Archive for the Decline of art criticism Category

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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As the TC Daily Planet just announced a few hours ago, the Visual Art Critics Union of Minnesota (or VACUM), a group I founded in 2002 (and led until 2005), has just announced it is disbanding.

For a sense of the history VACUM, as well as some insight into my feelings on its accomplishments, posted below is the letter I wrote to the group on reading the announcement.

Dear (now soon-to-be-ex-)VACUMers,

As this group’s original (some might say evil) step-parent, its namer, logo-maker, and its erstwhile co-founder (along with Jennifer Amie), I thought it might be appropriate at this point to say a few words of retrospection about it.

In 2002, after kicking around a few curatorial project ideas with several working critics in town, Jennifer and I took the plunge of calling as many visual arts writers as we could find at the time to the conference room of the Bell Museum, where she worked, on an unseasonably warm February weekend afternoon. Making a point of excluding no one and remaining open to everyone’s ideas, our intent was to investigate creating a critical cooperative of some sort, a banding together and pooling of resources and information that might help foster critical activity in town and act as a representative body for all critics. All in attendance seemed somewhat jazzed about these ideas, and some brought their own ideas, so we agreed to meet again and in time a group was formed.

The idea to start a critic’s association had been on my mind for several months in late 2001 and early 2002, during which I talked to similar groups (like CACA in Chicago and AICA in NY) and I searched my conscience to be sure I really wanted to take on such a chore. I recall sitting with Jennifer over a winter dinner, explaining my reluctance to add any more work to my busy schedule — because I assumed (correctly) that the bulk of the org’s work would fall on its nominal leader and also I assumed (again correctly) that that leader would probably be reluctant me. But, sure the cause was worthy, I assuaged my fears by making Jennifer promise that if we did this thing she would stick with it as co-leader/organizer (or whatever) and not abandon me. Jennifer lasted for about a year’s worth of meetings before she stopped attending and eventually gave up writing for publication.

Of the ten or twelve people who attended the meeting, fully half have fallen away through the years. Some have moved on to other towns. Some have given up writing. Some I’ve lost track of. Other people have come and used the group as they’ve needed to, then stayed or gone off to other things. A few rare others have stuck around through the lean and in-between, right up to the very end.

At its peak, real membership in the group (as opposed to the Yahoo group count) has hovered just above thirty, though meetings have never seemed to grow beyond the number of attendees at the first meeting. I myself gave up the leadership position of VACUM (I ended up disliking the term “president,” since we never had any formal standing as a body), in the spring of 2005. I was burned out and ready to become emeritus, though, because I truly cared about our efforts and about members of the group, I had to use the pretext of a move to Pittsburgh to extract myself.

In its first three-plus years, as was stated in the final meeting’s minutes, VACUM was remarkably successful. We gave each other mutual support; we mentored a number of young writers; we shared clips and critical information; and we met and mingled with artist groups in town (who, it turns out, were always happy to meet an organized group of critics). Then there were the programs we created from nothing and with nothing more than our collective effort. Sometime after the first year, we set up a lasting relationship with the MAEP through the “Trialogue” program of lectures on each of their shows. A year or so after that, we established the VACUM Attachment in the Rain Taxi. Further, it has also been suggested that VACUM’s greatest role has been providing connection and friendship between critics, who were formally not known for their tendency to mingle with each other. Significant relationships and passing dalliances, important mentorships and ongoing partnerships (as well as the opposite of each of these) are all part of VACUM’s legacy.

What I recognize now about VACUM is it came about during, and contributed to, a golden age of criticism in the Twin Cities. To list some examples of this: At the time of its founding and during its early years, Mason Riddle and Thomas O’Sullivan (two VAC-members) wrote art reviews as stringers for the Pioneer Press, and Judy Arginteanu (another member, though one who’s never attended a meeting as far as I know) and Matt Peiken (FoV) published regular art features for the paper. The Star Tribune of course had, and likely always will have, Mary Abbe, but it also published, back then, reviews by early VACUM member Doug Hanson. MPR had a weekly arts magazine with three dedicated arts reporters: FoVs Marianne Combs and Euan Kerr, as well as Chris Roberts. The City Pages regularly used to publish lengthy pieces on visual art (hard to believe, I know)—including reviews, features, and investigative reports by me, Patricia Briggs, and several other writers. Jennifer Amie wrote a regular column reviewing art shows on Mpls-St. Paul’s website. The Daily Minnesotan still had its vaunted weekly A&E section, and some alumni became VACUM members. The Pulse of the Twin Cities published, every single week, short art reviews by VACUM’s Valerie Valentine and by other writers. South Side Pride published pieces by VACUM’s Clea Felien, and the odd newsprint publication (Skyway News, etc) published the random arts writer, some of whom entered orbit around VACUM. Of course, there were also a constant cycle of well-meaning, short-lived, one-name publications — Object, Push, Ache, and several others that I no longer remember the name of — founded by idealistic 20-somethings who seemed sure they were going to singlehandedly revolutionize the art world; these, before they inevitably blinked out, published occasional member writings and contributed occasional VACUM members. Nationally, if you had interest, there were lots of publications to write for — including New Art Examiner out of Chicago, Dialogue out of Ohio, Art Issues out of L.A. — and some VACUM members did just that. Finally, when mnartists kicked off in 2002, right around the time VACUM was formed, for a time and up until recently the website published a wide range, and a significant number each month, of critical pieces. Many of the site’s visual arts writers have been VACUM members; some were steered to the site by their connection to VACUM. And some came to VACUM through mnartists.

What’s truly remarkable about all of this activity — some of you may have noted — is that, in the intervening seven years, it has all pretty much gone away. VACUM has proven unsuccessful in the face of all the insurmountable cultural forces chipping away at the perceived need for critical writing. And while a few venues have tried to fill in this gap — minnpost, a few blogs and web efforts (many focused more on marketing than fair and balanced writing), and, last but not least, ARP — the arts criticism cup now seems more empty to me than full.

Of course, we’re not alone in facing this constriction. Newspapers and magazines, publishers and writers are struggling all over the country. Just yesterday, one of the nation’s longest-employed newspaper critics, Alan Artner of the Chicago Tribune, was unceremoniously laid off. (He would not have been shocked; when I spoke to him last in the spring of 2006, he knew that his time would eventually run short, even though he’d been at it for nearly 30 years.) As I wrote in January of 2008 for mnartists:

“It’s easy to imagine a future time when there is no more art criticism. After all, daily newspaper art coverage, these days, is going the way of the mighty Wurlitzer, while new art magazines come and go more quickly than new iPod models. And the digital media replacing these old analog communication forms has turned out to be much more fickle and impermanent and generally incomprehensible than what once was….”

While I’m proud of VACUM’s successes, and I’m thankful for the sheer amount of dedication and effort that so many people have given to VACUM’s projects, at this point seven years later I realize I completely failed to accomplish my initial mission for VACUM: To bring about more and better art criticism in this town of ours. I have failed in particular in the goals of mutual support, of fostering critical efforts, of bringing people together. And, most egregiously, I have failed over time to make a clear case, to those in a position to help support us, in favor of criticism and in favor of VACUM.

I missed the meeting last week due to a prior commitment. If I had been in attendance at the meeting, I would have abstained from voting to scuttle VACUM, but I would have understood the reasons why people voted as they did. I can’t say I’m not disappointed in how this turned out, and in where we are culturally these days, but I don’t know how it could have turned out any differently.

In the aftermath, in the empty hole now left after VACUM, I only hope that a few people, at least, thought some of this was worth it. I wish you all well and hope to see you at a future Art Happy Hour, every 2nd Wednesday at the Bedlam Theatre, where we can at least continue the mission of getting shit-faced together in the name of art (www.arthappyhour.com; admin@arthappyhour.com; on FACEBOOK: “Art HappyHour”).

Yours,
Michael Fallon

The Art Newspaper this past week has proclaimed that “speculation in young artists” is ending in the wake of economic worldwide meltdown.

The effect? I suspect that it will hurt the smaller galleries that sell emerging or non-blue-chip art the most. I suspect, but don’t follow it closely enough to say for sure, that it will also happen sooner or later with Chinese, Indian and Middle Eastern art markets as well… It’s been kind of like buying internet stocks—and we know how that ended. With the high prices for younger art “established” by a speculative market where can they go, relative to demand, but down? But galleries never lower their primary prices, so these works will sit in gallery storage racks—with zero revenue-flow for non-brand name dealers. I call this the death spiral for art: sinking prices and sinking demand.

Is there a silver lining in the midst of this gloomy forecast?

Perhaps a return to the importance of museums, critics and alternative spaces for validation and the introduction of new art.

Hm. A return to the importance of critics? That doesn’t sound so bad… (Except where are these critics going to publish their writing?)

Meanwhile…

On a completely different note, please come to the Art Happy Hour this Sunday, October 19, at 9 pm at the Red Stag Supper Club. (Art Happy Hour is the only true antidote to America’s ongoing Artistic Failure!)

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.

It’s become rather common, perhaps even boringly so, for critical writers to kvetch about their craft’s growing obsolescence and looming demise. (I myself am guilty of such an act.) Such a glut of self-obsessive hand-wringing by critics is easy to dismiss, since it is so self-serving at heart and since none of it really addresses the heart of the problem (which I humbly submit is that art itself is failing in America)…

Still, in all the critical hand-wringing you have to believe there is some cogent thought and valuable information. This piece, written by Terry Teachout in July, 2007, examines with cold-eyed objectivity the disappearance of quality regional critical writing (in press publications). The article starts by quoting a veteran NY drama critic: “We’re the last generation of newspaper critics, you know. After us, everybody will be online,” and then it enumerates the situation on the ground at that time–loss of book-review sections in papers across the country, loss of classical music critics in the Chicago and Minneapolis papers, loss of regional movie critics across the country…

Teachout goes on to give a simple explanation for the situation: “Newspaper circulation is declining, driven downward by the rise of the new Web-based media, and many papers are trimming their staffs to make ends meet. Whenever times get tough at an American newspaper, fine-arts coverage gets thrown off the back of the sled first.” He also mentions that a number of critics, as well as some arts advocates–both up in arms over the cutbacks—blame arts bloggers for this situation. Teachout somewhat disagrees with this last assessment about blog critics, saying that “some of them do it better than their print-media counterparts,” but he also laments the loss of real critical perspective about the fine arts in regional print publications.

One of the most important civic duties that a newspaper performs is to cover the activities of local arts groups — but it can’t do that effectively without also employing knowledgeable critics who are competent to evaluate the work of those groups. Mere reportage, while essential, is only the first step. It’s not enough to announce that the Hooterville Art Museum finally bought itself a Picasso. You also need a staffer who can tell you whether it’s worth hanging, just as you need someone who knows whether the Hooterville Repertory Company’s production of “Private Lives” was funny for the right reasons.

In the end, Teachout concludes with two points that I happen to agree with. One, though he is now prominent NY critic, widely read and widely admired, he still worries about the loss to the overall quality of criticism now that print publications are abandoning it. After all, he says, he got his “start reviewing second-string classical concerts for the Kansas City Star 30 years ago. Now that such entry-level jobs are drying up, I fear for the future of arts journalism in America.” Just this week I had lunch with a young arts writer in his mid-20s—who’s been writing short and pithy arts preview pieces for a side-publication of one of the Minnesota dailies—and he’s begun to seriously wonder after two years at his craft whether or not there are any options for him to have an eventual career doing this thing that he’s surprised he likes so much. “I don’t know what to do,” he says, putting his finger on a certain Gen-Y dilemma. “I’d love to keep writing, but I’m at my capacity between my day job and the freelance writing gig and all the shows I end up going to. I’d also like to have a job someday that allows me to make more than 12 dollars an hour…”

Finally, Teachout warns any artist who is prone to bid glib “good riddance” to the critic: “Any artist who’s been side-swiped by a lame-brained critic will doubtless be tempted to cheer this news. Before such aggrieved folk break out the Dom Perignon, though, they should pay heed to the warning of Virgil Thomson, who dominated American music criticism in the ’40s and ’50s: ‘Perhaps criticism is useless. Certainly it is often inefficient. But it is the only antidote we have to paid publicity.’ If you think you can do without that antidote, more power to you — but you’d better be prepared to buy a lot of ads.”

As a self-serving, Minnesota-Art-Failure-Tale (MAFT) aside: I’ve been attempting to address this issue (of the death of criticism) in Minnesota since early in 2002, after a downturn in critical writing staff at the metro’s weekly and one of its daily newspapers led me to start a local art critics’ association called VACUM. I have to admit that my efforts haven’t done much good, and today, six years later, Minnesota continues to be a shrinking market for arts critical writing.

DH: …my particular age of the critic is just over. There are no influential midcareer critics today. I think part of that is circumstance, in the sense that a whole generation of critics died of AIDS in the ’80s. It was like the plague that wiped out two generations of Neapolitan painters in the sixteenth century. They’re just gone, and those dead guys from the ’80s should be writing most of what I’m writing now, and I should be left to play blackjack.

SH: OK, so what are the supposed art magazines interested in hearing about, if not about art?

DH: They want touting. In twenty years we’ve gone from a totally academicized art world to a totally commercialized art world, and in neither case is criticism a function. We’re all supposed to be positive about art. Nobody plays defense! I mean, my job, to a certain extent, is to be in the net. My job is to mow stuff down.

SH: So in what kind of structure would there be a place for criticism?

DH: Well, I came into an art world of volunteers—six thousand heavily medicated, mysteriously employed human beings who were there because they wanted to be, you know? And all they wanted was to be right—not safe, not rich, not fair, but right! Now we have this vast bureaucratic structure of support. Everybody’s a poll watcher. Nobody’s a voter. We’ve got millions of people devoted to the whole idea that art’s supposed to be fair and good for you. But art’s not too fair, you know? Why should you be publishing books and not your friends? Because it’s not fair, that’s why.”

–Dave Hickey, interviewed in The Believer