Towards a New Taxonomy for Arts Journalism

imagesFor a while now, I’ve been questioning the usefulness of the standard categories under which most arts coverage is organized in the media. You know — the “music”, “theatre”, “movies”, “dance”, “visual art”…headings. Oh, and let’s not forget “multimedia” — that weird catchall descriptor that so many sites (including my own) have for putting stuff that doesn’t comfortably fit in anywhere else.

The fact is that arts experiences rarely fit comfortably into this framework — and in fact probably never have. Opera is as much music as it is theatre. And there’s sometimes a fair amount of dance and multimedia going on.

And individual artists habitually resist fitting into comfortable categories — not deliberately so, but just because of the myriad influences on their work.

These days, the habit among content producers is to tag particular pieces of arts content so that they appear in several different sections of a particular website simultaneously to reflect this reality. But this leads to annoying duplication. And if the content appears in enough places on a single site, the categories are rendered almost redundant.

Yet because we’re a society of compartmentalizers, and because there’s an overwhelming amount of content in the world, the stuff needs must be organized somehow.

So what are the alternatives?

One way is to organize by format e.g. “review,” “feature”, “profile” etc. But these forms seem to be merging and melding into one another more than ever before. Not sure this is the answer.

Another common system is chronological. This is pretty handy when you’re looking for something to do on a particular date, but otherwise often overwhelming, especially if you live in or are visiting a relatively busy urban area.

In both of these cases, the standard taxonomy (music, film, visual etc) ends up being part of the picture anyway, with editors using tags to help people navigate otherwise brain-exploding amounts of content.

Here’s a whacky thought:

In tomorrow’s world, I foresee the five senses as an interesting taxonomic possibility for arts journalism. Right now, technology more or less only allows us to “listen” and “see” things. But eventually, maybe arts experiences could fall into “touch,” “taste” and “smell” categories in the media of the future.

How helpful would these categories be, I wonder? Maybe not very. But they somehow help to make cultural experiences seem more immediate than the traditional classification standards.

I’m mulling over other possibilities. Maybe things could be categorized by mood or by ticket price or by…????

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  1. MWnyc says

    We’re not just a society of compartmentalizers; we’re a species of compartmentalizers. That seems to be the way our brains are built.

  2. MWnyc says

    This is a good issue to consider. Thanks to Chloe for bringing it up.

    As Chloe points out, sorting individual articles by type – news, feature, review, interview, etc. – is problematic because individual pieces of journalism can straddle those categories. For a while I worked on a web site that was organized on those lines; it worked okay for the majority of articles, but the rigidity of the classifications was sometimes very frustrating.

    (One particular problem I recall: visitors tended to choose news articles more often than reviews or other pieces, which meant that, on occasion, genuinely newsworthy reviews were overlooked by readers simply because they weren’t in the news feed.)

    I think a big part of the reason that outlets and their editors have tended to sort arts coverage by genre – theater, visual art, classical music, pop music, dance, film, books, etc. – is that that’s how audiences tend to sort the arts being covered.

    People tend to think of themselves as book lovers, movie buffs, art mavens, balletomanes, etc., so they’ll tend to go looking for coverage of the genres they like. And while there’s obviously some overlap – movie buffs who love modern dance, for instance – there’s not necessarily that much.

    What’s more, I think, the larger the media market and the more arts offerings available there, the more audience members (our readers) tend to specialize. In Kansas City or Edmonton, say, it’s easier for someone to follow most of what’s going on in the arts around town than it is in New York or Toronto.

  3. says

    Systems of categorization are based on theoretical concepts that can never fully define reality. seems to have faced this problem — essentially one of epistemology. In its original format, articles were categorized by genre along with groupings like ideas, people, and issues. It abandoned the format and began simply listing all articles by date. A lot of readers objected and so Doug created a link to AJ in “classic format.” And he included another column on the page that uses just headlines listed by topic – best of both worlds.

    After the categorical listing was removed, I found myself reading lots of articles I might not have bothered with before. On the other hand, there are days when I don’t have much time and I go straight to the music listings since that is my field. Some days I need to quickly hop in my box, but most days its nice to live free from conceptual walls. The ability to freely choose among systems of categorization is something offered by the digital world and seems to be a good option..

    Sometimes I like to compare the themes of articles in various genres. They often illustrate how differently people in theater, the visual arts, dance, and music think. We can’t really avoid systems of categorization because we can’t define our world without them, so a good approach is to employ many different systems and always be aware of how they affect our thought.

  4. Basil says

    I think we’re already there. This article has a distinct aroma about it.

  5. says

    I love this idea! I bookmark things like this – to see, to read, to watch, to do (it’s interactive) because I couldn’t label an experience as just one thing, yet I have a specific experience in mind to take people to.

    If it became only five categories, what a simpler review world! But would *emotionally* feel be a sixth? 😉