Cultural Journalism in the New Millennium

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #10 in October 2010]

Chicago is a cosmopolitan city with a vibrant art scene comprising institutions, artists, critics and historians. The city’s close-knit communities not only help foster relationships and build solidarity; sometimes, their ease also prevents us from exploring the unfamiliar. In the arts, we can develop routines, stay within our favorite circles, or only see work at institutions we know, studying artists and movements that are well-known, or that our friends told us about. In a city with so much variety in its arts practices and producers, there is still far too much activity that goes under the radar.

Art criticism—and art writing in general—could prod readers to explore more outside their comfort zones. It could challenge us with counterintuitive ideas and unexpected opinions. But as the ways we receive and process information change, it has become difficult for the traditional news media to sustain spirited dialogue on arts and culture. To remain competitive in a challenging economic environment, local papers no longer employ full-time cultural critics, opting instead to use freelance writers for special events and “blockbuster” shows. Overall, the industry has been slow to embrace change and evolve, resulting in a number of bad investment decisions by owners: The New York Times Company is considering letting go of The Boston Globe to achieve a better profit margin; The Tribune Company filed for bankruptcy protection last spring. In some ways, this has marginalized “serious” coverage of the arts in favor of more entertaining “lifestyle” features and gossip.

In response, a number of Chicago-based arts writers are experimenting with new ways of sparking fresh dialogue about the cultural norms and practices in our city. Many find themselves dabbling in multiple genres and forms from print to web-based and experimental media. Even with additional points of access to cultural commentary including blogs and podcasts, many artists still feel starved for critical feedback about their work. The fragmentation among artists and organizations that believe in “art for art’s sake,” the link between art making and activism, crafters, fine artists and the like can feel counterproductive when coupled with the appearance of elitism in museums and academies, or cliques and rampant capitalism in the gallery scene. In spite of this environment, we know that there is interesting and quality work being made by less visible artists or those en-gaging in unconventional practices. As the rules in cultural journalism change and the players, decision makers, and forms shift, what role can arts writers play in moving these so-called outliers toward the center?

Chicago based critic and art historian Lori Waxman considers herself a writer who just happens to love art and art history. Art criticism and its writing can be intimidating for many, but Waxman firmly believes it should not be because art truly is all around us. For some, this may sound silly, but the idea of art in the everyday resonates with her. As one who straddles the seemingly disparate worlds of art history and art criticism, Waxman uses one to inform the other. Well-written criticism can be used to bridge the gap between the art world’s elitist and mundane tendencies. Having the wealth of historical references at her fingertips allows for increased learning, connection, and context.

Waxman’s current project, the 60 Wrd/Min Art Critic ( /home.html), allows her to spread around a little bit of the cultural capital that a review can provide. Since 2005, she has been engaging in this work by “performing” the act of review writing in locales large and small across the country. In the space of 20-minute appointments, she reviews artists’ work, writes a thoughtful critique on the spot, and provides a live feed of the review writing process. Reviews are written for free; however, Waxman only promises thoughtful feedback, which could be positive or negative. At the end of each visit, most of the reviews are published in a local newspaper or magazine. Her 2007 performance at Mess Hall drew more than 20 artists, established and otherwise, implying that even in a city like Chicago, artists are desperate for feedback. Waxman notes the establishment of Open Crit at the Hyde Park Art Center and multiple informal group critiques cropping up across the city as further evidence. As a launching point for many artists, Chicago provides great opportunities to get started in an artistic practice, to experiment, and to show work in a variety of spaces, conventional and alternative. Strong support structures that allow artists to grow in their trajectory are not always present, however. Many artists find that they get to a point where they feel stuck or just don’t know what to do next to move their work forward, perhaps leading some to feel they need to leave Chicago to become a better artist, then (maybe) return. Programs like Open Crit try to fill this gap by providing artists an opportunity to discuss their practice and works in progress with some of Chicago’s most notable curators, dealers, critics, and artists.

The potential for good arts journalism to help make more challenging art accessible, as well as its potential to challenge the writer to move outside her comfort zone, is daunting and humbling, Waxman said. Through this project she pushes her personal boundaries by exploring what gets lost and gained as review writing gets faster and more compressed. By performing the process in public venues, she is forced to be thoughtful about work by a range of artists: from the self-taught and professional MFA to the incarcerated felon who recently discovered a talent. “Critics need to understand that their words can become the definitive record, so writing historically factual and accurate references is important,” she explained. In a 2005 interview with FNews at the project launch, she reflected that “written records hold a lot of weight. Anyone who has ever done art historical research knows this all too well. And while I don’t believe reviews should determine an artist’s self-worth, clearly they affect it. More important, however, is how reviews provide a kind of reception, and reception is crucial to the life of a work. Most artists I know feel they don’t get enough feedback.”

Bad at Sports (B@S; http://www. has existed in various forms over the last five years. Its current format as an interview-based podcast and daily blog focuses on artists talking about art and the art community. While podcasting is a fairly standard form of journalism today, at its launch, B@S stood as a highly innovative creation. Executive Producer and co-host Duncan MacKenzie explains: “We never set out to maintain the standards of journalism or do its appointed task … We never meant to be an objective source of ‘news.’ We were/are clearly biased in many ways and have never hid those biases … but we have also never used those ideologies as a weapon or posited a dogma by which we see the world.”

B@S has always been decidedly Midwestern (most of its contributors are based in the Midwest), but contributors cover a range of topics and artists. That mostly means tracking the things that are interesting, confusing, alarming, and problematic as a way to challenge or define the meaning of art in contemporary culture. “Our art scene had lost its voice,” MacKenzie recalled. “The New Art Examiner had folded. The Tribune (Alan Artner) only ignored anything interesting. Chicago Public Radio had the most boring drivel-ish coverage of what was a very dynamic and intriguing art world. Jim Yood was doing one review a month for Artforum. The Chicago Reader had stopped doing anything around ideas or artwork. New Citywas ever slimming and had no measurable online presence … It was really uninspiring.”

From its organic beginnings, B@S transformed dramatically over the years. By episode seven, MacKenzie and co-host Richard Holland had been joined by another artist and critic, Amanda Browder. The show quickly gained a reputation for “snarkiness,” and was coming under increased pressure to be more objective. “We thought we could ‘talk shit’ and make fun of the things and people we cared about and have our love come through,” MacKenzie said. “What a few people recognized long before we did was that the podcast would have much farther reach than we had ever imagined.” For the next 80 or so episodes the show’s ‘narrative’ focused on young artists adventuring in their art worlds, [but the show] was really about how guests fit in with the banter between the hosts,” MacKenzie added. Contributors realized that what they were creating would have a life of its own, and that to truly have lasting impact, they needed to temper some of the silliness.

Eventually, B@S gained a physical space to use for one month, contributors came and went, and the project began shifting away from its mapping and charting roots. “We started focusing our interviews around artists’ practices and curators’ ideas and less on the work of unmasking and displaying our local art world. Fortunately it was around this time that we were joined by Meg Onli and Christopher Hudgens, both of whom … created the infrastructure to do the work that was no longer done by the podcast,” MacKenzie reflected. “The way I like to think about it is that the podcast is a way to create a long-term resource of our culture makers talking about how they think about their products and the blog has become … the biggest independent art blog that comes out of the Midwest.”

Will the shift in arts journalism toward web-based, decentralized DIY culture make us more discerning about how we get information about the arts? On one hand, it has made us more aware of and knowledgeable of the diversity in ideas and expressions as well as the span of global and cultural variation. We can learn about dialogical arts practices by getting our hair dressed or having a meal; we can have critical discourse on Lady Gaga as performance art. But on the other—does any of this matter? An abundance of information without a filter can be overwhelming. Anyone with internet access can start a blog and write criticism; a writer in 1974 could get a fact wrong about an art work, but the mistake could be repeated ad nauseam simply because it was published in Artforum, which points to the impact and permanence of cultural writing. The role of the arts writer is more than simply capturing and recording an event or opening; it might mean passionately promoting, or denouncing particular works or practices. To create a public discourse around art is also to make a claim for the importance of both art and the public sphere—a task that cannot be taken lightly. ◊

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