What's happening here?: Connections
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
Bloggers We Love
Bridgette Redman and Lansing Theater
Drew McManus' "Neo Classical" at the Partial Observer
Marc Moss (Missoula, MT artist)
Mary Louise Schumacher's "Art City"
Other Great Sites
American Composers Orchestra
Arts & Letters Daily
Center for Arts and Culture
Cultural Policy and the Arts National Data Archive
National Arts Journalism Program
NEA Arts Journalism Institute for Dance Criticism
NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Classical Music and Opera
NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater & Musical Theater
New Music Box: American Music Center
USC Annenberg/Getty Arts Journalism Program