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The Top Five Arts Stories Of 2002

By Douglas McLennan

1. Danger In Numbers
After a decade of expansion and building, arts organizations everywhere pulled back this year. Whether it was the British Museum closing some of its galleries and reducing hours, the Guggenheim closing satellites and cutting staff and budget, the Los Angeles County Art Museum setting aside plans for a major expansion, or the San Francisco Opera declaring an $8 million deficit, the Scottish Opera declaring a financial emergency, or Australia’s big festivals declaring deficits, money dominated artistic operations in 2002. In the US, governments at the local and state level slashed spending on the arts – some states such as California and Massachusetts cutting deep into core funding – corporate sponsorships dried up, and foundation and endowment income took a dive.

In the UK, government funding was more stable than in the US, but long-promised increases didn’t fully materialize. Museums complained that a government initiative to do away with admission fees resulted in a big boost in attendance, but came at a significant financial cost.

2. Safety In Numbers
Was it because audiences needed comfort this year that the art they were served tended to be less challenging and more escapist? There’s some evidence that the kind of in-your-face art that flourished through the 1990s was already on the wane before 2002, and that conceptual post-modernist art was losing its audience. 

It’s not that there wasn’t any art meant to rile your passions. But the art that seemed to grab attention tended to fit closer to traditional definitions of art than it has in a long while. Even the art and the reactions to the art chosen for this year’s Turner Prize shortlist seemed muted. Oh sure, there were the ritual controversies and complaints – the junior culture minister calling the Turner choices “conceptual bullshit” was a nice touch – but little of the art seemed to arouse much passion the way it used to. And do we detect a growing chorus of traditional art lovers giving voice to their irritation (as opposed to anger) over conceptual experiments?

The big question is – are we at the forward edge of a new aesthetic, one in which traditional art values are more highly prized? Or is this more of a cautious reaction to a world that seems less safe? Then again – could it be a reaction to a teetering economy and a desire to appeal to a wider audience? Maybe all three?

3. The Music (ha ha) Business
The traditional music business is in a shambles. Sales of recordings are down, artists are revolting against their recording labels, and consumers are happily copying and trading music, cutting out the middlemen. After declaring war on the very consumers they ought to have been trying to woo, the major recording labels spent the year trying to shore up their businesses.

To hear the record labels tell it, the music-enjoying public are all a bunch of thieves, stealing money from the mouths of poor artists every time they copy a digital music file. Producers cite their enormous investments in bringing quality music to the marketplace and they deliver questionable statistics on the proliferation of “piracy” and the resulting losses for recording companies. They petition governments to tighten laws restricting music copying, and enlist tech companies to build in technical anti-copying measures.

Well, they ought to be scared. Their business is passing them by. They claim that more than 90 percent of the artists they record lose money. They claim that their costs in producing albums are huge because promotion costs are enormous. If that’s really true, then they should be put out of business just for being bad businessmen. They cling to a business model that no longer works, and technology is supplanting their usefulness.

Some top-selling artists have done well in the traditional system, but the vast majority of artists haven’t. The overwhelming number of working musicians have never even been able to get the attention of a record label. The majority of those that do get recording contracts don't make much money with them. In the new file-trading landscape where anyone can record cheaply and get their music out, the benefits to the vast majority of musicians outweighs the downside for spoiled recording execs and a few superstars.

4.  The Changing Arts Landscape
It’s been a few years since videocassettes first outsold movie theatre tickets. This year DVDs pulled even with videos, becoming the fastest-growing home-entertainment medium in history. A lesser-told story is that video games now rival the movies in the amount of money they take in. Yes, video games are more expensive than movie tickets, so the audience is smaller. But the influence of the video game industry on all aspects of the entertainment industry – movies, music, TV - is huge and growing.

And lets not forget the growth of books as a popular medium. Independent booksellers complain that the superstores have wrecked the business, but more people buy books now than at anytime in history. Book clubs are a popular phenomenon, and the number of new books published annually in the United States increased about 300 percent between 1975 and 2000, to 122,000 from 39,000. Sales are up dramatically – after all, there’s a reason Tom Clancy got $45 million for two books ($133 per word).

5. Who Owns What
Just as money was an underlying theme this year, battles over who owns ideas percolated through many arts stories of 2002. Overtly, the story played out in front of the US Supreme Court, where copyright crusader Lawrence Lessig argued for a repeal of Congress’ extension of the copyright term. Have big corporate interests led by Disney managed to get copyrights extended in perpetuity?

Increasingly artists and academics are saying that current copyright laws make fair use of creative property impossible. And the new generation of digital consumer and producer is at odds with older traditional entities.

This is a year in which the Metropolitan Opera shut down a fan site because it worried about its trademarks. This is a year in which recording companies tried to thwart copying by embedding codes that would disable some computers if a consumer tried to play the disk on them. This is a year in which a US congressman seriously proposed allowing copyright holders to hack into the computers of consumers they suspected of stealing, and disabling the computers.

This isn’t just a fight over technology. There’s a digital disconnect between those invested in traditional institutions threatened by new technologies, and those who see opportunities for innovation. The two needn’t be mutually exclusive.

To see what publications around the world decided were the top arts stories of 2002, visit our Top Arts Stories of 2002 archive

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