On the job in my blue poncho with fellow journalists (l-r) Ben Clark, David De Young, and Erik Hess at Rock the Garden 2011. Photo by Andrea Swensson.
From October 23-November 2, I'll be in Los Angeles as a fellow in the 2013 USC Annenberg/Getty Arts Journalism Program. In the fellowship application, I was asked to write an essay answering the question, "When everyone's a critic with an opinion, why should artists care about arts journalists?" As I transition into a new job at American Public Media, I thought it would be apt to share this essay as my final column post at the Twin Cities Daily Planet.
My father works in housing finance, and when we drive around Minneapolis and St. Paul, he can point to specific buildings that he helped to secure funding for. A homeless shelter; an apartment building containing affordable units for single mothers; a recovery center for chronic inebriates.
When I began a career in arts journalism, I realized that I wouldn’t be creating such tangible products. Was that okay with me? Would I be content, in my later years, with having spent my life writing about books and plays and movies? Would I feel like I’d made the world a better place?
This was in 2007, when my career as an arts journalist began in earnest. I’d just finished grad school, but I hadn’t studied journalism; I’d studied the sociology of culture, where I had been writing about books and plays and movies, but with an eye towards ameliorating the social inequalities that are reinforced by the stratification of our art worlds. My work as a sociologist might have helped college admissions officers make more equitable decisions, or might have influenced public funding of the arts. As a critic, I’d be penning my opinions on individual art works with no “peer review” except my editor’s approval.
Entering the field of journalism in 2007 meant entering a field in flux. My new job was with a nonprofit online community news publication, kept afloat on a shoestring budget underwritten by grants and donations. It wasn’t a glamorous job, or a high-paying job. I was arts editor at a one-year-old publication with no print edition, a publication most local artists hadn’t even heard of.
I was surprised, then, to discover that I quickly found an audience of art lovers—and artists. I had no brand name behind me, but I discovered that my reviews were being read immediately upon publication, sometimes inspiring cheers and lobby postings, sometimes provoking fiery responses via e-mail or comments. Evidently, artists cared deeply about what some guy at some website had to say about their work, and so did audiences.
The answer came to me through my experience as an editor. My publication, the Twin Cities Daily Planet, is a project in citizen journalism. Our mission is to be available to all comers as a venue for them to enter a conversation that was, in most cases, closed to them before the advent of the Internet. As arts editor, I’m obliged to allow virtually anyone with a pulse and a Minnesota address to take a review assignment. I arrange for each writer to have comp tickets and even to receive a small stipend. That seems like an amazing opportunity...and yet, the vast majority of people who become aware of the opportunity pass it up.
Everyone’s a critic, yes, in the sense that they can point a thumb up or down—but very few people have the ability, the patience, and the sheer pluck to articulate their views in the form of a review that demonstrates genuine engagement with the art at hand. To do so requires some basic skills in writing and analysis, but even more fundamentally, it requires a real love of art and a willingness to devote serious, prolonged attention to it.
Artists care about arts journalism not just because it helps to fill seats, but because it fills a vital niche in the arts ecosystem. Arts journalists help to bridge the gap between artists and audiences both by promoting the arts and by articulating their significance. What is this piece of art? How does it work? Why does it matter? Arts journalism can provide audiences with the tools they need to engage a wide variety of art forms. Arts journalism gives meaning and context to an increasingly chaotic range of options for audiences.
Arts journalism would be crucial if only for its role in audience empowerment—but at its best, arts journalism can empower artists as well. The most rewarding compliment I’ve ever received as a critic came from an artist who wrote, “I learn something new about my work every time I read your writing about it.” By helping to complete the circle between artist and audience, the arts journalist ultimately becomes part of the creative process.
If art matters, arts journalism matters. In fact, arts journalism can help to make art matter. That’s why, if I’m doing my job well, my life right now is being very well-spent indeed.