FlyOver: July 2007 Archives
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
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
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?
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'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?"
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)
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."