Archive for the Decline of reading 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.


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, 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)!

A recent story by Scott Russell called Setting standards, cutting funding for arts education that appeared in the online news aggregator Twin Cities Daily Planet reports that once-vaunted local arts education standards are currently being threatened. 

For many Minnesota art students, the author writes, “arts seem to be a thinning palette.”

This is because while Minnesota state standards in education focus on the value of art in the curriculum, the actual requirements for art, starting this year (and perhaps due to the No Child Left Behind laws) in a student’s education are minimal: only one art credit is needed to graduate from Minnesota high schools.

“Unlike reading, math and science,” Russell writes, “there is no high-stakes state arts test. Each district sets its own measure of art success. If students pass the art class that could be enough to meet the graduation requirement. That means arts can get the brush-off in the budget process, as schools focus resources on reading and math where success is measured by highly publicized, quantitative test scores.”

This means that statewide, according to Michael Hiatt, director of professional development and research at the Perpich Center for Arts Education, in “traditional schools” art teachers are “getting stretched to cover more and more students.” “It is more of a case of the haves and have nots,” in arts education, he said. “The gap is widening.”

Mary Schaefle, executive director of the Minnesota Music Educators Association, studies equity in arts education. From 2000-2006, she found, the number of “public school students dropped 1.5 percent” while the number of “public school music teachers dropped more than 11 percent”–indicating a drop-off in quantity of music lessons provided. In addition, the story sites the replacement, over this time period, of regular school arts instruction with more supplementary guest artist programs. “Obviously it saves some schools some money,” said one such instructor, “rather than hire a full-time teacher.”

One high school art teacher suggested that currently in Minnesota arts funding is “hit and miss, depending on what district you happen to be in, what part of the state you happen to live in, what the resources happen to be at any given moment.” The results, predictably, are a decline in talent levels among kids as they move through the education system, an ongoing deterioration in equipment and facilities for the arts in schools, and a resulting deterioration of interest among students in these subject areas.

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?…

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