Archive for the Death of arts publishing Category

Below is an excerpt from the first essay I ever published.
It appeared in Mt. San Antonio College’s literary journal Mosaic just a bit over twenty years ago, in April, 1989. I was 23.

from Growing up with Steve Garvey

by “Michael Sean Fallon”

…When I was a kid in 1974, there was only one thing on the minds of the kids on our block. The Dodgers were in the hunt for a World Championship. They were powered by a line-up including four very young and talented infielders: Bill Russell, Ron Cey — the Penguin — Davey Lopes, and, our favorite, Steve Garvey. Now here was a real hero, someone that kids could admire and look up to without question. Even our parents seemed to think he was mostly on the up-and-up. He was clean-cut, good-looking, had graduated from college, had married his beautiful college sweetheart; he never swore, he never spat, and he never grabbed his crotch (at least not when the camera was on him he didn’t). He spent time with the fans, was always eager to talk to them and sign autographs; he talked to the press, and they wrote that he was just too good to be true. He batted. 312 that year, hit twenty-one home runs, drove in 111 RBIs [author’s note: This was at the height of a long era of pitching dominance], and he was awarded the Most Valuable Player award in the National League.

As a nine-year-old, I was ga-ga for Garvey. Here was a man that I wanted to be just like; I used to dream of trading place with him for just one day. I could see myself sidling up to my lovely wife Cyndy in my lovely Bel Air home and saying something like, “I’d really love to stay home with you and the kids, but we have that game against the Reds, and, gosh, we have to win this one if we’re going to get to the World Series.”

That would make her happy for a moment, but then she would be sad. She would look at me with large eyes and coo: “Can’t choo just stay a wittle wonger?”

“No,” I would be my chest stoically. “I have to do it for the team. But, if you like, I’ll hit a homer for you, and I’ll bring you the game ball.”

Every day without fail as part of my nine-year-old morning ritual, I checked the box score just to see if Steve Garvey had gotten any hits (I did this even if I had already seen or heard the game the day before). It would be a moment of sweet anticipation when I first opened the newspaper, and my hands would quiver until my eyes finally fell on their destination. If he had gotten a hit, it would be a good day; more than one hit, it would be a great day. No hits and forget it — I may have just as well not gotten out of bed. But with Steve Garvey, the bad days were rare because he was a model of consistency. He played all the time and eventually set the National League record for consecutive games played, and he always worked as hard as he could. Seldom did he go longer than one or two days without a hit, seldom did he let himself crush the fragile hearts of nine-year-old children whose well-being depended on his performance in the clutch.

Of course, there was The Slump. For weeks there were no hits. It was the worst slump of Garvey’s career, he could do nothing right. Three hits in his last fifty at bats. I was devastated. My family could probably tell you the date better than I could from ho I suffered and how I made them suffer with me. I believe it was 1976, the year the dreaded Big Red Machine won its second consecutive World Series. But like all low points in a person’s career, it couldn’t last, and he lived through it (we lived through it), got back on track, and eventually Garvey batted .319 for that season. I well remember the day he came out of The Slump and went five-for-five — the best day of his career and one of the happiest days of my young life. Turns out he had promised a crippled girl that he’d get a hit for her that day. It made all the papers. And, as in the movies, he couldn’t hit just one, he had to hit five: one grand slam, one other homer, two doubles, seven RBIs.

All these memories came flooding back to me just recently upon reading one of the many articles that have been written about my boyhood hero. It was like how you might recall a painful breakup with a serious steady one day while looking at your old photo album. The times I spent with Steve and the gang were sweet, or at least they used to seem so. Lately though, they’ve come to seem a little bitter, not so purely sweet. I feel sorry for all those Reds fans too, despite how I hated them when I was younger. They deserved better than what happened to Pete Rose.

Still, Pete was “Charlie Hustle.” He was never pure as the virgin snow. He had a grittiness about him — the snot-nosed kid from the tenements who was fighting for his mother’s good name. I guess we just misunderstood the kind of “hustle” they were talking about. But Steve Garvey was Mr. Clean, and there’s really no getting around the fact that he was not at all true to his image. He once was even quoted as saying he did everything as though there were a nine-year-old boy following him around. Or words to that effect.

I suppose all good things end, nothing last forever. Fortunately, the shock of shattered boyhood dreams is lessened by time. Steve’s not played for the Dodgers for seven years now. Sometimes it seems like only yesterday when my father and I were sitting in the living room watching the boys in blue struggle through the 1974 season to reach the World Series, chanting along with the home crowd as the first baseman is announced to bat with the game on the line: “Gar-vey! Gar-vey! Gar-vey!” (This was our variation on the more well-known “Reg-gie, Reg-gie, Reg-gie!”) We watched on TV, my dad and I, as they clinched the pennant late in the season, and we jumped around the room and screamed and gave each other five and jumped and screamed some more.

But, on the other hand, it seems like that happened eons ago.

In the wake of the recently announced demise of VACUM, the Art Newspaper posted a story on the forced death march facing arts journalism. Here’s some key info:

Arts journalism as we used to know it is sinking with the ship…. The problem is that the cuts [to newspapers] are deepening an already miserable shortage of resources, set against a cultural universe that continues to expand [emphasis mine]. We are past the tipping point: it has become acceptable to run a paper with just a skeletal culture staff. Specialised writers are giving way to generalists. Culture sections are being tossed overboard (standalone book review sections, in particular, are a dying breed). Article lengths and “news holes” (space for editorial content) are shrinking. All this has eviscerated newspapers’ ability to deliver quality arts coverage, which, as a result, must migrate elsewhere…. Many experts believe that daily newspapers will never find a way back to sustaining solid arts journalism. Magazines are doing marginally better, but they cannot shoulder the burden of timely local arts coverage, especially for non-specialist readers — and some are folding.

None of this is a surprise to me, of course. Whereas I once had no problem finding home to 30+ yearly articles (even as I struggled to keep up on a dayjob) in local and national magazines, newspapers, newsweeklies, and online magazines, this has for the most part gone away in the past year. Most of these formerly welcoming venues have folded or been forced to cut back their space for arts writing. In fact, I’m back to writing almost solely for the first publication that was brave and daring enough to accept my very first review back in 1997. This is less of a tragedy for me than it sounds. While I’ve enjoyed writing about and supporting local art, it has not been without its hassles. And arts writing has never been much of a money-making venture.

This downturn in fact has given me freedom to evolve. I’ve been dabbling this past few months — ever since my most recent online magazine venture folded for budgetary reasons — with other writing forms: poetry, journalism, essays, fiction, memoir,… not to mention my eccentric and self-absorbed blogging (blogging, BTW, seems to be what the Art Newspaper pins all future hopes, even as it acknowledges that a general lack of funding for the practice keeps it marginal and ephemeral).

What’s perhaps the only unfortunate thing about this death of arts writing is the effect of the decline of attention being paid (not just by me, but by other writers across the board) to local artists. As the article hints, cultural production continues to expand even as less public attention is paid to it. As evidence, I note that today I am receiving more notices from artists — in the mail, via email, on Facebook, etc — than I ever have. Artists seem increasingly desperate for someone to notice them.

Alas, poor artists. In response to all your notices, emails, and public interruptions, all I can say is: Sorry. I can’t respond to your art, at least not in any official published way, but hey, that’s the way it goes.

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NOTE: This is not a book review. This is just a head’s up to all you hungry CAFAians out there.

I just picked up a (relatively) new book by the Journal of Aesthetics & Protest Press about artistic failure. Called Failure! Experiments in Aesthetic and Social Practices, it’s a low-budget, special-interest sort of publication (supposedly published two years ago–though there’s no date on the copyright page) that appears to contain a good amount of the dense, almost unreadable academic-style writing you often find in curator-driven vanity monographs that art centers often “publish.” I say this without having really dug into the book yet (though I intend to soon), and admit that what I have read thus far has been pretty compelling. The editors seem overall to take a whippet-smart approach to examining the very hot issue of failure in art (and politics and society, yadda yadda) (though they also seem to be, at least from the note I received from them about an earlier version of this post, somewhat testy, and for little reason).

I may (or may not) post more about this text in the near-future, but for now here’s a sampling (from the book’s intro), which could have fit in well with some of what’s been written thus far on the very webblog you’re reading now:

Just as any human enterprise is defined by what it excludes, it is a culture’s failure–quickly forgotten, repressed, buried away–which have the most to say about that culture’s beliefs and values. Our project is conceived of as part of the archeology of thos lost failures, a way of bringing to light our own culture’s aberrations…. The work in this book takes different approaches to failure. Some writers investigate failure’s root causes (both specifically and generally), in an attempt to understand why things fail. Others use the idea of failure as a way to reinterpret our relationship to history and progress, while still others question the rhetoric of failure and success altogether.

With the scattered attention span and the fickle and dimming memory of the Internet and its attendant (Alzheimer’s-striken) institutions, I was only mildly surprised to discover in recent weeks that some of the publications for which I’d written arts profiles, reviews, features, and other articles in the past ten years were rapidly expunging their online journalistic databases of recent writing by me.

Therefore, in order to preserve at least a small part of local (Minnesota) art history for purposes of research and novelty, I am building on this blog-page my own live-link personal online database of some of the more than 170 pieces of arts writing I’ve completed in the past decade-plus. (Note: To finish listing all the available story-links is going to take just a little bit of time, so please be patient and check back often.)

Warning: What follows is a bit on the self-serving side. Not that blogs in general aren’t all in some way an exercise in solipsism, but I just thought you should know, in case you were shill-sensitive, that this post is wholly intended to tout a new project I am involved in: A Twin Cities-based blog of art criticism and arts writing called “The Thousandth Word.” It’s being published by Rakemag.com, and involves the effort of a group of six sharp-tongued and perceptive critics calling themselves “The Vicious Circle.”

Since you’re all religious readers of CAFA, you will likely recall that I reported here back in March that the Rake Magazine, for several years a chief supporter of quality coverage on the local visual arts, ceased print publication. Well, as it turns out, I was surprised to learn that Rakemag’s existence did not entirely blink out after that announcement. While there were drastic layoffs, and while the remaining staff were moved to a smaller, more humble location, Rakemag regrouped itself, retooled its business-model (in keeping with these virtual times), and began to expand its online-only list of offerings: namely, a growing roster of blogs on sundry topics.

“The Thousandth Word” is the result of weeks of discussion, negotiation, and planning. The first post of “The Thousandth Word” explains the process a bit, and lists the professional biographies of the six writers of this blog. The plan is for the Vicious Circle to fan out across the city and region, take a looksee at what’s being made and exhibited artistically in town, and write two monthly posts apiece on what we each discover. The result will be twelve or more critical posts on art for an information-starved community of local artists.

So, what we’ve got here, gentle art readers, is a bit of lemonade squeezed from the rock-hard old lemons of these current times of (artistic failure).

A FEW WEEKS AGO, over tropical cocktails at a party at my home, I spoke with my old friend and colleague Caroline Palmer. Caroline and I first met about ten years ago, when we both started writing around the same time for the alt-weekly in Minneapolis, City Pages. She was a dance critic, and I was a writer on visual art, but we had certain key things in common that guaranteed we’d become friends: we were both in our early thirties at the time, and nowhere as cool and hip as the average alt-weekly writer; we both had come up as practitioners, in our twenties, of what we wrote about (she a dancer, me a visual artist); we both had made a conscious decision to give up professional pursuit of artistic practices in favor of more secure and stable work and income (she a nonprofit lawyer, me a book publisher); and we both were, despite our giving up the practices, completely dedicated to and fascinated by our respective fields.

For various reasons, Caroline and I hadn’t seen each other for several years. I had been forced to stop writing art criticism for City Pages four years earlier, when the newspaper began to struggle with declining advertising income and space became a premium, so I no longer saw her at social events related to the paper. Then, in short order, I got divorced, moved across the country, got several new jobs and a graduate degree (in arts management), moved back, got engaged to someone new, got married, got another new job, and remodeled a house.

Eventually, we reconnected. Caroline has continued writing for City Pages, in the process becoming—after a year-long littany of layoffs, staff turnovers, firings, and other guttings (that started with the firing of the editor who first cut back on my visual arts writing) decimated the paper in 2007—the currently longest continously employed writer at City Pages.

At the party, I congratulated her on her longevity. “Yeah, I know,” she said. “I can’t believe I’m still doing things with them. You wouldn’t believe how much things have changed over there in the past year. It’s a completely different place. I don’t know. The atmosphere is different… It used to be fun and lively, but now it’s just glum.” We talked a bit about writers we knew in common who had been let go by the papers corporate masters—whoever they might be now—and how poorly they had been treated by the outsourced management. A few of the (unceremoniously) shit-canned writers—like film critic Rob Nelson, and music writer Jim Walsh—had an actual national following and cred.

“Well, at least you’re still writing,” I said. She smiled wanly. “Yeah, but it’s not the same. All they let me do now is write A-List blurbs,” (this is the same deal I was offered by the arts editor when he told me they’d no longer be taking visual art stories or reviews), “I really miss writing reviews. Saying something significant about dance, you know? I wish I could just find a place to write dance reviews. It’s really all I want to do.”

A LOT OF ARTISTS profess to hate critics, their inconstancy, their unpredictability, their lack of support of artists (read: of them), their recalcitrant independence. Some artists say “good riddance” to the critic who gets downsized out of the local papers and publications, and they exclaim, “so what? Things are tough all over. What have you ever done for me?” Then, in time, many of these same callous artists turn around and bemoan how hard it is to get attention from an ambivalent, overtaxed, overstimulated public.

It’s looking now, more and more, in this Web 2.0 mob-rules age of user-generated content, that artists won’t have to worry about being frustrated by professional critics anymore. Even though a 2003 report saw a huge lack of cultural coverage in the nation’s daily papers, things have grown worse. Among national and regional publications of late, we’ve seen significant layoffs in every field of artistic and creative endeavor. It’s been true in visual arts criticism, literary criticism, classical, jazz and other music criticism, even movie criticism. It’s gotten so bad, that the venerable national weekly news magazine Newsweek recently fired its entire cultural staff.

At the party, I had no answer for Caroline’s dream of writing reviews about dance. Though I still write occasional art reviews for local publications and several national ones, it’s true that the local media landscape has become increasingly denuded. It also seems that things will only be getting worse in coming years. The weeks since Caroline’s lament have seen two major firings of prominent professionals in Caroline’s field—both Laura Bleiberg of the OC Register and Deborah Jowitt of the Village Voice have lost their dance critic jobs.

And lest you pull out a gut-wrench “good riddance,” or “you’ve never done me any good,” or “you’ve never written anything worth reading anyway” (translation: you’ve never written anything about me), consider: Fewer working experienced critics means less opportunity for being written about (not more); fewer regular publication venues for arts criticism and writing means almost no opportunity for young writers to learn their craft, hone their judgment, and develop professional future careers as critics; and, ultimately, the loss of arts criticism means that the forces of blind commerce and bottom-dollar, high-yield economics will be dictating to the rest of us, for many many years to come, that our culture will be grayer, drabber, less vibrant, less diverse, and generally less understood and appreciated than it otherwise could have been.

So word from United Press International is the voiceless, weightless shadow of cancer-victim Roger Ebert can’t wait to get back to writing movie criticism again.

“I am at last returning to the movie beat,” Ebert announced in the letter published Tuesday. “I’m looking forward to opening night of my annual film festival at the University of Illinois on April 23, and I will resume writing movie reviews shortly thereafter.”

The critic said he underwent his third surgery in January, but revealed his ability to speak was not restored; that would require another operation.

“But I still have all my other abilities, including the love of viewing movies and writing about them,” Ebert said.

We here at Art Failure Central certainly wish Mr. Ebert a speedy recovery and many long years of out-thrust thumbs. However, we also suggest that perhaps it might be a different kind of cancer—the cancer of art failure, and the failure of newspapers and of daily arts criticism—that ultimately ends his critical career. If you don’t believe me, check out what David Carr of the New York Times recently had to say about the impending demise of the movie critic.

The continual drumbeat of news that film critics are being laid off at daily and weekly newspapers across the country has kicked up some quotable reviews.

“A dire situation!” Scott Rudin, independent film producer.

“A terrible loss!” Tom Bernard, Sony Pictures Classics.

“Puts serious movies at risk!” Mark Urman, ThinkFilm.

Those men …. were upset by the departures of movie critics. Nathan Lee, one of The Village Voice’s two full-time critics, was laid off last week by Village Voice Media, a large chain of alternative weeklies that has been cutting down the number of critics it employs across the country.

The week before, two longtime critics at Newsday — Jan Stuart and Gene Seymour — took buyouts, along with their editor. And at Newsweek, David Ansen is among 111 staff members taking buyouts, according to a report in Radar.

They join critics at more than a dozen daily newspapers (including those in Denver, Tampa and Fort Lauderdale) and several alternative weeklies who have been laid off, reassigned or bought out in the past few years, deemed expendable at a time when revenues at print publications are declining, under pressure from Web alternatives and a growing recession in media spending.

R.I.P., art/movie critics (and newspapers)!

When downturns happen, when people are shocked out of their regular ruts, when the bombing starts and buildings are knocked down–whenever something bad happens on a large scale in the country, the arts are the first thing that goes out the window.

Case in point for today (March 4, 2008), as the collective economic hand-wringing mounts to a deafening pitch:

Be wary of walking under windows, lest you be hit in the head with all the art and culture we’re tossing out.

First, some rare good news: The Chronicle of Artistic Failure in America has learned that one of its blog postings, the first of a two-parter about the Colorado artist Dean Fleming, was picked up this week by the website of the Minneapolis-based magazine, The Utne Reader. Thanks to the Reader for their interest in this unusual artist, and in the Chronicle of Artistic Failure in America.

To read more about Fleming, you can also go to this post. To read more in general about struggling, aging artists go here.

Meanwhile, the bigger news this past week in Minnesota was the demise of the monthly feature magazine The Rake. Now, some would say–in a market where the local papers have downsized significantly over the past few years (cutting numerous arts and cultural writing position), where the local newsweekly has fired and replaced its entire writing/editorial staff over the past year, and where the local media market is constantly in flux–the loss of The Rake was just another blip on the path to local media/cultural/practical illiteracy.

It’s not putting too fine a point on things to say that all local publishers (and media professionals) are running scared. “Things have changed radically in the last six years, and I think it’s going to get worse long before it gets better,” Rake Publisher Tom Bartel said. “It’s too expensive to produce journalism and then have Google come along and take all your advertising.” “At best, these are challenging times, maybe even recessionary times,” said John Rash, a senior vice president at advertising agency Campbell Mithun who follows the media market and writes a monthly column for the Star Tribune. “While there is some tremendous journalism on websites and in smaller publications, it is more difficult to monetize it, both locally and nationally. Newspapers themselves have struggled.” “We think the next 18 months are going to be tough for advertising in general,” said Deborah Hopp, publisher of Mpls.St.Paul magazine, based in Minneapolis. “Our expectation is that, around here, weaker players will fall by the wayside.”

For purposes of our interest in artistic failure, however, the loss of The Rake hits home because this publication was particularly invested in and involved with the arts locally—initiating a quarterly arts insert (and a celebratory event) called 10,000 Arts, hiring a former arts writer as their editor-in-chief (which meant lots of interest in arts writing), and partnering with and supporting a number of local arts organizations on a range of projects.

The Rake will be missed…

By the way, as a separate, but related note: I wasn’t even aware that the Utne Reader still existed, were you?…