Why aren’t the arts something we can all get behind? Maybe it’s somewhere in the psychology of how we like what we like? Revealed: nobody reads arts reviews anymore (says an editor who hates to run them but wants to “support” the arts). Where the money is in music (hint: not for musicians). And is “This American Life” undermining public radio?
- Go Team! Why Don’t The Arts Unite Communities like Sports Do? Cities go crazy about their sports teams. Sport unites communities. Even if you’re not a big sports fan, chances are if your city’s team makes it to a championship, you’re there rooting them on. So why don’t cities rally around their theatres or orchestras like this? When a theatre has a world-class season why isn’t there a surge of community pride that unites it? “Why do some people go to the theatre and why do so many people never go, thinking that it’s some kind of exclusive club that’s not for them?”
- Is “This American Life” Killing Public Radio With Its New Deal? One local public radio station manager thinks so, and he canceled the show after it made a deal with the Pandora streaming service. Show creator Ira Glass believes the deal helps increase TAL’s audience and provides revenue the show can plow back into production. After the story broke, a fascinating back-and-forth debate between Glass and the station manager ensued in the comments section about how local stations survive and national shows get made.
- All This Fuss Over A Review That No One Reads Anyway? After the Canadian Opera Company complained about a perfectly ordinary review of one of its productions, an editor at Canada’s National Post spiked the piece. When he discovered it, the freelance critic who wrote it, Arthur Kaptainis, quit the paper in protest. Consequently, a local Toronto music publication ran the review and the opera company, evidently nonplussed that the editor had taken such drastic action, released copies of the email correspondence to show they hadn’t demanded its removal. What has everyone talking though, is the revelation by the editor that he “hates” running reviews because no one reads them. So why run them? Anne Midgette takes up the challenge. As does Lev Bratishenko in MacLean’s.
- Lot’s Of Money In The Music Business/Just Not For Musicians? Two stories this week about who’s making money in the music business. On the one hand, services like YouTube – currently the biggest distributor of music in the world (by far) – have gutted the way musicians get paid for their work. Could the fix be as simple as a small change in the copyright law, as Jonathan Taplin suggests? On the other end of the business, ticket resellers are making huge amounts of money buying up all the tickets to popular shows and offering them for resale at unbelievably inflated prices. Like £24,840 for an Adele ticket? Performers hate it. And fans? Do we need new regulations?
- Why Do We Like What We Like? Interestingly, it turns out that many people can’t really tell you. Psychologists studying how people develop taste are finding that it’s a complex question. Tom Vanderbilt, author of the new book You May Also Like, says that taste is partly “a way of filtering the world, of ordering information” and partly “another form of social learning” – but “always a mixture of exposure, of culture, of a person’s personality. And none of these are particularly static or fixed.”
william osborne says
I can’t even remember when I last read a music review.
Herb Levy says
People in Leicester were responding to the local team beating all the other teams in a national competition. And there is only the one professional team in that sport in that town. I would guess that the number of people in Leicester who rabidly support their team whether they are having a winning season or not, is significantly smaller than the current fandom.
Many local sports events are available to the public via various forms of media and large (though not as large as most people think, even the Superbowl is only seen by about a third of US residents), e venues and schedules for most local arts organizations will at most only serve one or two percent of the population in any given town. There’s really no equivalent situation to winning a national championship in the arts. Few locales have only one classical ensemble, only one theater company, only one visual art venue. Most members of any arts audience don’t have enough experience to compare the relative strenghths and weaknesses of a local organization in comparison to organizations from elsewhere. Many members of most arts audiences care more about whether they were entertained than whether the artwork was well executed. Many members of arts audiences don’t recognize the value of discussing exhibitions or performances that they didn’t “like.” Many artists don’t like thinking of their art form, or the arts in general, as any kind of competition. Etc., etc,
william osborne says
Society seems to be in a phase of creative destruction. Outdated concepts and practices are dying which is creating the space for new forms of thought to evolve. I think the death of music journalism is part of this trend and could be seen as a sign of progress.
Traditional arts criticism as we know it today is in many respects anachronistic. This form of criticism appeared in the 19th century and was closely associated with the rise of the bourgeoisie and cultural nationalism. The principle effect of most arts journalism was to celebrate the artist-hero as a symbol of the nation-state’s creative virility. The prototype of this type of journalist in classical music was Robert Schumann writing in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik.
After WWII, this sort of nationalism and its representative artist-heroes went into a gradual remission and were replaced by the aesthetics of global capitalism. We thus saw a corresponding decrease in the status of arts journalists, since their function as spokesmen for the nation-state’s creative virility became irrelevant.
Global capitalism requires a new kind of feullitonist, a generalist gadfly who is part of a marketing apparatus focusing largely on international celebrity like jet-set conductors, pop stars, famous movie actors, and best-selling authors. Since original thought and social commentary seldom fit with the corporate media’s financial interests, publications like the NYT and much of The New Yorker are already a kind of People magazine for yuppies. We generally see cultural gossip with a touch of niveau couched in these publications’ self-consciously affected, apolitical urbanity.
This defines the character of chatty and congenial journalists like Alex Ross, Anne Midgette, Anthony Tommasini, and Mark Swed. The arts are to be a well-behaved and innocuous affirmation of what might be vaguely termed the aesthetics of corporatocracy – a system to confirm the power of a borderless, relatively unmitigated plutocracy. There are thus no music journalists in mainstream papers who provide honest thought that genuinely challenges the status quo. For all practical purposes, it is forbidden.
Intelligent people do not read these publications for news, but rather to see what the establishment wants us to believe. When art itself becomes largely meaningless, when it becomes only vehicle simulating transgression that is in reality conformity, it is only natural that arts journalism becomes meaningless and irrelevant. The sooner it is dead, the sooner we will be able to move toward something that is more honest. The truly important question for the few true artists and cultural writers that exist is what we can do to hasten the death of arts journalism and all of its shilling, conformity, falseness, and dishonesty.
Douglas McLennan says
“The principle effect of most arts journalism was to celebrate the artist-hero as a symbol of the nation-state’s creative virility”? That might have been a byproduct. But this analysis – indeed your entire reply here – suggests a level of macro conspiracy theory that not only doesn’t seem plausible, it doesn’t make sense to me. Surely the reason art and arts criticism gained traction were because they had something interesting and new to say. Not to everyone, obviously, but to those who were paying attention. And especially when the art spoke cogently to things fundamental to the human condition.
There are many examples, but take the rise of machines in the 20th Century. The art of that time chronicled and reflected the fascination and alienation that automation and mass-scale production portended. Art had important things to say about who we are. And a lot of the 20th Century conversation about art was about breaking down what had been very specific ideas of what art had been defined as.
But no matter how interesting the conversation, if you have it over and over again, it becomes dull and cliched. And if, in the process you dismantle notions of what art is until they are essentially meaningless because everything ultimately is art, then you lose a sense of a thread.
Your suggestion that arts journalists “lost their function as spokesmen for the nation-state’s creative virility became irrelevant” only holds if you believe that culture is essentially a product created to fill some sort of slot on the shelves and that its currency – and thus its viability – is measured only by its political prestige or utility. Again, in a macro-historical sense this observation could be argued, but again I think you’re confusing causal relationship.
Do you seriously think that today’s media don’t publish “original thought and social commentary” because it doesn’t fit their financial interests? What if today’s original thought and social commentary is Donald Trump? Seriously. He has breached most of the political norms for a political candidate in the US and the media have been flummoxed to explain his success even as they cover him endlessly. Journalists reflexively cover anomaly as highest priority because it is different or new. It’s been fascinating to watch as they struggle to “contextualize” him, believing that if they can only expose his failings, contradictions and misbehavior – the usual weapons of politics – that he’ll be exposed and rejected by the electorate. Early journalistic post mortems so far have dwelt on this idea that journalists haven’t been good enough at exposing him, or that they have given him too much attention, but this misses the point. People don’t care. The conventions of political discourse and “gotcha” journalism have lost their power because in the land of “reality” TV everything is a gotcha and the ground is constantly shifting. Facts no longer matter because facts change with the situation. The media have been efficient at exposing him. The problem is, the electorate not only doesn’t care, but actually sees it as a positive that the Times and the Post are against him.
The problem with mature conversations is that after they have been going on for a long time it becomes more and more difficult to say something that is truly additive or interesting. So anomaly journalism fails here. If critics were amazed that an orchestra could play all the notes and in tune when the feat was rare, then what happens when every orchestra plays all the notes and in tune? If we all were dazzled when the rare soloist could take on an entire orchestra in a concerto and emerge triumphant, what happens when almost any soloist can take command? When we were in collective awe when painters could create portraits of people in such detail that you could see inside their subject’s soul, then what was there left to talk about when any artist on the street could render a reasonable facsimile? Or then, a camera? Every time the superhuman becomes the ordinary, then the conversation has to shift or else people lose interest.
Maybe the simple reason no one is reading music reviews is not because they aren’t providing “honest thought that genuinely challenges the status quo” but that they might not have anything new to say. It’s not that “for all practical purposes, it is forbidden” but that for the moment at least, we seem to be in a lag in the conversation. Who – artists or critics – is really championing a new aesthetic or a new idea, something that seems essential to who we are? And how do they get traction for it? Perhaps it was ever thus. Like any era, much of what passes for conventional insight and originality simply isn’t. But there is usually something new bubbling away somewhere, and it often isn’t recognized until it’s been around a while.
So William – a challenge: You obviously read widely. And yet your arguments seem to have hardened into a specific view of how culture works and it is dystopian. But I think some of these arguments have lost nuance, and therefore cogency. You write: “When art itself becomes largely meaningless, when it becomes only vehicle simulating transgression that is in reality conformity, it is only natural that arts journalism becomes meaningless and irrelevant. The sooner it is dead, the sooner we will be able to move toward something that is more honest.” Okay – so what’s the more honest thing? What’s meaningful? I’m not trying to be disrespectful, I’d love to know what counters your despair.
william osborne says
Thank you for the very interesting response. Larger trends in the arts do not evolve because of “conspiracies,” but because culture develops isomorphic patterns based on the worldviews that shape societies – economic systems, religion, political systems, technologies, philosophy, etc. As I noted, cultural nationalism was a fundamental feature of 19th century Europe and shaped the continent we know today. Europe was moved from a set of transnational monarchies to the collection of nation states we know today. Art became an important expression of the cultural nationalism, especially in classical music.
So yes, 19th century art and journalism had something interesting to say, but they also reflected the general ethos of the period. And of course, this wasn’t a matter of political utility, but rather the way our thinking and perception is shaped by larger cultural trends.
As you note, there were similar forms of cultural isomorphism in the 20th century centered around the glorification of machinery and technology. The Futurists were a good example of how these larger ideals shaped the arts. And through D’Annunzio and the cultural writings of several others, those ideas even shaped important aspects of fascism. The thinking that the arts create can have catastrophic consequences.
And as you suggest, the forms of cultural isomorphism created by artistic epochs expand or even redefine our human identity. Over the last 150 years, for example, we moved from being citizens of the nation state to members of a global village. Human and social nature changed. Mainstream arts journalism has continued along the lines of cultural nationalism, which makes it increasingly anachronistic and irrelevant. (Some aspects of this problem are even worse in continental Europe.)
My perception of how Trump fits into this is almost the opposite of yours. It is only natural that the media is crazy about Trump, even if most journalists abhor him. For the last 20 years, he has built his identity and power around the American media. He embodies in fundamental ways, the American ethos, hence his popularity. His tackiness, nationalistic chauvinism, naivety, and racism are fundamentally American, and he has the voters to prove it. He is not advocating a revolution, but rather conformity, as embarrassing as it might be to people who deny what a large part of America is. If the media can’t contextualize him, as you say, it is only because they refuse to admit who we really are. In reality, the media contextualizes Trump perfectly, and much to his advantage. The media loves tackiness.
One of your most interesting points is that “Facts no longer matter because facts change with the situation.” Is that not the postmodern delusion of our time and a belief that is the source of many of our troubles? Have we taken the idea too far that all knowledge is situated? Cultural bias might shape how we evaluate the world, but quite often facts remain facts, however much we wish they didn’t.
When a culture embraces an excessive relativism, Donald Trumps become an inevitability. When someone so tacky can become the Republican presidential nominee, why not place Madonna and 50 Cent alongside Beethoven and Bartok? When World Federation Wrestling becomes a manifestation of culture that only snobs reject, isn’t it time for Trump to be President? Tackiness and vulgarity are not facts, they are culturally conditioned biases…………. Trump is not tacky, we’re just snobs……
So what gives me hope? The beginnings of cultural epochs provide the best cultural writing exactly because revolutions are ready to be created. Postmodernism, for example, produced a lot of interesting writing in the late 70s and early 80s — Foucault, Derrida, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Jean Baudrillard, Donna Haraway, etc. — but who is causing that sort of revolution, that sort of redefinition of humanity today?
Trump might become the first Postmodern President? Is it perhaps time for a new philosophy?
Sadly, there is an even more concrete level to these forms of cultural isomorphism. Our media has been massively centralized and is in the hands of a financial elite. This obviously shapes how the news is reported. Mainstream journalists must operate within a status quo. As Chomsky and Herman famously demonstrated, the mainstream media is obligated to “manufacture consent” for numerous reasons and on numerous levels.
Revolutions keep us from dying. The sooner we kill mainstream arts journalism, the sooner the life-giving world of revolution will appear. I don’t know what those ideas will be, but the discontent that creates new worlds is obviously fomenting.
Again, thank you for your very interesting thoughts. More than my hastily scribbled rants deserve.
Gary Tucker says
Re: Is “This American Life” Killing Public Radio With Its New Deal?
“Sorry, this post is no longer available.”
Doug – Any leads where else we can find this story?
Douglas McLennan says
Gary: Sorry – I just went looking for it and can’t find it anywhere. We have not been linking to LinedIn posts, but this one was a terrific back and forth discussion by public radio people. Unfortunately, someone seems to have taken it down.
Carter Gillies says
The first thought that struck me reading the post was the possible connection between the stories detailing, the decline of arts journalism and the failure of the arts to inspire sports type loyalties. I’m also a huge sports fan, so I tend to see the two worlds from similar places in my mind. The focus and flow of being an artist itself seemed most connected to the focus and flow of playing sports, the timeless absorption into the activity, the joys and triumph and discouraging defeats. On a personal level the making of art and the playing of sport are intimately related, and so its perhaps interesting to see where the paths diverge when broadened out to encompass spectators and the culture at large that places these things in other people’s lives.
One of the interesting discontinuities is how well sports journalism flourishes. There are days when I camp out and watch two straight hours of commentary shows on ESPN. Part of my morning ritual is checking the sports sites for what’s new in the leagues I’m interested in and the teams I follow. Its not unrelated to me getting on instagram or pinterest and seeing what new art is flowing out into the world or reading blogs like yours for the latest thoughts about the field. But you are right, what passed for arts journalism has either fallen off or been replaced by these larger view discussions and all the tangents like last week’s Americans for the Arts blogathon about equity, inclusion, and diversity. Perhaps there is even more being written about the arts than before, just not about specific art in the way it had been done previously?
Its easy to see why sports journalism has something to feed from. The sense of loyalty and general interest that frame people’s fascination with sports is a powerful motivator. If you are interested in sports you may have started by playing as a kid, and then idolizing the heroes and investing emotionally in the fate of the home team. This becomes a deep connection for folks because we pick a side, and that in the course of a season or career there is a lot at stake. When my team loses I have a terrible day. When it wins I am elated. We are invested because our identity has become shaped by these loyalties. And sport makes the relationship seem mutual. You hear players and managers always make the case that they are doing it for the fans. And journalists and the sports media in general do as much as possible to put the human face back on the participants. Players sign autographs before and after games and are the faces of huge advertising campaigns. We are asked to relate to and identify with our teams and players unlike elsewhere, perhaps especially in the arts.
Perhaps part of this is that for so long the arts have been promoted as the special activity of special people, the geniuses. When I teach classes I almost always hear from folks that they are “not artists themselves”, and it is this distancing that is perhaps the most damaging to our ability to identify with the arts. If art is something other people do, why would we be as interested or invested in its issues? With sports we know first hand that sport belongs to the people, that our kids playing in the back yard and adults playing in Sunday leagues makes every person a citizen of the sports world. Perhaps the biggest obstacle to the arts flourishing is that what we often identify as art is only that which gets placed in museums or gets played in concert halls. We don’t just say singing in the shower is bad art, we say its non-art. We are too ready to divide not only the good from the bad but the lesser versions as lacking in a more fundamental way. The passion people have for sports is that these are OUR heroes. These are the things we could be (and are) doing ourselves. We dream sports dreams. We are not often encouraged to dream art dreams, and that has handicapped the arts for too many years.
A different issue popped up as I read your post that may be revealing in another way. I had just started reading Stanley Cavell’s ‘Must we mean what we say?’ (long long overdue for someone who claims an interest in Wittgenstein) and in his forward, ‘An audience for Philosophy’ he remarks “It is tautological that art has, is made to have, an audience, however small or special. The ways in which it sometimes hides from its audience, or baffles it, only confirms this. It could be said of science, on the other hand, that it has no audience at all. No one can share its significance who does not produce work of the same kind. The standards of performance are institutionalized; it is not up to the individual listener to decide whether, when the work meets the cannons of the institution, he will accept it–unless he undertakes to alter those cannons themselves. This suggests why science can be ‘popularized’ and art not (or not in that way), and why there can be people called critics of art but none called critics of science.” (Forward p. xli)
This brought to mind several conversations I had had with a former luminary in the ceramic world, both of us lamenting the precipitous decline of pottery in academic institutions. The problem he identified is that pottery fails to be taken as a serious investigation in that world. It fails that on a number of grounds, but the interesting thing to me was the perception of ‘true’ art as being akin to something like science, and that the cutting edge of art was to be taken as analogous to the cutting edge of science. Art was supposed to push the boundaries of human understanding in the same ways as contemporary science does, and the further out one gets the less intelligible its results will naturally be. Science on the fringes no longer speaks to common people, and we should not be surprised that art on the fringes no longer speaks to people.
The position of arts journalism has therefor been something like the popularizer of art to the mainstream, explaining its otherwise incomprehensibility to us. But the problem, as Cavell notes, is that science operates differently, and you can’t simply popularize art in the same way. For the sciences the fringe is connected to a stable foundation of core values and volumes of previous research. For the fringe in the arts there is little or no foundation. Its more like the surface edge of a bubble that stretches with a hollow core underneath it. The fringe arts are not based on what has gone before as much as they are sometimes a rejection of it……. Its a rejection of culture and values at times, until that rejection itself is the new starting point for a culture of its own. Until then its often a rudderless practice with its own makers and a few insiders as the only audience available.
Now compare the journalism that is possible under those conditions with the journalism for sports. That is hugely interesting!