AuthorRobert Bettmann

“On this perfect day, when everything is ripening and not even the grape turns brown, the eye of the sun just fell upon my life: I looked back, I looked forward, and never saw so many and such good things at once.”

Friedrich Nietzsche

Reckless abandon (is neither).

It’s not reckless, because when we leap, when we dive in, when we begin, only begin, we bring our true nature to the project, we make it personal and urgent.

And it’s not abandon, not in the sense that we’ve abandoned our senses or our responsibility. In fact, abandoning the fear of fear that is holding us back is the single best way not to abandon the work, the pure execution of the work.

Later, there’s time to backpedal and water down. But right now, reckless please.

– Seth Godin

How Much Arts Journalism Is Too Much Arts Journalism?

In 2005 I was a part of a series of conversations with a major funder about how to support the dance community. This funder already supported a number of dance companies and the funder’s consultant wanted to hear about how to support the community collectively, specifically from those of us involved.

Anecdotal and other reports note the obvious: classical dance audiences are aging and declining, and new work seems to have a hard time gaining consistent audiences. Many of us agreed on the need to develop audiences, and out of those conversations the non-profit that I founded started a small arts magazine, Bourgeon. Bourgeon’s mission is to help artists develop audiences, and since 2005 we’ve published several hundred articles by artists.

At least 10 other arts publications have popped up in my hometown of Washington, D.C., over the past decade. Looking at recent numbers for arts participation, I’m forced to question whether or not Bourgeon is having the impact we want to have. Are we growing audiences, or are we part of the problem?

Over the past 15 years, the volume of arts writing published (mostly on online outlets) has increased while, according to a 2012 National Endowment for the Arts study, arts participation has declined. It’s uncomfortable to think that more arts writing is creating less substantive engagement with the arts, but the arts are not the only field wrestling with this issue. As Alice Robb reported (ironically, in The New Republic, last September), “Science has never been so democratic. It’s just not clear whether democracy is what science needs.” There may be no correlation between current arts participation numbers and the increase in arts journalism, but arts journalism played a significant role in audience development during the 20th century.

Writing for WQXR/NPR, Brian Wise summarized the 2012 NEA study of arts participation: “Across the board, arts attendance was down somewhat in 2012, with 33 percent of adults reporting that they participated in a ‘benchmark’ arts event. In 2002, 39.4 percent of adults participated in the arts.”

Internet publication – including blog and social media publishing – has created a glut in arts journalism. That most of the coverage generated is unpaid, or poorly compensated, does not in some ways matter. A ton of coverage is being generated. Absolute numbers are not available on how many articles are published annually, but the number of books published in the United States increased from 247,000 in 2002 to 2,200,000 in 2012, and we can assume a related increase in journalism as the tools for publication and distribution have similarly democratized. News scholar Jay Rosen recently wrote, “In the age of mass media, the press was able to define the sphere of legitimate debate with relative ease because the people on the receiving end were atomized – connected ‘up’ to Big Media but not across to each other. And now that authority is eroding.” Some argue that the public just needs reliable filters, but the filters (read: editors at the major news publishers) are marginalized by click-bait Internet publishers, who troll for readers.

The Pew Foundation’s excellent 2013 State of the News Media report describes an erosion of news reporting resources and an increase in resources for newsmakers (including artists and non-profits) to take their message directly to the public. The lines between traditional journalists and bloggers, press and media, have disappeared. As a non-expert member of the public, figuring out what content to trust is impossible. Predictably, new publications frequently compete with rather than reinforce old media viewpoints.

If declines in arts participation can be linked to declines in highest quality arts journalism, or simply that highest quality arts journalism is lost in a sea of lesser quality coverage, there is no easy prescription. Writing last month about the intractable conflict between the staff of The New Republic and its owner Chris Hughes, C. W. Anderson observed, “The way that a culture of measurement, quantification, and virality can coexist with an intellectual culture that takes a more deliberate, longer-term view of political and intellectual life is a problem that is likely to outlast many … publications.”

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries the skilled eyes and pens of professional journalists helped develop the bond between creators and the public that built the arts as a professional practice, and arts journalism as a professional endeavor. Preserving existing professional practices today will take truly new approaches, and I worry that audience development investments are going in the wrong direction. More coverage generated from inside the industry will not build audiences. As book publisher Paul Slovak of Viking stated in a New York Times article covering the glut in book publication, “We just don’t have any credibility left.”

Publications, like Bourgeon and others, that substantively engage public participation in 21st-century art and art-making are necessary to prevent further declines in arts participation. We’re not part of the problem, but, we hope, part of the solution. Now if everyone else would just stop publishing!

This piece was originally published January 26, 2015 on the Dance USA e-journal. Thanks to editor Lisa Traiger for commissioning and editing it.

© 2016 Robert Bettmann

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