Saturday, July 24, 2010

Grub Steet, 21st century style

From Cloe Veltman's Lies Like Truth:

"But what I've come to realize lately is that under these circumstances, arts journalists are starting to look more and more like artists in terms of the piecemeal way that they are scratching out their existences in order to practice their craft. Like the actor who waits tables for a living or the folk singer who temps in a law office to make ends meet, these days, journos are having to hold down all manner of part- and full-time jobs that have nothing to do with the media in order to continue doing what until a few years ago would have been regarded as a profession. Now, arts journalism is for many a vocational sideline."

I suppose the bad new/good news on this is that it allows people like me - a working artist, passionate about the arts, educated, opinionated yet still able to look at alternate points of view - a chance to be an "arts journalists." In the good old days that she laments, we would never had had a chance to get more than a letter to the editor published. Forget about getting a real job; we didn't have the degrees from the name schools, the contacts and for the most part, weren't the right gender. Now, thanks to the Internet and on-line sites like the which I write for, we get to break the "old boys" (and some girls) monopoly on art journalism and let in some alternate opinions.

What passes for "art journalism" in our local print media, is mostly focused on a narrow slice of minimalist or conceptual art. The alternate press tends to cover their version of the "new" old boys club and write about art that they consider trendy. But there's a huge encyclopedic world of art that would never be written about if it weren't for us "volunteers.".  Bay Area Art Quake covers a wide range of the local arts scene. Bloggers like Christine Cariati and Liz Hager of Venetian Red write about topics as diverse as Byzantine art and medieval painting, to name a few. The list of those who volunteer their time and energy to cover the arts is endless (see side bar for a few links). Thank heavens for them.

When journalism started out in the 17th century, it was called "Grub Street" for a reason. Even seasoned writers like Daniel Defoe barely survived. Journalists had a reputation for hack writing and many still deserve that reputation (Faux News anybody?).

It seems like things have gone full circle. The NY Times and the LA Times still have sections for arts coverage but most papers give more space to the latest movie or Brangelina than they do to a gallery or museum opening. Maybe we have been spoiled by living in the golden age of newspapers but it sure ain't your father's newspaper any more.

Artists in every field always subsidized their art; it's always been a rare artist who made a decent living. The lengthy discussion over at the Arts Journal points out one thing - neither artists or those who write about them have much financial clout. As the song says, "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing."

In this case, the swing is swag and there are no or little advertising revenue for the arts, much less arts journalism. Given that, well, while I lament the situation, although not as much as Ms. Veltman since I would never be one of the journalists that gets a salary, I'm glad that there are enough of us around keep on writing about what we love so much.

From Lies Like Truth:
Since the media industry is what optimists call "going through a period of transition" and pessimists call "in the shitter," arts journalists have increasingly found themselves losing their jobs, and, whether on staff or freelance, working harder for less money. Nothing about this is new and it seems unlikely as far as I can tell, that things will change much for the next five to ten years.
But in general, arts journalists are slipping through the funding cracks: Arts funders typically don't fund arts journalism; they want to support artists exclusively. And media-oriented foundations and fellowship programs seem to be far more interested in supporting areas like investigative, education, science and political journalism as well as media entities that serve underprivileged communities than getting behind arts journalists.

It is the nature of the world that some professions are no longer useful to society and therefore become extinct. For example, pianists used to make a good living as employees of cinemas, playing for silent films, but this job barely exists today. It's going to take a lot of educating to make people see that quality journalism - and quality arts journalism in particular - still have value in today's world. But there's no guarantee that this will happen. If the funding mechanisms necessary for supporting the profession don't develop soonish, it won't be long before arts coverage is solely practiced by moonlighting waiters and nighttime corporate security guards. But unlike their colleagues in the novel writing, standup comedy and singer-songwriter worlds, it's unlikely, at least in the present situation, that these hobbyist arts junkies will have even the small light of grants, fellowships, residencies and other forms of patronage to sustain them through the dark hours.      

Also check out the comments section where they point out the lack of funding for anything other than a small section of new artists:


Zoomie said...

I've been wondering if someone who writes for an online newspaper makes any $ from the clicks on their site. That whole business plan seems shaky but I could be wrong. I enjoy having other voices in the comments about art and I think readers will find the literate, interesting ones eventually, but I'm less sure that those folks can actually make a living from it.

namastenancy said...

Liz Hager, who is the co-founder of the Blog Venetian Red, is looking into that question. My feeling is that arts blogs don't make money. If they did, why are well known writers such as the lady who writes Culture Grrl always rattling the tin cup? I make a small stipend from my writings for the Examiner but it's certainly not enough to live on. I think that blogs with lots of ads and certain kinds of targeted audiences might make money but I don't know. Making money from news content on the Internet is difficult - just ask the London Times which just went behind a pay wall. They lost their readership. If the Times can't make money that way, then I don't know who can.
Veltman is a free-lance writer and what she is lamenting is the loss of her income. I'm sympathetic but I don't know if there is a solution.