Times, I find that the FT tends to cover the event while the New York Times tends to cover the people or the money or their clothes.

The thing to remember is that art never attracted an enormous crowd. Abstract expressionists were never hugely popular at the time. People were told they were supposed to appreciate this, they knew this was considered good, but the vast majority really didn't get any of it and so began the turning away of many people from the world of art and museums.

During the mid-70's when some of the most exciting theater in the country was being written and produced in Chicago, only 1 percent of the citizens saw even one play in any given year. So it was always a relatively small world which allowed anyone to participate, but which also adhered to standards.

The small world of critics with an agenda might have led to the need for a salon refuse, but the refusal to judge and the replacement of spectacle for art has led to the celebration of animal body parts in formaldehyde.

As I have been saying for awhile now, art was originally intended to inform the illiterate and now seems designed to confound the educated.

The fear of somehow ignoring the next Van Gogh has made idiots of us all, and when a doctoral candidate and the author of a book entitled "You Are Not the Boss of My Words" can say, as was reported in today's New York Times in an article on a children's book that "perfect grammar is whatever works," then we have a very dim future ahead.

To blame any of this on multiculturalism, however, is a mistake. Multiculturalism simply tried to show that art and stories from countries or segments of society not usually heard from, or coming from a non-Western tradition was as valid as the more traditional western based art.

This seems to me a good idea. The problem is that no standards by which that art was judged were applied. That it was a good idea does not mean that any given work was good simply because it came from that segment.

Again the refusal to establish some means for judging the work, in fact, does a disservice to everyone involved. Were we to send a high school band and the New York Philharmonic to some non-Western country, we would rather hope they heard the difference in quality.

We do not make that distinction and consider it bad form to even try. This seems to me fundamentally patronizing, and until we decide that there are indeed criteria for judging works of art, and until we start applying those criteria we will simply continue with this rising sea of various artworks, some of which are truly wonderful, and much of which are simply, and sometimes literally, flotsam and jetsam masquerading as something deserving our attention.

Posted by: david sokolec at July 26, 2007 11:25 AM

Speaking as a small-time newspaper reporter with an interest in the arts -- the coverage of the arts in the media encounters one severe difficulty in that in order to communicate effectively on a topic, the reader has to have a foundation of basic understandings of the topic.

Without this shared vocabulary, the writer has to spend much of his time laying the groundwork before he can even begin his story. And the coarser the grain of the shared vocabulary, the less scope there is for unique or novel narratives.

So, if a painter has an exhibition, the real story might be his achievement of a new vocabulary of images perfected over a decade of work, exploring a previously unexplored gap in understanding between the mindsets of church and state. To even say why this might be important is difficult if your article is limited to 600 words.

The newspaper story may end up focusing on one image drawing protest from some clueless citizen. Don't blame the reporter -- he always has limited time and no one will praise him for the subtlety of his writing, believe me.

Posted by: Noni Mausa at July 27, 2007 5:43 AM

Suggestion to Noni Mausa: next time you've got an artist worth engaging qua artist, and a controversy attached, try selling your editor on a quickie sidebar to deal with the controversy, allowing you to do a decent feature on the artist without getting bogged down transcribing the accusations and responses from the local community. Good luck persuading the editor that the art deserves the mainbar, rather than the offended local sensibilities. Best of both worlds: you get two fullsized stories, one on the controversy, one on the artist.

Posted by: Mike Boehm at July 27, 2007 10:44 AM