FlyOver: February 2007 Archives
One of the concepts inspired by the NEA Arts Journalism Institute was the idea of "critical relativism." Joe Nickell came up with the idea after hearing John Lahr's talk. Joe was concerned that the same standards of criticism could not be brought to a production in Missoula, Mont., where he is the arts and entertainment reporter for the Missoulian, that Lahr brings to any number of shows in any number of cities around the world.
I had this in mind when I saw an original play recently by a start-up group here called the Savannah Actor's Theatre. The group was the subject of a previous post of mine called "Arts as Community Dialogue" in which a reader of the Savannah Morning News responded angrily to the attention I paid to the Savannah Actor's Theatre but not to her group (typical professional envy; no big deal).
The piece I wrote about Savannah Actor's Theatre was influenced by Joe's "critical relativism." I didn't want to write a staight-ahead review, because the play, called "Fiction, or Wild Stories," wasn't really good. It was poorly executed, though it had potential, as I say in the piece, but it wasn't good enough to recommend to a ticket-buying readership.
I could have written a thumbs-down review, but I realized the play had a larger - and more interesting - meaning that a conventional review could not capture. So I wrote a kind of critic's notebook (I call it an "arts notebook" for reasons that will make for a future post). And I set the play in the larger context of theater in Savannah, its tourist trade and the need in the arts to attract younger audiences (the theater group for some reason is getting lots of high schoolers to come to their shows).
In this way, I think I was able to assess the play relatively speaking and to extrapolate its larger meaning. Or at least begin a conversation that will hopefully evolve.
Which leads me to a theory I developed at the NEA Institute that may be an extention of Joe's "critical relatavism" theory: that we critics need to not only examine the quality of theatrical productions; we have to examine their meaning to the community.
Those of us who are not John Lahr likely work in communities where there are many who do not understand, appreciate or participate in the arts. These people may not understand mise-en-scène, but they do understand concepts like education, economic impact and quality of life.
Therefore, it's up to us as professional communicators to bridge those gaps in understanding. Not as educators, as I mention in this post. But as journalists who know what's important in the communities we live and work in.
Just as Joe suggests we deploy a relativistic approach to our qualitative assessments of local theater, I'm suggesting we endeavor to relate what's critical about the arts to our communities. We have to do more than review. We have to be cultural journalists, too.
"There are no angels in Los Angeles"
Our good friend Mia Leonin, one of the fellows of the 2007 NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater, wrote this piece about a new translation by Miami-based playwright Nilo Cruz, whose "Life Is a Dream" was playing at South Coast Repertory while we were in Los Angeles.
"It would be easy to reduce 'Life Is a Dream' to its fatalism versus free will paradox, but Cruz's translation strikes the chord of an even more reverberant and often-ignored theme: in the spiritual battle between destiny and self-determination, forgiveness, not willfulness or witchery, is man's only hope. Cruz's translation lays bare this subtlety . . ."
(Thanks to Mia Leonin, drama critic for the Miami Herald and Category305.com)
Buffalo News weighs in on Albright-Knox sell-off
"The bottom line is this: The Albright-Knox Art Gallery has a worldwide reputation for its collection of modern art, and it can either polish that reputation or stagnate and watch its luster fade and its international visitor drawing power erode. Polishing requires money, and the gallery board has decided rightly to focus on its core mission of exhibiting, preserving and collecting modern and contemporary art - and to find the money for that by auctioning off parts of the collection that don't tightly fit the core mission."
(Thanks to the Buffalo News, in which this editorial appeared Saturday)
Fisk University poised to sell prized O'Keeffe amids calls for higher bids
"The cash-strapped university is seeking to sell this painting ['Radiator Building -- Night, New York'] and Marsden Hartley's 1913 'Painting No. 3' from the Alfred Stieglitz Collection donated to the school by O'Keeffe in 1949. In a deal announced last week, the O'Keeffe Museum would ... buy the O'Keeffe work for $7 million. But the art market is surging right now, with some works selling for record prices -- including one Willem de Kooning painting, 'Woman III,' that sold for a staggering $137.5 million last fall. This has led some observers to wonder if Fisk might not be letting go of 'Radiator Building' at a price that amounts to a fire sale."
(Thanks to Jonathan Marx, staff writer for the Tennessean)
Lexington, like many midsized cities, exploring ways culture boosts prestige
"As cooperation among Lexington museums picks up for the 2010 World Equestrian Games and the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial celebration, their relationships could come to change the cultural life of Lexington. Many midsize cities that compete with larger, better-known neighbors are exploring ways to make themselves stand out to visitors from far away and to residents who could be tempted to drive elsewhere. Consider Dayton -- a city just a few hours from Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland -- where some arts and cultural groups have grown stronger by combining or by partnering with businesses and schools."
(Thanks to Jamie Gumbrecht, culture writer for the Lexington Herald-Leader)
Joe Boyd, underground rock's invisible man
"It's an odd query coming from the Harvard-educated muso who cut Pink Floyd's first record, produced Nick Drake, made the definitive documentary about Jimi Hendrix and helmed R.E.M.'s best album. But Boyd's varied tastes and easy manner have served him well over the course of a nearly five-decade career. From leading the blues revival to capturing the zeitgeist of Swinging London, helping midwife the English Folk boom to prowling the frontiers of world music, Boyd has been a significant if relatively unknown figure in the history of modern music, serving as a promoter, producer, label owner, filmmaker and self-described 'eminence grise.'"
(Thanks to Bob Mehr of the Memphis Commercial Appeal)
I don't know this journalist personally, nor do I doubt that he ordinarily excels at his job. However, his preview on Friday for the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville on "The Barber of Seville" does more harm than good: "Don't be too quick to dismiss opera as an elitist art form for the rich and snooty" is his first sentence.
The logical fallacy here is that a reader who is not interested in Italian opera might be interested if addressed in a snappy writing style. The thinking is that if we can avoid all academic puffery, perhaps ordinary people will dig in.
Which sounds fine and dandy until the writer then goes ahead and gives the reader all that academic puffery anyway.
"This year's opera performance, the symphony's sixth since 2001, features the full symphony orchestra, the Jacksonville Symphony Chorus and some very gifted (and, judging by the photos we found on the Web, far from obese) singers who have spent decades training to reach some of those notes. Yes, it is in Italian, just the way Gioacchino Rossini wrote it nearly 200 years ago, but there will be supertitles so patrons can read along with the story."
The basic problem here is simple: Know your audience. This writer does not. He has in mind, no doubt, the mythical "general reader" whose interests are that of an eighth-grader and who must be talked to as such.
People who go to the opera, however, know who Rossini is. They know he wrote in Italian. They know about supertitles. They know the cliche about the fat ladies singing in the opera is just a cliche. And because they know all this already, the writing doesn't come off as funny; it comes off as condescending.
Such pandering insults interested readers, alienates potentially interested readers and makes classical music appear all the more elitist to those who already think so. It makes opera seem as simple to understand as any old TV show, as if to say even an idiot can enjoy it, with the implication that the reader is an idiot.
But gallery president defends right to sell
"Through a series of petitions and e-mail campaigns, the group Buffalo Art Keepers has been asking gallery members to request a meeting with the Albright-Knox leaders. The group also plans to file a petition in State Supreme Court early next week to force the gallery to stop the sale, according to Carl Dennis, Art Keepers leader and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet."
(Thanks to Colin Dabkowski, arts writer for the Buffalo News, and to Lee Rosenbaum's CultureGrrl blog on artsjournal.com)
Trucking art out of Buffalo
"The Albright-Knox Art Gallery released a list of 196 items that will be sold this spring at Sotheby's New York City auction house. In addition to antiquities, the auctions will include artworks from Africa, China, Southeast Asia, India and pre-Columbian North America, as well as 19 master paintings and European works of art from the 14th through 16th centuries. The works extend from the 13th century B.C. to the early 20th century. Highlights of the list were published by Sotheby's in November, and included the classical sculpture "Artemis and the Stag," valued at $5 million to $7 million, and a collection of Chinese porcelain."
(Thanks to By Colin Dabkowski, arts writer for the Buffalo News)
Buffalo sale exemplifies corporatization of art in America
"The message is, once again, that those entrusted with the sacred task of safeguarding our public patrimony have become as irresponsible as the money-grubbing executives who have given corporate America such a bad name. The works of art in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery don't belong to the directors or curators, who move in and out of communities as job opportunities present themselves. Nor are they the property of the trustees, who are meant to hold them in trust for the people of Buffalo, but who now show that they cannot be trusted.
(Thanks to Tom L. Freudenheim, who wrote this for the Wall Street Journal)
The link between culture, business and civic character
Here is an excellent example of cultural journalism that lays out for the reader why culture is important. Instead of just examining the quality of a museum exhibit, it examines what it means to a community. Lexington, Ky., will be the home of the World Games in 2010, an international horse competition and exhibition. Instead of just opening their doors and expecting people to come, culture writer Jamie Gumbrecht reports that museum administrators are being proactive in their pursuit of compelling exhibitions, economic impact and impacting how the world sees Lexington. This is the first part of a two-part series.
(Thanks to Jamie Gumbrecht, culture writer for the Lexington Herald-Leader)
All arts is local
As finalists for "American Idol" were selected, hometown newspapers began coverage of locals trying to became America's next celebrity. In San Antonio, columnist Jeanne Jackle writes about Haley Scarato's bid for the spotlight in the San Antonio Express-News. Here in Savannah, my colleague Amy Morris wrote a frontpage story for the Savannah Morning News on how Stephanie Edwards fought her way onto one of TV's most popular shows.
I'm so glad to see this post has inspired so much discussion. To add another layer, here is the reader's response to my reply, which I also posted to my blog on the Savannah Morning News website. Notice how the tone of voice has changed. Perhaps the public forum in which this conversation is taking place has had a positive impact.
One of the talking points of the NEA Arts Journalism Institute concerned criticism not just as a mode of assessement but a mode of engagement with the community. With this in mind, I posted an angry email to my blog on the Savannah Morning News website.
The email was in response to a think piece I wrote on Feb. 19 regarding Savannah's lack of a thriving theater scene. It was also about how I detected the possibility of change after seeing a new original play. I then posted a response to her letter, keeping in mind the idea of engagement with the community.
As I say in the preface to my response: "I consider this exchange to be part of a conversation about the arts that every community ought to have. We should get angry about the arts. We get upset about football. We get emotionally attached to baseball teams. Why not theater? We should fight. We ought to disagree. That way there's no mistake this is important to our lives."
Let me know if you think I should have handled this differently, in terms of tone and phrasing. Otherwise, I hope this serves as at least a passable example of a concept that will likely preoccupy all of us in the future, as the print medium shrinks and online forums grow.
One of the objectives of Art.Rox is the provide a greater and deeper context in which arts journalists work and understand the value of their work as it applies to markets and regions outside the big media metropolises. Though we try to aim below the horizon, Frontline, the excellent program offered by PBS, has created a six-part series examining the troubled state of American journalism that we feel compelled to recommend. The series is a superb 30,000-foot-view addressing American journalism's history, economics, philosophy and struggle to remain stable amid battles with executive power, market pressures and emerging technologies which threaten to undermine the ways in which people understand the world around them.
You can watch each of the six parts of the series here.
"FRONTLINE examines the political, cultural, legal, and economic forces challenging the news media today and how the press has reacted in turn. Through interviews with key figures in print, broadcast and electronic media over the past four decades -- and with unequaled, behind-the-scenes access to some of today's most important news organizations, FRONTLINE traces the recent history of American journalism, from the Nixon administration's attacks on the media to the post-Watergate popularity of the press, to the new challenges presented by the war on terror and other global forces now changing -- and challenging -- the role of the press in our society."
Utilizing an already artful community
The University of Kentucky is using its outreach infrastructure to create centers throughout the state that focus on the arts. It's the first program of its kind in the U.S. The reasoning behind the initiative, headed by Stephanie Richards, who receives Governor's Award in the Arts today, is the that arts are good for the economy and good for a community's quality of life. Moreover, the program aims to identify and bring forth artistic endeavors already happening in communities. "Art, for generations, has been in the mechanics of the culture and day-to-day life, so the quilting was just part of the mechanics to survive when they needed heat," Richards says. "They didn't consider it art. Painting, oral historians and storytellers. ... When we first started doing our story gatherings, people said to be careful because people will be afraid to tell their stories.
(Thanks to Rich Copley, culture writer for the Lexington Herald-Leader)
Gordon Wright (1934-2007), maestro, antiquarian and mountainman, took classical music to corners of the earth
"The body of Gordon Wright was found by friends Wednesday night on the front porch of his cabin in Rainbow Valley near Indian south of Anchorage. The longtime conductor of the Fairbanks Symphony Orchestra appeared to have died from natural causes, state troopers said. He was 72. Wright lived alone in a one-room cabin off the power grid that was inaccessible by road. Friends, including this writer, brought the body out to the community parking area by sled, a quirky and utterly Alaska exit for a quirky Alaska character, a musician and a wit who, friends say, would surely have smiled at the antics and affection that accompanied his grand finale."
(Thanks to Mike Dunham, arts editor of the Anchorage Daily News)
Can public art really reflect a city's identity?
"One danger in pursuing public art that authentically reflects who we are, even assuming we can figure that out, is that it can easily become a public art by which we inauthentically imitate ourselves -- or a stereotype of ourselves."
(Thanks to Mike Greenburg, a columnist for the San Antonio Express-News)
Composers live outside New York?
"Composer-critic Virgil Thomson once wrote that to be an 'American composer,' one simply had to be an American and write any kind of music you like. By that standard, at least, Atlanta is a hotbed of contemporary classical sounds. While there's no reliable estimate of how many composers operate in the metro area, at least 120 people have added their names to lists kept by the two most prominent Web sites for local composers. It's a scene that seems perpetually ready to blast off."
(Thanks to Pierre Ruhe, staff writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
We here at Art.Rox wouldn't normally post a story from the LA Times about a federal agency in Washington, D.C. But given this whole venture into the blogosphere was inspired by our time at the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at the University of Southern California, we figured an article looking back at Dana Gioia's (highly successful) first term as chairman of the NEA would be appropriate.
Remaking the National Endowment for the Arts: " ... (Dana) Gioia has had a profound effect on the NEA, converting the once-beleaguered federal program into the nation's main engine for integrating arts and education. It's a remarkable turnaround for an agency whose mere name was once enough to get Newt Gingrich and other social conservatives foaming at the mouth. Controversial exhibits, including Robert Mapplethorpe's homoerotic photographs and Andres Serrano's picture of a plastic crucified Christ in a jar of urine, made the NEA the central battleground in the 1990s culture wars."
(Thanks to Scott Martelle, staff writer for the Los Angeles Times)
Art reflecting local culture: A collector of post-1960s American prints told the Capital Times in Madison, Wisc., that Madison's sophisticated counter-cultural character is more suited to his collection than a city like Atlanta, whose museums chafed at the word "stoned" being used in the art.
The result is a gift to the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art of three prints: Andy Warhol's 1982 portfolio of six colorful silk-screened dollar signs called "$1"; Robert Rauschenberg's 1989 color photogravure entitled "Soviet/American Array III"; and James Rosenquist's 1987 black-and-white aquatint and etching called "The Prickly Dark."
The benefactor is Stephen Dull (pronounced DOOL), a high-powered corporate executive for the VF Corp., a company based in Greensboro, N.C., whose brand names include Wrangler and Lee blue jeans, North Face outerwear and Nautica clothing. Dull is looking for an institution to give his entire collection to in future years. His collection includes works by Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Jim Dine, Claes Oldenburg and Kiki Smith. Will this gift inspire others to donate large collections to musueums in the American Outback?
"Absolutely," Dull told the newspaper. "I've been attracted to what the museum is doing for a long time. I've seen many other museums, and this is a really tremendous institution. The new building is just a manifestation of the commitment to and support from the community to contemporary art. To me, this is about finding a place where art has the place in other people's lives that it has had in mine."
Critic's notebooks, think pieces, essays and other kinds of intellectual explorations -- these you don't expect to find in local newspapers like mine.
For that, you go to the New York Times, Washington Post, Atlantic Monthly or some other highfalutin East Coast publication, whose readers are likley to be Volvo-driving, latte-drinking, tree-hugging, Bill Clinton-loving liberals. Local papers are for the red-blooded types, whose interests are in sports and hard news, just the facts, and whose concerns have little time for lah-dee-dah flights of fancy.
I received an email recently that might contravene this assumption (and I admit this characterization is something of a straw man, but work with me here).
In Savannah, we have four colleges in the area. One of these is Georgia Southern University, whose student body numbers more than 17,000. One of its faculty members, Sonya Huber, expressed her appreciation recently for a piece I wrote setting the exploits of James Frey, the author of "A Million Little Pieces," in the historical and philosophical context of postmodernism.
In short, I suggest perhaps our tolerance for postmodern relativism is waning. We simply are not buying into "essential truth" the way we did 10 years ago when John Berendt came out with "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," a "nonfiction novel" that by the way has had a massive impact on the economy of Savannah. We simply call it "The Book."
Anyway, Dr. Huber's note suggests there are audiences for this kind of writing even in the American Outback.
Dear Mr. Stoehr- I just wanted to send you a quick note of thanks for your context piece on James Frey from 1/28/07. I just started as an assistant prof out here at Georgia Southern this fall, and I am using your article for today's class with my creative nonfiction students--it's great timing, as we're talking about Frey and ethics in nonfiction. I was very glad to see a thoughtful examination of the meaning of the Frey debacle in a daily paper! It made my day.
Dept. of Writing & Linguistics
Georgia Southern University
Our colleague Victoria Welch, a staff writer for the Burlington (Vermont) Free Press, writes in this morning's paper in the spirit of Art.Rox, offering a snowy New England point-of-view of the vibrant and somewhat unexpected theater scene in sunny Southern California.
This article contains reviews of three plays seen by the 25 fellows, one of whom was the vicacious Victoria, of the 2007 NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater and Musical Theater hosted by the University of Southern California: David Mamet's "Speed-the-Plow," the world premiere of Jason Robert Brown's musical "13," and Stephen Sachs' adaptation of August Strindberg's classic "Miss Julie."
Two days after the Grammy Awards on Sunday, two articles emerged that were exactly the kind of story newspapers are good at. One was in the New York Times, the other was in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Both focused on how the Dixie Chicks have been redeemed by sweeping the awards show.
These stories are what newspapers do best -- exploring a range of often competing ideas, talking about them intelligently, suggesting who we are as a society and what of interest is happening in our culture.
These were thoughtful stories developed over time. They weren't breaking news. People knew about the results of the Grammys way before the next day's paper. So why spend the rapidly shrinking inch-count on something people already know about.
Curt Holman, a 2005 fellow of the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at the University of Southern California and writer for Creative Loafing in Atlanta, has thoughtfully pointed out a cover story, published in Time Out New York in December, that turns the tables on Big Apple critics. Anyone who reads Art.Rox ought to check it out. The book critics section is particularly interesting.
What's also interesting is the thinking expressed in the introduction. Writer Nathan Huang cleverly notes that critics give readers a lot to talk about, even if readers have no intention of experiencing the theater, concert or performance in question. One purpose of criticism, in other words, is providing readers with information with which to take action. But isn't another purpose to contribute to the ongoing dialogue of a community?
As Huang writes: "We live in a city that churns out massive amounts of art and entertainment, then proceeds to talk about it endlessly. At times it doesn't even matter if you haven't seen, read or heard something, as long as you can gab about it--and our local critics provide the handiest cheat sheets."
Even if a city doesn't churn out as much culture as New York (and let's face it, name one that does), culture still plays an important role in the lives of everyday people, even if they themselves don't know it. Here in Savannah, where I'm the arts and culture reporter for the Savannah Morning News, people love -- and I mean love -- high school and college football.
There is an Southern adage worth remembering -- you don't get married in the fall, you don't die in the fall, you don't do anything in the fall except watch football. The result is people are gabbing about football endlessly come autumn. But why can't they also gab about the arts? Their children are involved in all sorts of cultural activities, in school and in other organizations. I suspect parents don't talk about the arts at least in part because such talk would be considered haughty and highfalutin.
Case in point, I was reading the New York Times while waiting for my lunch yesterday. The waitress came by with my order and patiently waited while I moved by newspaper. She said: "I don't want to put this on your New York Times," with a tone of voice that suggested I was some fancy-pants Yankee doing something regular folk, like her, don't do.
But when it comes to the arts, people in reality are very engaged; they just don't talk about it. In my view, that's where we as arts journalists can play a critical role -- by normalizing what they already experience and giving them the vocabulary to use in talking about it. Perhaps someday even a place like Savannah will talk about the arts as endlessly as we do about sports.
Gian Carlo Menotto, the founder of Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, S.C., one of the country's premiere arts festivals, died on Feb. 1, 2007. He was 95. Yesterday, festival administrators released an official statement (see below). His passing is an occasion to reflect on the impact an internationally acclaimed composer and conducter can have on a small American city. Since a bitter dispute with his board 14 years ago, Menotti had had little to do with Spoleto USA, focusing more on his other festival in Spoleto, Italy. But in the wake of his death, reports Dottie Ashley of the Charleston Post and Courier, the two festivals may once again work together.
February 13, 2007
Dear Friend of the Festival,
All of us associated with Spoleto Festival USA are saddened by the death of Gian Carlo Menotti, who passed away on February 1, 2007.
Some thirty years ago, Mr. Menotti founded Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston as the "new world" counterpart to the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy. In his opening statement in the very first Spoleto Festival USA program, Mr. Menotti remarked, "Just as the composer - without being able to define 'inspiration' - knows when he is inspired, I knew that Charleston would be the town of my choice as soon as I set foot in it, and Charleston, with its enchantment, will confirm to the beholder the wisdom of this choice." His vision was for the festival to be "fertile ground for the young with new ideas and a dignified home for the masters." We embraced his vision and Charleston lived up to his expectations as the perfect setting for the festival. All of the artists and all of the members of the audience, board and staff since 1977 have in some way benefited from his inspiration.
During the festival this year, we plan to celebrate the life of Gian Carlo Menotti. Please continue to check www.spoletousa.org for additional programming if you would like to join us in remembering this remarkable composer and friend of the arts and artists.
Artistic Director for Choral Activities
The Christel DeHaan Music Director for Opera & Orchestra
The Charles E. and Andrea L. Volpe Artistic Director for Chamber Music
We love the Grammy Awards in Georgia. So much so that the Atlanta Journal-Constitution sent its excellent hip-hop reporter, Sonia Murray, to blog in Los Angeles live from the event Sunday. We have good reason to be excited. Many of last night's winners -- Ludacris, Ciara, Third DayÂ and T.I. -- have ties to the Peach State.
But the record industry hasn't realized how archiacÂ it has become in the wake of new technologies.Â However stylish it might be, the award show seems almost quaint compared to its former self 20 years ago.
In 1987, bands like Poison were selling millions of copies of hair-metal hokum (remember "Look What the Cat Dragged In"?). The same record today -- featuring that bedroom anthem for the ages, "Unskinny Bop" -- would be lucky to sell a few hundred thousand. Indeed, the standards of being a hitÂ have changed so much thatÂ selling aÂ million records would be considered aÂ smash.
Pop music critics have been bemoaning the vanilla flavor of theÂ Grammys for years, but now in the wake of internet downloading (legal and otherwise), in which music is measured in megabytes not physical CDs, the critics have quantifiable evidence to support long-held charges of irrelevance. Fewer and fewer people are buying records. Why then isÂ there so much to-do about the Grammys?
Perhaps it's denial. But it could also be the force of nostalgia. David Marchese, from Salon, reports the Grammys -- that bastion of the young and hip --Â were headlined by Earth, Wind and Fire, the Police, Lionel Ritchie and the Eagles. The president of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences,Â Neil Portnoy, gushed over his youthful excitement after seeing Elvis perform on TV. He thought, "I want to be a record executive."
Let's see, Elvis has been dead for how long?
The foundation of the record industry was poured during the heyday of Elvis and the Beatles. The industry controlled the artists, the recording technology and the means of distribution. It had a lock on everything and all was good. And when MTV came along, things got even better, as long as the MTV was the gatekeeper in charge of who gets in and for how long.
That's no longer the case and will not be the case again, as Mark Swed notes in Sunday's Los Angeles Times. You can't put the toothpaste back in the tube. The irony is that newspapers like theÂ Atlanta Journal-Constitution and my own paperÂ are hoping coverage of the Grammys will attract younger readers. But they are not buying records. Baby boomers are, and they are already reading the papers. Georgia newspapersÂ are rightfully cheery about Georgians being in the national spotlight, but that spotlight won't be there for long. It's just a matter of time.
-- John Stoehr
This blog is an attempt to continue the vibrant conversation that I and Joe Nickell, the arts reporter for the Missoulian in Missoula, Mont., experienced during the USC Annenberg's 2007 NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater and Musical Theater. We felt strongly that something more than a listserve between Fellows from 21 states in the union was necessary to keep the dialogue (and the excellent writing, I might add) going.
Moreover, this blog is an expression of the different perspectives of the art world and practices of art journalism outside the big media centers of New York City and Los Angeles. Case in point is the adaptation we saw of August Strindberg's "Miss Julie," currently playing at the Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles.
Set in 1964 Greenwood, Miss., Stephen Sachs' stunning interpretation will no doubt resonate differently to a media-savvy New York critic than it will with an African-American audience in the South, where the dynamics of racial power and the paradoxes of Jim Crow are still deeply felt. While the necessity of such an adaptation might not be apparent to a effete Northerner, the need (at least from the perspective of this Yankee living in Dixie) is abundantly clear to an audience of a certain aesthetic sensibility in the South.
Joe and I had the good fortune of hearing a presentation by Doug McLennan, the editor of Artsjournal.com and regular contributor of cultural journalism for papers throughout the country. His presentation painted an astonishing picture of the future of media and the role of cultural journalists in that future.
In the next 20 years, the very notion of mass media will be undermined, perhaps to the point of extinction, by emerging technologies that are creating ever more diverse niches of affinity and inquiry. That is to say, the all-things-to-all-people model of journalism won't make much sense in a information universe organized by smaller and smaller categories and made available on-demand.
Most newspapers aim for the lowest common denominator, hoping that if they hit their readership right down the middle they will gain wider circulation numbers. That means stories are getting shorter, less provocative and less interesting for those with curious minds and a need to understand the world around them. (Those with curious minds, ironically, are probably the very people that newspapers would like to have, since they tend to have more education, more interest in their communities and more money.)
The recent death of Anna-Nicole Smith is instructive. Within hours of her death, the country knew about it. Yet the next day USA Today played the story above the fold as if it were breaking news. Why use that coveted place in the print edition for something most people knew about already? Why not give that to stories developed over time, that are well written and that cannot be found anywhere else?
No doubt the newsroom logic is that the paper's readers want to know about what happened and so they feel they are giving readers what they want. The irony is, however, that they already know by way of blogs, cable news, websites, text messaging and so on. So the question not being asked is, what value does such a story add to what's already known?
I think this kind of thinking has a lot to do with arts journalists. If the newsroom is aiming for the lowest common denominator, then it's pushing out more nuanced, more niche-oriented, more thoughtful stories, like what's happening in local communities, what artists are doing in those communities and how arts organizations play an important role in the lives of real people.
Moreover, the concern in the newsroom is how to get people who don't read to read the paper. Answer? Stories like the death of Anna-Nicole Smith, a story that everyone already knows. The question not being asked is, why are we trying to get people who don't read to read the paper? People who don't read have already gotten the story from someplace else. People who do read are looking for something else in their newspapers, like why geographical context would affect the perspective and ultimate aesthetic of a new adaptation of "Miss Julie."
Joe and I also had the pleasure of seeing a live interview with Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. Gioia came on board as attacks on the NEA and its support of "The Piss Christ" and others were peaking. His legacy will be changing the perception of the NEA from a federal agency that supports artists to one that serves Americans by providing them with art and artistic experiences. "It's not about artists; it's about Americans," Gioia said.
Likewise, we arts journalists need to start changing the perception of the arts in our newsrooms. The focus shouldn't just be on quality of the arts, but also on the meaning of the arts to people. With our hyperfocus on assessment (thumbs up, thumbs down), we are playing into the "service journalism" philosophy that is one of the bedrocks on the all-things-to-all-people mentality. Is it worth spending the money on? Such an approach is a commodification of arts journalism. As a result, we are slowly writing ourselves out of a job because commodified journalism can be done so much better outside newspapers.
What newspapershave historically done better than anyone else is tell people what's important, why and how, and they have been a wonderfully eclectic catch all for the interesting things that happen in our communities, full of everything from news to comics to political columns to arts journalism. Art.Rox attempts to address some of the issues facing the arts, artists and arts journalism. Joe and I hope to hear from you and hope to keep the conversation going.
-- John Stoehr