Art Works Blog

Why Arts Journalism Matters

by Rainey Knudson, Founder/Director, Glasstire

Rainey Knudson is the founder and director of Glasstire, a website about visual art in Texas now celebrating its 10th anniversary. Photo by Everett Taasevigen

Why does art criticism matter?

Art criticism matters because art matters. [If you’re not sure or can’t remember why art matters, I recommend this wonderful interview with Milton Glaser on the website BigThink. He articulates why art matters as elegantly and charmingly as you could ever want.]

We need good art journalism because the basic way we engage with ideas and philosophies (e.g., art) is through talking about those ideas (e.g., writing). We also need art journalism because we like to know what’s going on in our cities. We like to know where the good stuff is.

In recent years, there’s been a groundswell of recognition about the alarming state of arts journalism. Witness the current collaboration between the Knight Foundation and the NEA; or the USC Annenberg/Getty Arts Journalism Program; or the Warhol Foundation’s Arts Writing Initiative. The sense of urgency has resulted in a bit more funding for some writers, which is a good start.

The truth is, if we can just crack the nut of paying great art critics a living wage, then the arts journalism of the near future has the potential to be radically more effective, with far greater reach, than the old print model that has crumbled around us.

In their conversation on this blog, the NEA’s Joan Shigekawa and the Knight Foundation’s Dennis Scholl cite a study that found that 50 percent of local arts journalism jobs have been lost in the past five to eight years.

It’s a shocking number, but in addition to spurring us all to action, it should also politely beg the question of how vital those critics were if their jobs (and their papers) wilted so suddenly. There’s probably a reason that that brand of arts journalism is dying, and it’s not solely that advertising dollars are migrating away from print. Arts journalism in the heyday of the daily newspaper got concentrated in the hands of too few people. For some of them, the easiest route was to applaud every show they wrote about, or to only cover their small coterie of friends.

Bloggers and web startups said, “We can make this more fun, more entertaining, more vital, for way less money.” Now those bloggers and websites are playing an ever-more critical role in arts journalism, and they themselves have to figure out how to pay their writers.

The nut’s going to get cracked; we’re all just figuring out exactly how.

What is the key role of the arts reporter in promoting greater art understanding?

I recently heard the LA art critic David Pagel make a wonderful observation about his profession. He said, “I write to make the world a safer place for me.”

I think he meant that he writes about art---the art that he likes, and the art that he doesn’t like---to encourage more production of the former and less of the latter. Art should not be made in a vacuum. It should be discussed and dissected as intelligently, as entertainingly, and as publicly, as possible.

Has the role of the critic changed---or should it change---given the increasing democratization of arts coverage/rise of the citizen journalist?

The only difference between a great professional arts journalist and a great so-called “citizen journalist” is a paycheck. Most of the best known arts writers in this country do not have degrees in journalism, or even art history.

To be a great arts writer, you need to know what you’re writing about, and you need to be able to write about it very well. The individual who meets both criteria is very, very rare.* Anybody can set up a blog and write about art for a while. Very few people can generate smart, entertaining art criticism over the long haul.

How has the rise of social media changed/made an impact on the role of the arts journalist?

The good thing about social media is that it’s probably the most powerful marketing tool ever invented. Instead of turning in an article and sitting back while the wheels of print production grind away to deliver a fat roll of dead tree material to passive readers in their homes, now arts journalists can (must) actively participate in the promotion and dissemination of their work.

Which leads to the bad thing about social media: it’s starting to acquire the stink of advertorial. In her terrific book A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan imagines a future where individuals of seemingly unimpeachable integrity can be secretly bought to promote the goals of a music company, or any other entity looking to promote its agenda, via their social media networks.

We’re told that social media has a brutally dehumanizing and alienating effect (think adolescent bullying). We’re also told that social media makes us too friendly, by forcing users to “like” and “+1,” dumbing down every action we take online and making us little more than feeble cheerleaders (as commented by the artist William Powhida on Paddy Johnson’s blog ArtFagCity).

Social media in some form is obviously here to stay. But despite the habit of some critics and other luminaries of tirelessly cultivating their online persona, I’m not convinced that successful arts journalists of the future will have to tweet 100 times a day.

In conclusion…

I don’t know what our language will be like in a couple of centuries---for the great-great-grandchildren of the first texters, this paragraph may read like Beowulf. But I do know that those future-dwellers will continue to discuss the art of their time in the language of their time, be it textual, graphic, or transmitted directly from their iBrain.

What matters about art criticism is not so much that it continue to exist (it will), but that it be good. As we know, the Internet doesn’t magically produce great writing. And when great writing appears, the Internet isn’t very good at paying for it.

* And we’re always looking for that individual at Glasstire, so if you’re it, call us!


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