Last week the Brooklyn artist space National Sawdust announced it had hired away Steve Smith from the Boston Globe to start an ambitious new culture journal. Smith is a former NYTimeser, a serious journalist, and an ambitious hire. So why? According to Smith:
Our new journal initiative is not meant to be an alarmed response to that changing status quo, but rather to foster awareness of the brilliant abundance of fresh artistic expression that surrounds us all, and as much as possible to enable creators to tell their own stories in their own words.
Sawdust joins a number of other arts organizations in recent years to start new arts publications. In part this is in reaction to reduction in arts coverage in the press. It mirrors something that’s happening in the for-profit world. Major brands such as Coke, Walmart, and Marriott, discovering that traditional advertising has become less effective and knowing that storytelling shapes opinion, have started their own newsrooms to tell their stories. But in the arts it’s potentially something much more.
So Who’s Telling Your Story?
In the old media world, artists worked to get the attention of critics and journalists, whom, they hoped, would write about them and bring attention. Independent critics worked to contextualize the arts world, shine light on noteworthy artists and projects and spark discussion about what it all meant. The collapse of journalism means that public discussion and contextualization have largely disappeared from public view.
If you’re an artist or arts organization, the responsibility for telling your story to the public now falls on you. So how well are you telling it? Is your story an afterthought, an add-on, or a carefully considered and well-told tale that represents and puts what you do in context?
Yes, Your Work Does Speak For You. But…
So the St. Louis Symphony has a turnaround year under its new executive director. But how is the orchestra telling the story? In the business press it’s a story of financial recovery. The orchestra’s excellent PR department writes a press release, but it’s PR, and it’s by definition self-serving. If the orchestra had first-rate story-tellers of its own, telling stories about the larger orchestra world and placing what the orchestra is doing in a larger context, the story might be something else entirely.
Other arts organizations have been working at versions of the model National Sawdust is trying.
The Baltimore Symphony hired arts journalist Ricky O’Bannon to “embed” in the organization and tell stories about orchestras and classical music. These aren’t just stories about the Baltimore Symphony. One of Ricky’s first efforts was to create a database of all the music performed by American symphony orchestras in the upcoming season and do an analysis of the programming. You could see where the Baltimore Symphony fit into it.
The Chicago Symphony created a music magazine and hired former Chicago Sun-Times arts editor Laura Emerick to produce it. Several other arts organizations have hired arts journalists to tell their stories and put their work into larger context. This isn’t PR; it’s arguing a context, a way of locating an organization’s work in the larger world.
Who’s Leading Your Field?
Leaders drive conversations. Leaders contextualize their field and articulate what’s important and why. They argue for ideas, critique what could be improved or changed, and make the case for a point of view, for an aesthetic. They show how their work does this. It is the primary evidence of their ideas.
I would argue that while arts managers spend much time debating the business of the arts – how to develop audiences, raise money, sell tickets, build community – our artistic debates have become anemic. Where are our best artistic ideas being proposed, debated, and argued over? Where are the bad ideas being challenged and discarded? The internet made the business of the arts somewhat more transparent, but the artistic conversation is still largely diffuse and publicly shapeless. It’s ironic, because fan communities for entertainment franchises have sharply debated and helped define those franchises (for better or worse) and made them more powerful than ever before.
So what does it take to be a leading orchestra or theatre or dance company? Of course it starts with great work, but it’s more than that. There are many organizations that do great work. But being a leader means articulating what’s important to the field, for your version of it. You have to argue for the art form and why it matters (and what your place in it is). That’s more than PR, more than marketing. It’s leading by example and giving others reasons to buy into it.
william osborne says
Is the idea of institutions or people formulating stories about themselves really new? I think of everything from Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” and the Nazis to Conrad Hilton’s “Be My Guest” and corporate promotion. Or even Jesus and the Gospels. Narratives used for brand promotion are an ancient form of propaganda. To put it colorfully, it’s just that the web has allowed dead art forms like orchestras to produce narrative propaganda and thus shake off a few maggots – for the time being.
As with NPR, NewMusicBox, or some AJ blogs, if the discussion about the “narratives” varies from their veiled propagandistic purpose, the dialog will be shut down – or at least limited into something with greater ideological purity. Every propagandistic narrative needs an obedient and subservient Greek chorus.
So I suspect Sawdust with its “new” format of narratives will be just another method for the Northeastern cultural establishment to assert its domination (and often its mediocrity) over the rest of our less media oriented country. Oh gee, what’s NYC up to today, that bastion of our cultural and economic domination? We might also note that Smith is not known for stepping out of bounds. Will we see a change?
So this sentence really struck me, “The collapse of journalism means that public discussion and contextualization have largely disappeared from public view.” Could that view be a bit journocentric – as it were? Are journalists with their symbiotic attachments to cultural institutions and the strictures of our plutocratic society reliable sources of context? It might not be just a coincidence that people find the comments of the public as made available on the web more trustworthy – or at the very least more interesting. The value of journalism during the era of Web 2.0 was not so much context creation as providing a forum for discussion which became the true context.
The medium is the market, the massage of cyberbia that rings the cash register. And as you note, it’s the reactions to the massage that become valuable marketing tools, but only if they toe the line. If any dissent becomes too effective, it eventually vanishes with the instantaneousness and totality of the delete button. We are not talking about narratives, but the mono-narratives of the powerful.
Ask Donald Rosenberg how independent cultural journalists are. One can usually smell the stink of civic and institutional promotion within the first paragraph of most cultural journalists. Iconoclast and loner that I am, I’m thankful the web has provided a source for alternative perspectives and even a forum for dissent regarding the art world’s smelly moneyed, white, patriarchal, plutocratic narratives. But those days are ending. The corporatocracy has tamed the Internet. Welcome to Web 3.0.
Anyway, thanks for the interesting thoughts, but you’re so Web 2.0.
Douglas McLennan says
William: Many arts organizations produce “propaganda” about their work (as you would put it) and have for a long time. The Met Opera radio broadcasts with their intermission features are a good example. So nothing new there. I’ll get to what I think could be new about Sawdust and a few of these others in a moment. But first…
I’m interested that you think NewMusicBox, NPR and some AJBlogs are propagandistic because they can shut down comments. Might another reason that some comments don’t make it to the conversation be that they are off-topic, repeat something already said or don’t add anything? So NPR, like more and more news sites, is shutting down its comments section. I think this is too bad, but understand the reason. It’s not that these sites don’t want discussion – they would be thrilled to host good debate – but they’re unwilling to devote the resources to moderating it, and without shaping it, it degenerates into a useless mess. Surely, as IRL discussions, you can understand the need for some rules.
I love your idea that the Sawdust pub will be “just another method for the Northeastern cultural establishment to assert its domination (and often its mediocrity) over the rest of our less media oriented country.” So assert away! (he says from the upper left corner of the country). Take your best shot. But William – that’s so pre-Web 1.0. Back then, media domination by the Northeast was invincible. There are so many accessible voices elsewhere in the country now, the Northeast version of culture has much less hold on the rest of us.
I’ll gladly admit to being “journo-centric”. I believe that vigorous public debate is a sign of a healthy culture. Yes, some journalists fall into a symbiotic trap with the institutions they cover. In the case of the arts, I believe the trap is that too often journalists who love the arts get worried the arts they love will fail if they are too critical, resulting in coverage that pulls punches and supports mediocrity. As for reinforcing a plutocratic institutional structure for the arts, I think it’s lack of imagination more than a desire to toady up.
But journalism has traditionally been – however successful or not – a place where discussions about the arts took place in public. With its diminishment, those discussions have largely retreated to specialty venues outside the larger public view. There are now some very good places where one can see and participate in higher level debate, but these are not likely places where the general public will ever see them.
While you may think that people trust commenters more than critics or find them more interesting, I think experience for the most part is showing that that is not the case. Communities that get commenting right – Slashdot, for example – are amazingly interesting. The New York Times does a reasonable job of curating its comments. But log in to any general news site and you sink into the morass almost immediately.
I’ll venture a possibly minority view here of the Rosenberg case. Could it not be that he had simply run out of new things to say about a conductor he didn’t like? And, opinion hardened and lens set, he may have been unable to explore his subject more widely. The orchestra had a right to be annoyed. And it had a right to complain. The newspaper also had a right to want its critic to engage its readers. It handled the situation dreadfully, did a disservice to Don, to its readers, and to the orchestra. But this was not a case of collusion or lack of independence. It was stupidity.
So I return to my original point. In the absence of third-party referees, how are we (broadly defined) going to talk about art and culture and its relevance in the world? And how are artistic ideas going to spread beyond the narrow arts world, if they’re not more visibly seen? Everyone is self-interested. Everyone. But does that mean everything they say should be devalued because of it?
I think pure propaganda efforts are easily seen as such (and it’s why journalistic propaganda lost its audience). But who better to debate immersive theatre than those who are engaged in it? Why shouldn’t orchestras fight for a vision of the music they want to play and be out there explaining and showing why that vision is so compelling and more so than something else? Self-serving maybe, but maybe interesting. Certainly more so than not making a case for something specific. If you’re just an orchestra that plays anything, and without a point of view, isn’t that worse? I think the promise of a National Sawdust publication is that it could argue for a point of view. If it doesn’t, if it is just propaganda, people will see through it.
BTW – I forgot to mention in my original post another example of an arts organization that has taken a broder, contextual, leadership approach to its work – the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis. When the web was young, the Walker made a serious effort to give Minnesota artists opportunities to talk to one another online. Their website attempts to locate the issues the Walker cares about in a much larger context of the world.
william osborne says
Thank you for your intelligent, informed, and thoughtful comments which are more than mine deserve.
The question for many becomes, who’s spinning my narrative? Rick below mentions Greg Sandow who spins the neoliberal arts mantra “You Godda Merchandize!” I was just speaking with a friend from Boulder CO, who did a count and found that about half the programming of the Colorado Symphony is pop music or light classical pops – a model they developed to come out of bankruptcy, and norm to which the USA is moving.
Europeans view neoliberalism with deep mistrust, and spin a very different narrative. See, for example:
Though they print the occasional alibi article, NewMusicBox is a neoliberal site consistently promoting a market narrative for contemporary classical music – something fairly alien to the Social Democracies of Europe where the arts receive massive public funding. NPR and PBS have changed dramatically over the last 40 years under pressure from the political right. I no longer care for the narrative they spin for my life and my country. NPR’s pat, simplistic conformism sounds like an aural version of Weekly Reader to me. Democracy Now! spins an entirely different narrative.
Shall we not view all story tellers as propagandists of a sort? As Napoleon noted, “History is a set of lies people agree upon.”
So how do we know when comments are blocked or discussion entirely eliminated because they contradict biased narratives? How can we say the Internet has empowered regional American when mainstream Northeastern Internet sites like the New York Times gain more and more power while sites like the Seattle based MSNBC site can’t compete?
Is Web 3.0 not replicating the traditional power centers of the media establishment?
And we won’t even discuss the egalitarian anarchy that Web 1.0 used to represent when there was, for example, no Google, only Yahoo, no Amazon, and no NYT website. Those were the days when activists were able to use the web to pressure the Vienna Philharmonic into allowing women membership – days long gone. Now we have the plutocratic NYT and neoliberal merchandizers spinning our arts narratives and they dominate the Web 3.0.
One might wish that large Internet sites manned by journalists could maintain intelligent discussion, but has mass journalism ever enjoyed such discussion? Doesn’t mass journalism aim at a lower more conformist denominator? Look, for example, at the often dismal discussion on Slippedisk – a site I otherwise enjoy. Perhaps we are reluctant to admit that if we are “going to spread beyond the narrow arts world” we must by necessity accept intelligent comment along with the snarky ignorance of the polis. Is the rubric of eliminating trolls part of a larger movement toward domination of the Web by the status quo?
I think we must also stress that arts education is even more fundamental than arts journalism to intelligent discussion and differentiated narratives. Arts education is the basis of building publics and the basis of intelligent readers of arts journalism. Sadly, and conveniently, arts education has been removed from the table. All that matters is You Godda Merchandize!
Anyway, I’m Web 1.0 and you’re Web 2.0, and we are both being left behind. As was to be expected.
william osborne says
There’s another interesting idea I forgot to mention. How will aggregator sites like AJ function in Web 3.0? Will they channel readers to the corporate media and the status quo, or will they also include the voices of small dissenting sites pushed to the margins? How will the editors find a balance? I think AJ does good job of picking up worthwhile off beat views. Can aggregator sites mitigate the corporate domination of Web 3.0 and maintain intelligent, independent discussion?
Douglas McLennan says
Well – web 3.0 is actually the internet of things – connecting all the objects around us (1.0 was connecting information, and 2.0 was connecting people – the social web. Many consider the semantic web to be 3.0, but I think in the longer view things is the real 3.). Aggregation is getting both more difficult and easier. There has never been more interesting writing available. So much easier to find than when I started the site in 1999. But at the same time,the platforms – Facebook particularly – are exerting pernicious and opaque control over what content gets seen and by whom. This isn’t just a problem for aggregators, it’s going to be a disaster for news institutions, who are giving up control of their distribution platforms to private social networks who can change how they function with barely any notice. This is further undermining news sites’ ability to make money and subverts the practicality of freedom of the press.
william osborne says
In reality, the Internet of Things is a euphemism for the Internet of Merchandise – i.e. the Internet of Corporations. Netflix, for example, uses 37% of the web traffic in America.
This economic emphasis is correlated to the gated communities that have evolved like Facebook. Prime real estate is created and outsiders excluded. The service providers even attempted to create fast tracks for corporations. This ethos of corporate domination will continue to alter the Web.
Danah Boyd, who works as a Micorsoft researcher and at the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet & Society, claims these gated communities are creating a form of online segregation. She observed that people of a certain race typically befriend people of the same race, thereby mimicking the self-segregation that also exists in real life. The Web is notable for the way it enhances tribalism and segregation. So far, the Web’s narratives of exclusion outweigh the narratives of inclusion.
As the Web matures, it will increasingly become isomorphic with the real life world and its social problems. Corporate domination and segregation are two examples of these real life correlations that define Web 3.0.
I’m happy that I experienced Web 1.0. For a short time it was something of a utopia in spite of its faults. There was a struggle to maintain those values in the Web, but in our corporatocracy the battle was hopeless. The arts, culture, and forms of communication will always become isomorphic with the larger values of society.
Douglas McLennan says
The internet is simply a tool. It amplifies human nature – I don’t believe it changes it. For every story of enhanced tribalization and exclusion I could point to another about how it connects people and widens vistas. You can certainly look at the internet of things as the internet of merchandise and merely a pretext to get people to consume and make corporations rich. Or you can see it as a transformative thing that can deepen our experience of the world. Blind people who can now “read” any text on the fly because of speech programs. Universal translators that do real time translations from one language to another as you speak. Home automation that lets bed-bound people turn on lights, order food, summon help. Home monitoring equipment that helps us cut energy consumption. The list is endless. It’s not all good, neither is it all bad. We’re in an awkward period where we’re still trying to figure out both how to use the new toys, and understand what protections we need to build in. I don’t think Web 1.0 was ever a utopia. And I don’t think corporate domination is inevitable. William – you and I wouldn’t even be having this conversation if things were as bleak as you contend.
william osborne says
Thank you for these interesting thoughts. Apparently there is more bleakness in my comments than I intended to convey. I think we all know how much technology improves our lives. I’ve used the Web to create some notable improvements in the classical music world (VPO…) and make my music available to people in ways I never dreamed possible.
The issue is how narratives shape societies and the arts, the power the Web has in conveying those narratives, the potential centralization of narrative authorship, the precise targeting of narratives to specific groups, and the seeming movement toward limiting dialog about those narratives – at least on the sites that promote them. I think we should be wary of these trends, whether they seem bleak or not.
There are so many potential ways the web can be manipulated. Why, for example, has WikiLeaks’ site been slammed with viruses and who was behind that? Why has the government built a one million square foot data collection center in Utah that cost $1.5 billion and that uses 65 megawatts of electricity that costs about $40 million per year? In April 2009, officials at the United States Department of Justice acknowledged that the NSA had engaged in large-scale over-collection of domestic communications in excess of the federal intelligence court’s authority. Abuses are real. See:
Shouldn’t these complex issues be considered? Is a focus on them too negative?
There’s one other interesting aspect about the Internet of Things (Merchandise.) The actual definition of Web 3.0 is that many of our tools and appliances (Things) will have embedded software controlled and monitored by the Net. One will be able to use a computer to control home heating, regulate the stove, lock doors, dim the lights, turn up the hot water heater, watch the children, program the TV, etc.
Third parties now have a fairly detailed awareness of how each individual uses the Web, and thus many of their desires, interests, purchases, reading material, daily activities, etc. Through the Web of Things, they will also know a lot about our Things and how we use them. They also know who we talk to and where we travel. What are the long-term implications of these developments? How will this massive potential for social engineering be best used and controlled?
It’s not so much that I’m negative but that I find these questions very interesting and the trends sometimes disturbing. Perhaps it’s an occupational hazard. I think the most interesting artists and thinkers throughout history (especially writers) have been those who tended toward skepticism, those willing to challenge and question the status quo. Bruno, Galileo, MLK, Gandhi, etc. Perhaps there’s room for even lesser lights to be a bit resistant, and even about more everyday matters. To return to the original theme: Are all of them just trolls?
Rick Robinson (Mr. CutTime) says
Stories about leaders for the future of the classical arts are either scattered and hidden, or validated by the gatekeepers, with several new but small pockets of sharing taking place barely on the radar because of the saturation on the ground. I’m very fortunate to have been invited to perform at one such barely-visible convening at DePauw University next month called 21CMposium; the first (annual) conference for 21st-Century classical musicianship. It will feature some leading groups like Project Trio, Kronos Quartet, and Roomful of Teeth, plus a new ensemble competition, as well as thought-leaders like Greg Sandow, Mike Block and Justin Kantor. Will it be perfectly representative of all that is out here? Certainly not. Will it ever be in the future? I wouldn’t expect so. Is it better than nothing and worth doing? Hell yeah!
Short of having the backing of a major institution and great writing, small players like CutTime® can never reach a wide enough audience of presenters with our stories. Real change is happening both regardless of the fingers on the scale and because of it. I’m excited at our potential and hope many will eventually learn something about new, if unproven ideas to re-balance the arts ecosystem.
Douglas McLennan says
William: It appears that the comments software won’t let me continue in our thread above, so I’ll write here. Of course I should have mentioned your work prodding the Vienna Philharmonic and shining light on them. That really did make a difference. I can actually feel very bleak about manipulation of information and intrusions on our privacy and corporate monopolization of our information platforms. And you’re right of course that in the early days of the web when there was a Wild West mentality no one – including big companies – really knew enough to control things.
I think the power Facebook has attained as arbiter of what gets seen and what doesn’t is pernicious and dangerous. Our copyright system is a complete mess, and privacy is rapidly becoming a quaint (and faint) memory. The internet of things brings to all this a whole new level of opportunity to exploit our privacy. One has only to look at the atrocious level of political discourse this election cycle and how it has emboldened racists and bigots to get depressed. Misogyny and racism and trolling has become a blunt weapon forcing more and more talented people offline.
Worth noting and pointing out these terrible trends, absolutely. And you’re right – the best artists have tended to be skeptics. But then that’s another thing to get depressed about – our skeptical artists of today seem to have been defanged, and I fear after decades of shock art that people have tuned out anyway. Sharp critics of digital culture like Jaron Lanier and Evgeny Morozov, while they have many good criticisms, often come off as pedantic curmudgeons rather than insightful watchdogs.
I myself tend to be a skeptic. But my solution is to try to advocate for ideas I think show promise.. Half empty, half full? Perhaps.
william osborne says
You say so much better what I was trying to say. As a final thought, I wonder if the Web of Things will merge with Virtual Reality and become Web 4.0. It’s not just that the massive and yet precise control of things will allow for the creation of realities, but that humans themselves will become the raw material to be manipulated. There will be no distinction between things and humans. Instead of technology serving humans, they will be the technology.