A shameless plug for a piece on All Things Considered by Laura Sydell on what’s happening with arts journalism as newspapers drop arts coverage. As I say in the piece, IMHO what’s happening is not the destruction of arts journalism, but the reinvention of it. Arts journalism has often had an uneasy home in newspapers, and arts coverage was relegated to the “soft” sections. In recent years, the pressure to elevate the consumer guide function over other values of criticism has been intense and damaging. And the narrowing of voices writing about the arts in communities across the country has made for sometimes stilted coverage.
I think that many of us who have loved newspapers and are lamenting the demise of arts coverage in them are sad more about the loss of what we thought newspaper arts journalism could be rather than the reality of the typical coverage most often practiced in recent decades. The failures of arts journalism are many. Traditional arts journalism did a lousy job at covering dance. It never figured out how to cover community culture very well. It so often pandered to a view of the arts as institutional rather than artist-driven. And it too often pontificated rather than explained.
Ah, but when it was done well, it was revelatory. Mark Swed taking us inside the head of John Adams to see Doctor Atomic. Ada Louise Huxtable explaining how buildings create a sense of history that never was. Bob Christgau cutting through the hype to get to the center. I could go on and on.
It’s easy to think of the decline of newspaper arts journalism as the death of arts journalism. The familiar argument is that the professional critics do their work there and if the there disappears, so will the journalism. Somebody’s got to pay the critics. But the reason the critics were at newspapers was because that’s the place that supported them. As something else rises to take their place, the critics will go there.
I’ve recently come to feel that the new thing (whatever that is) won’t have a chance until the old order is disposed of. Newspapers are sucking up all the oxygen in the room, and the startups won’t have room to flourish until newspapers get out of the way. I say this with the greatest respect. I love newspapers, but the business decisions that have dominated in recent years have eroded some important journalistic values (the whole he said/she said fetish, the uncritical “objectivity” trope, the info-tainment tangent) and the failure to adapt to the expectations of a newly empowered media-savvy audience has been fatal. There isn’t yet an established new business model to support arts journalism, but there won’t be until the old competition has done its dead cat bounce.
In the past few months new journalism startups have been proliferating. Every day new projects are being announced, and many models are being tried. Even a year ago it was difficult to get the arts community to pay attention to the erosion of traditional arts journalism. Now cultural leaders across the country are talking to one another and trying to imagine what comes next.
So the wane of traditional arts journalism is actually a creative destruction that will lead to something better. Hopefully much better. Commenters on the NPR arts journalism piece notwithstanding:
I have an MFA and 30 years behind me actually making art vs.
criticizing it. Artists – whether a composer or a playwright or a
filmmaker have known this for YEARS and have discussed it and made
movies and literature about it even. Good riddance to all of you
critics who have had nice jobs and health insurance policies spewing
your supposed expertise in your easy chair while the art community
struggles to even eat. We don’t need you – we never did.