Archive for the The death of a literate society 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.

Blank

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 local arts community here is atwitter these days with talk about the recent failure of the Theatre de la Jeune Lune. With a reported debt of more than $1 million, the theater is closing after more than 30 years of presenting a particular brand of original, experimental, physical productions. The shutdown comes just three years after Jeune Lune won a Tony Award for best regional theater, thus emerging as a national creative force. Dominique Serrand, a founder, had this to say about the end:

“Today, we begin imagining a new way of working,” Serrand said. “Building upon our artistic legacy, and facing a different future, we are exploring ways to reinvent an agile, nomadic, entrepreneurial theatre with a new name that will create essential and innovative art for today’s changing audience.”

[Translation: We’re failing because the audience is drying up.]

Meanwhile, an editorial from today’s Charleston Post and Courier suggests that something similar is happening to a theater in that town. Jill Eathorne Bahr, the resident choregrapher at the Charleston Ballet Theatre, pleas, in a piece called “Arts need support more than ever,” for more support for the arts from a seemingly ambivalent public. “Raising money for the arts in today’s financial climate,” she writes, “can be daunting, thankless and endless. Federal and state funds continue to be pushed into the background. And the product, dance, is more difficult to sell.

“I believe there is room and potential funding for everyone, but it won’t be as easy to do what we’ve done in the past. We’ll have to … generate new interest and operate in an accepting and generous manner. It takes a driven group to carry off a high-wire act like this.”

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.)

A recent story in the Mpls Star-Tribune, Hope flickers out for Oak Street Cinema, describes the impending doom, after three years of struggle, of a beloved repertory theater.

After two years of speculation and a public battle over its future, cherished art-film theater Oak Street Cinema is expected to be sold after the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival (MSPIFF) ends May 3. Its most likely fate: Demolition to make way for a housing and retail development.

The issue at hand appears to be the financial status of the small nonprofit arts org, Minnesota Film Arts, that owns the theater. The Oak Street Cinema was founded in 1995 by a group that renovated a 92-year-old theater near the University of Minnesota. Minnesota Film Arts, which has run the successful MSPIFF for more than 30 years, merged with the Oak Street Cinema several years ago. In 2004, new management at MFA allowed debts to run up–leading to firings, staff resignations, and a cycle of ever-deepening red ink.

Since the spring of 2005, the doors of the Oak Street Cinema have only periodically been open and staff remains in flux. In January 2006, MFA’s board said the theater might need to be sold, triggering a public protest by Oak Street founders and others. Still, the last public tax filing by MFA, in 2005, showed a standing debt of $145,000, and selling the theater was considered the favorite option to clear the debt and pave the way for a reorganization of MFA (so it could refocus its energy back on MSPIFF).

“The festival carries the long tradition of film in Minnesota forward,” said the current board chair of MFA. “We want to continue to focus on that tradition.”

Why is art failing in this country, in this world?

According to author and Harvard psycology professor Steve Pinker in his essay A Biological Understanding of Human Nature, the art world, as it has developed in the modern and post-modern era, is not fulfilling a societal obligation, and that is at the roots of its failure.

In the twentieth century, modernism and postmodernism took over, and their practitioners disdained beauty as bourgeois, saccharine, lightweight. Art was deliberately made incomprehensible or ugly or shocking—again, on the assumption that our predilections for attractive faces, landscapes, colors, and so on were reversible social constructions. This also led to an exaggeration of the dynamic of social status that has always been part of the arts. The elite arts used to be aligned with the economic and political aristocracy. They involved displays of sumptuosity and the flaunting of rare and precious skills that only the idle rich could cultivate. But now that any schmo could afford a Mozart CD or go to a free museum, artists had to figure out new ways to differentiate themselves from the rabble. So art became baffling and uninterpretable—unless you had some acquaintance with arcane theory.

By their own admission, the humanities programs in universities, and institutions that promote new works of elite art, are in crisis. People are staying away in droves. I don’t think it takes an Einstein to figure out why. …many artists and scholars have pointed out that ultimately art depends on human nature. The aesthetic and emotional reactions we have to works of art depend on how our brain is put together. Art works because it appeals to certain faculties of the mind. Music depends on details of the auditory system, painting and sculpture on the visual system. Poetry and literature depend on language. And the insights we hope to take away from great works of art depend on their ability to explore the eternal conflicts in the human condition, like those between men and women, self and society, parent and child, sibling and sibling, friend and friend.

Some theoreticians of literature have suggested that we appreciate tragedy and great works of fiction because they explore the permutations and combinations of human conflict—and these are the very themes that fields like evolutionary psychology and behavioral genetics and social psychology try to illuminate. The sciences of the mind can reinforce the idea that there is an enduring human nature that great art can appeal to.

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?…