FlyOver: July 2007 Archives
John Stoehr's post last week, in which he drew connections between quite a dizzying number of cultural forces over the past 30 years, rightly generated a good bit of discussion, with contributors from all over the country spicing the stew of ideas in ways that I'm sure John wouldn't have expected.
I don't have any real meat to add; but I have an inclination to stir the pot a bit.
Both John's post, and much of the discussion that followed, seemed to imply that our culture and our newspapers' coverage of culture is spiraling down the drain. Multiculturalism has dissipated standards to the wind, the Internet has dissipated authority to the wind, and this isn't good for us. Perhaps I'm taking some of the contributors to this discussion wrong; but I don't think one can read the whole lot of it in one sitting without coming away with a vague consensus that we're on a path that must be reversed before it's too late: "We need to reclaim the public sphere," says Gary Panetta, while Mike Boehm has suggestions "to reverse this trend" and John worries that "the big-tent version of culture is in serious danger of becoming meaningless."
I tend to view cultural change more in terms of transition than trajectory; as such, I guess I'm not so worried (in the big picture, anyway) about what's going on with the media landscape or popular knowledge of the arts, or about the larger cultural shift going on as relates to our so-called "Web 2.0." In fact, I see reasons for celebration.
First, this whole idea that further democratization of media is a bad thing - brought to the fore recently by Andrew Keen in his book, "The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet is Killing Our Culture" - kinda cracks me up. Just because more people can publish their ideas online, doesn't necessarily mean that those people's ideas are any more influential than they were pre-Internet. The noise floor of our public discussions of culture has certainly risen as a result of this new use of the medium; but mistaking the hit-count at YouTube as some kind of roundhouse kick to the face of cultural standards strikes me as backwards thinking.
Let's remember, after all, that it was during the last great age of amateurism that some of western culture's finest art and deepest theoretical inquiry emerged. The ubiquitous piano of the 19th century - which pretty much everyone knew how to play, at least a little - is today's Internet-connected, multimedia computer. The 20th century, with its sudden and unprecedented explosion of world-wide mass media and mass art, was the truer anomaly. I would argue that the state of artistic and journalistic standards that we're grappling with today emerge more as a consequence of this century of mass media than from the relatively new changes brought on by the Internet.
Of course, what mass media eventually exposed, and what Web 2.0 has only further illuminated, is the fact that not everybody is interested in big ideas and cutting-edge art. Fart jokes, it turns out, have broader cultural impact than the Piss Christ.
And this was a surprise...why? As David Sokolec noted in a comment to John's post last week, "the thing to remember is that art never attracted an enormous crowd."
The only real difference between today's dialogue about culture, and yesterday's, is that the water cooler looks different. We still mostly talk about the same things: the weather, our friends and families, politics, maybe something interesting we saw at the theater. Because these common conversations have now been democratized and dispersed, we have higher expectations than ever from the media we're willing to pay for: It must inform us and enlighten us about things we don't understand or simply don't know. If it's just a regurgitation of Google News and Wikipedia, it's not worth paying for.
This is bad news for bad artists and second-rate journalists. It is good news, I tend to believe, for the truly skilled, the deeply passionate, the innovative, and the informed among us.
The bottleneck is broken; the floodgates are now fully open. Now that anybody can publish their thoughts or their art for the entire world, it seems to me that the higher ground is the only safe place left for professional journalists and the companies that employ them.
In the past week several Flyover posts have been focused on the question of reader / critic dialogue. Jen has bemoaned how few readers write letters to the editor about arts coverage, and how this usually gives the appearance (at least to our editors) that arts don't matter as much as politics or other "harder" news topics; in the bigger picture, this lack of feedback basically means that the public discussion of local arts tends to fizzle at the proverbial starting line.
John made an interesting argument that maybe newspapers need more reviews instead of fewer, as is the trend.
I have a few random notes I'd like to add to this conversation.
1. John talked about that all-too-common attitude from editors: "If the show happens only once, what is the point of a review?" I've heard this one myself before, though thankfully not from the editors at my current employer. I always scratch my head at this one, since it usually comes from an editor who is pouring plenty of resources into daily local sports coverage.
What is a recap of last night's high school basketball game, if not -- in essence -- a review? Oh, sure, it has lots of numbers and statistics and some quotes from the coach, which might make it seem more objective. But the best game recaps -- the ones that editors at major dailies pay big bucks for -- turn those numbers into high drama. They offer analysis of how this one game fits into the bigger picture for the teams in question. They focus on the turning points -- the dramatic twists, if you will -- when one team pulled itself together and "went on a run." They talk about the crowd reaction.
And, importantly, they answer the editor's question implicitly, by saying, "this was an important event in our community, and as the newspaper of record in our community, we're telling you what happened."
This defense can go on ad nauseum, using every other activity of any responsible newsroom as a reference point. Why write a story about what happened at last night's city council meeting? After all, it too "only happened once." Why recount the sordid timeline of a murder that happened last night? Spectators can't gather to watch that happen again, either.
Newspapers exist to document the things that happen in our communities, and how those things spin together into a community's sense of self and trajectory of advancement. And sometimes, the most important thing that happened yesterday wasn't a murder, or a football game, or a lawsuit filed against the state. It was a concert.
2. I don't want to belabor this point, but in the discussion of last week's posts, the point was made that there aren't many great performances in small towns. This is true, but it must be taken in the proper context: There usually aren't many performances, period. In my experience in big cites and small, the ratio of great performances to .... just performances .... is usually about the same where-ever you go. The fact that there's always something great to write about in the New York Times is, as much as anything, simply a reflection of the fact that there is SO much going on in New York at any given time.
3. Finally, another point I don't want to belabor: One problem that plagues small-town arts criticism today is that there are only so many educated and thoughtful critics in the country, and they tend not to be evenly spread around the country. More often, you'll find that the person who is conscripted to write a review of last night's symphony concert has no background in classical music -- even if she's the paper's arts reporter.
I'll hold myself up as a shining example: I am a trained classical percussionist who worked his way into journalism. I am now the sole arts reporter AND critic at my newspaper. If someone is going to critique a show at the Missoula Art Museum, or a production at Montana Repertory Theater, or a program by Headwaters Dance Company, I'm probably the man for the job. Am I qualified to give a learned opinion? Usually not. I can only hope that people will credit me for having my heart in the right place, my head deeply in my task, and my homework done adequately, on short notice.
So here's my radical thought for the day: Maybe the problem we should be discussing is how few critics deserve the pulpit they've been given, and what we ('we' as in, those of us who know better than to think we really deserve to be the only voice in town opining about arts occurrences) can do to turn that pulpit into a switchboard. Last week's discussion sketched the broad issues of blogs versus print and how editors devote resources to each; that discussion deserves fleshing out.
It's been going on since at least the 1980s and, judging from responses to a post I wrote last Monday, the debate rages on: Will new venues bring new art -- and new money -- to cities that currently suffer from outdated theaters and concert halls?
John Stoehr mentioned the controversy about plans in Savannah to spend $80 million in public money to build a new event arena. Deirdre Hanna mentioned the various capital improvement projects that city leaders in Toronto have been pushing, in hopes of making Toronto more of an architectural and artistic destination.
Here in Missoula, a group is pushing for an 1,800-seat multipurpose performing arts center smack in the middle of downtown. If completed, it would cost more than the last five major civic projects combined. Backers hope to convince taxpayers to fund this in part with a $20 million county bond.
As the arts reporter here in Missoula, I've followed the local story for several years. Heck, when I first started covering it, the people pushing the idea were saying they hoped to have the thing built by early 2007. But at this point, the group is facing an August deadline from the City Council (which has reserved one of the prime pieces of remaining downtown real estate for the project) to simply show that there is the potential to raise the money needed for the project. The group hasn't announced any actual, significant fundraising success to date.
The local performing arts center proposal has its own problems and challenges, some of which are unique to this place, some of which are unique to these people, and some of which are all too common for projects such as these.
But from what I can see, chief among the problems the backers face is that they haven't convinced anyone around here that a fancy new hall will really be supported, either by the ticketbuying public or by an increased quantity or quality of artistic presentations.
Missoula is still a long ways from nowhere. That creates a double-whammy for venues and promoters: It's hard to get shows here; and it's hard to get people to attend those shows. Unlike most American cities the size of Missoula, the population of the surrounding region is practically insignificant. My old haunt of Bloomington, Ind., may be about the same size as Missoula; but part of the reason it can attract a large number of major touring shows is that Indianapolis is just a hop down the highway.
I don't mean to get this conversation mired in the particulars of our local situation. But I do think Missoula is a somewhat extreme example of how the whole concept of "build it and they will come" is questionable in the world of the arts -- especially considering that, by the time we complete our "state of the art" performing arts center, some other community will be busy one-upping our achievement. In fact, groups in several Montana cities are engaged in the early stages of projects essentially identical to this one.
The whole thing begins to smell of an elaborate and expensive game of tail-chasing.
When Jen first suggested that we call this blog "Flyover," I couldn't have thought of a better metaphor for the place I live and the peculiar circumstances of our local arts culture.
My chosen home of Missoula, Montana, sits next to Interstate 90, which is the northernmost east-west corridor in this part of the country. To give some sense of perspective on how sparse the population is in this part of the country, the closest city to the west that boasts a population over one million is Seattle. That's about an eight hour drive, if traffic works in your favor. To the east: Minneapolis. Estimated driving time to get there, while staying within the speed limit: about 16 hours.
Look north, and the closest city of that size is Edmonton, Alberta. That's a ten hour drive. South? Salt Lake City, which -- only if you count the metro area -- barely qualifies. It's about 7 1/2 hours of driving from here.
My point is not to one-up Missoula on the remoteness scale. Rather, it's to point out a noteworthy factor in the world of touring arts: Missoula simply isn't convenient to other cities where arts events can be counted on to draw a paying crowd.
Over the years living in Missoula, I've talked with promoters of rock concerts and classical arts, museum directors and theater fanatics. What I've learned is that our local exposure to touring shows is limited severely by the logistics of bringing those shows here. In a nutshell, the prevailing wisdom is that artists and shows only stop in Missoula when they happen to be driving between Minneapolis and Seattle, and could use a little gas money.
Needless to say, this puts limits on the types and quantity of shows that stop here. Small-time bands that need to play every night for gas money will usually stop. Big-ticket rock bands rarely bother to stop; it's easier to just have their gear trucked the distance, and fly the performers right over Missoula and the rest of the sparsely populated Pacific northwest.
For Broadway shows, this is a netherland, a vast swath of costly mileage between here and there. Most seem to avoid I-90 like the plague.
Orchestras? Forget about it...It's been years since a touring orchestra came through this part of the country.
Visual arts? Well, we get a smattering of touring shows (there's a fine exhibit of works by Faith Ringgold at the Missoula Art Museum right now); but there's only one museum in town, it has limited gallery space available, and -- to its great credit -- its primary focus is on important art from the nearby region.
So what we have in Missoula, in terms of art you can reach out and touch, is primarily locally made art. And in the same sense that nationally touring arts shows are rare in this town, so too is it logistically challenging for our local artists to grow their reputations beyond the local arts scene. Locally "famous" artists are our greatest treasure, but -- with a few exceptions -- you've surely never heard of them if you don't live here.
There are myriad issues that these facts raise. Locals seem to fall into two camps: the people who believe that Missoula is the "Paris of the 1990s" (to quote author John Updike) and "the next Athens, Georgia;" and the people who turn their noses up at anything that reeks of local origin.
In this milieu, not surprisingly, the cultural role played by the Missoula Symphony Orchestra, the Missoula Art Museum, and other local cultural organizations is much different from that played by orchestras and museums of similar budget size and artistic caliber in larger cities. After all, they're quite literally the only show in town. They must embrace at once the educational, artistic, and civic roles that are often split between complimentary organizations in larger cities.
Is this good, bad, or indifferent? I answer the question differently every day. But one thing's certain: assessing the accomplishments of these organizations against a scale calibrated by the accomplishments of arts organizations in major cities is a fool's errand that serves no-one.
So the Missoula Symphony isn't the Cleveland Orchestra. So what? Does that begin to tell us what's actually interesting about our local orchestra? I think not.