Tom Strini
Journalism and the Arts

A new relationship

By - Aug 3rd, 2011 04:00 am
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terpsichore-muse

Terpsichore, muse of dance.

thalia-muse

Thalia, muse of comedy.

At the Milwaukee Rep last fall, executive director Dawn Helsing Wolters walked me to the door after I’d interviewed artistic director Mark Clements. Something was on her mind. Finally, as we were about to part, she got it out:

“Do you think that the press and the arts ought to have some different sort of relationship? More like a partnership?”

I’d been thinking about exactly that since I’d left the Journal Sentinel in August of 2009. The ethos in that and all traditional newsrooms is: If your mother says she loves you, CHECK IT OUT. You’re supposed to be endlessly skeptical, and journalists mostly should be. Plenty of politicians and business people exploit the rest of us from behind smokescreens of lies.

That ethos carried over to the features department. So as the music and dance critic at the JS, I wasn’t supposed to be friends with, say, with the director of a dance company or the conductor of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. Mostly, I wasn’t. But sometimes I was — on the down-low. Wouldn’t want My Dinner with Andreas (Delfs) to get back to the newsroom. Frowned upon.

clio-euterpe-melpomene-muse

Clio, Euterpe (flute) and Melpomene (mask), muses of history, song and tragedy.

 

But come on. My degrees are in music. I play the guitar every day. I was a theater major for a long time and almost became an actor. My wife is a painter (and art professor at UWM). It’s natural for me to have friends in the arts. And of course I will write about them.

But what do you do when your friends make bad work? Walter Kerr, an important New York theater critic from 1950 to 1990 and a playwright of some accomplishment, answered thus: “My friends don’t make bad work.” A great punchline, and one with some truth to it. Critic and artist become friendly because they resonate on the same aesthetic wavelength. Still, things go wrong. Kerr answered the question more soberly on another occasion. I’m paraphrasing here, but he said something like: I tell the truth. I give my friends two weeks to be mad about it. If they’re still mad after two weeks, then I’m mad.

polyhymnia-clio-erato

Polyhymnia, Calliope and Erato, muses of hymn, epic poetry and love poetry.

As a class, I admire artists for their commitment. Hans Moede, decades ago when he was chairman of the Milwaukee Ballet’s board, told me that money motivates most people, but opportunity to dance motivates dancers. Dancers, like everyone else, need to make a living and would prefer to be better off than to be dirt poor. But over 30 years I’ve observed that Moede’s observation applies generally in the arts, even among arts administrators. Down to the lowliest intern in the costume shop, it’s mostly about the passion.

urania-muse

Urania, muse of astronomy.

 

On the institutional level, the arts can be political, but the arts are not politics. The arts are business, but a peculiar kind of business aimed at zero profit. It makes no sense for journalists to approach arts administrators as if they’re operators of elder care facilities with 109 code violations. Some administrators are better than others, and plenty of them make mistakes, but almost all of them put their souls into it.

ethel-muse-arts-criticism

Ethel, the little-known muse of arts journalism.

In the old days at the paper, when the PR people for the MSO or the ballet or whatever called me pitching a story, the relationship was in a way adversarial. Space was limited and I was a gatekeeper. And the ethos of the newsroom was: We can’t care whether or not you sell tickets. We can care only about a good story.

Since I’ve become a part owner and culture editor at ThirdCoast Digest, I’ve changed that attitude. I don’t mind telling you: I’m on your side, MSO, Rep, ballet, Danceworks, Present Music, Youngblood Theatre, Milwaukee Art Museum and on and on. I want you to do good work and I want you to do well with it. We’ve built ThirdCoast Digest around you and we’ve been tireless in our coverage. You are our passion. No other media in town comes close to our quantity, and I’m proud of our quality.

Dawn Helsing Wolters and I met again this summer, this time for quite a long talk about such matters. The issues and the relationship are clearer to both of us now, clear enough to share here.

Artists of Milwaukee, your success is our success and vice-versa. Your work is to a great extent our reason for being. We nurture that work first by responding with frank, respectful commentary that gives you feedback and extends the public discussion. That commentary, both positive and negative, reveals to the public our mutual passion for the arts, and that passion is contagious.

Our interviews and advance stories give you a forum from which to explain yourself to the public. Our coverage and your advertising get the word out; your ad and service buys help to make it possible for us to go on. And make no mistake, ThirdCoast Digest/Vital Media Group is a business, and it must succeed financially. Part of the business plan is to win the arts readership, a prized demographic that attracts advertisers beyond the arts groups themselves.

So, Dawn Helsing Wolters, the answer to your question is yes: The press and the arts can have a different sort of relationship. ThirdCoast Digest and the arts are indeed partners, by both design and temperament. We know how you feel. The arts are in our blood, too.

 

30 thoughts on “Journalism and the Arts: A new relationship”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Tom,

    Interesting and well said. As one of those former PR people who used to call you and pitch, I will say your respect for artists and those working in the arts was always apparent, even when you turned down a story pitch! Thanks for a thought-provoking read. I wish we had a Third Coast Digest in Tacoma.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Tom, I really appreciate this, you, the writers at TCD and of course Ethel. Milwaukee truly possesses really dynamic, powerful pockets of art-makers, and they deserve and rely on writers and social media to float them in this time of cultural destitution. Cheers!

  3. Anonymous says:

    Thanks to you and TCD for your reviews. You turned me on to Danceworks, Youngblood, and UWM dance. The MJS never covers UWM; it must be a policy or something! The month of programs just finished there were wonderful. Your advocacy is important for helping such things prosper.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Interesting topic, Tom. The idea of arts coverage as a merging of advocacy and critique sounds right to me, a more healthy and honest approach than the traditional model of the critic. You’re the right man for the job!

  5. Anonymous says:

    Thanks, Tom, for a cogent appraisal of a serious issue. Like the others who have commented, I respect your position on this and trust you to provide the “frank, respectful commentary” that one expects of a journalist. But it is a delicate balancing act. As a fellow observer of the arts, as well as a friend of artists, I often find it challenging to write negative reviews of people I know. I’m not sure everyone in your position can be counted on to have the integrity you assume and command. Support for the arts is necessary and welcome. So is critical evaluation. At times it seems that the line between journalism and advertising blurs more than it should. (That’s a general statement and not directed at TCD or anyone else in particular.)

  6. Anonymous says:

    What artists in any category need is constructive review by knowable people. I do not believe lay people understand how hard that is to get. Writing about movies, theater, books and art exhibits can be and often is a rush to the snarky and profane rather than “it could better if…”
    TCD is a great addition to the coverage of the arts, I read it every day, because I learn something from your coverage and criticism.

  7. Anonymous says:

    notlong before MJS Art Critic James Auer died, I asked him why he never ever had negatives in his arts coverage, for surely there was lots out there that was less than stellar. he replied that he never covered anything he didn’t like. “The space I have is too limited,” he said.

  8. Anonymous says:

    As an amost three-decade arts writer (and painter), I’ve come to the conclusion that artists, myself included,have a big PROBLEM with recognizing the line between themselves and arts criticism. They take it so personally…of this I know, having been on the pointed stick end of a review of my work by Strini when he was just a pup, but then again,I too was a pup. That said, I wrote him a note telling him (without any ironic twists) that I appreciated his comments. He replied that it was the only thank you note he’d received from an artist who received a well deserved poke. Well, that’s not his exact words, but you get the drift…

  9. Anonymous says:

    This article is timely. It articulates well how, for a variety of sad reasons, the arts these days are so vulnerable that traditional journalistic criticism is often one more thing that arts groups just don’t need. The question I have is this: : what should this new sort of writing , the writing that TCD and Tom Strini do so well, be called? It certainly isn’t journalistic music criticism in the traditional sense of the word, but it is writing about music that should be encouraged in these difficult times. It is time to take the words “critic” and “review” out of the job description. Good musicians, who know music history, who are reflective and thoughtful (and who like to write for others ) are who I want to read. What should their job titles be?

  10. Anonymous says:

    Tom, thank you for added to my current thinking about what writing about the arts could look like. TCD has become a crucial source.
    I am considering public art all the time. Permanent public art is a big deal. Lots of money and it will BE THERE for a long time.
    Just this week, there was a public meeting about a new project along the Hank Aaron State Trail. It is totally unclear to me how to voice questions. Site analysis is tricky. When is it best, as along the HAST, to leave well enough alone? Will the art clutter the site? What is the art adding?
    Anyway, so many questions and you raise more good ones!
    I appreciate your POV.

  11. Anonymous says:

    I like the question of whether this style of arts writing deserves a new name or job title. It would need to be less negative than the commonly understood meaning of Critic, more engaged and subjective than a Reporter or Observer, more empathetic than an Analyst, certainly not an Interpreter or a Pundit. And Reviewer indicates the old way of doing business.

    We come closer with an Arts Commentator who writes arts commentary. Comments may seem marginal, but the word Commentaries (as well as margin) has a deeper meaning in Biblical studies, for example. We could call the outcome Deep Commentary. (Just tripping here: Arts Talmudist, Arts Subficialist, Arts Phenomenologist.)

  12. Anonymous says:

    You have handled truth well, phrasing lightly flowing, interesting narrative poised as an outsider for the benefit of outiders. Within each art come momeents within moments of high specialty, the triumphs of which only the exact same type of artists performing the exact same work will fully understand. Therefore, someone who practicis that, but not this, will not be able to report as suitably on a specific mastery of a specific kind of detail as someone who practices this, but not that, can, and someone who practicies neither this nor that will feel most guilt-free while reading the lighter friendlier style of review than they would an overly ambitious, cheerless, destructive evaluation, because humanity itself is fruit.

  13. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for commenting, Rick and Jonathan. I don’t think the nomenclature has to change. I’m still a critic and I still write reviews. I’m just being clear about motives and point of view. I’m not the first critic to approach things as I described in the column, but I might be the first to spell it out so explicitly.

  14. Anonymous says:

    “Arts Talmudist” gets my vote!

  15. Anonymous says:

    It’s one thing to be “on the side” of the arts, but I think it is another thing to enter into a partnership if you call yourself a journalist. Arts journalists are already marginalized in a world of news reporting. Why create a scenario that makes you even more of a booster and less of a critic. Arts organizations will expect you to promote their work – the good, the bad, and the ugly. And that means EVERYONE’s work. Not just the companies you happen to love. Do you want to get into that kind of situation. It’s healthy to have some give and take – just ask Congress!

  16. Anonymous says:

    The give and take is still there, same as it always was. (Look, among other stories, at my coverage of the Skylight Opera Theatre in the late summer and fall of 2009.) It’s just that all the cards are on the table, now.– Strini

  17. Anonymous says:

    I think there should always be a separation between church and state here – so the idea of a new “relationship” between the arts and journalism sounds instantly troubling. Journalistically, a disservice is being made to a community once you cross the line from objective observer to booster which it seems is the ethos being hawked here. Now, if you are passing yourself off more as a marketing arm for the arts then all this OK. I know about this first hand since I cover the arts for a metro daily. Sure, I have friends that are musicians, executive directors and board members within that realm. But I am, first and foremost a journalist. My responsibility is not to further my friends careers, or sell tickets to shows… it is to inform readers and to do so with dispassion. It’s a tough call because you will always face a situation where you will have to judge a spade a spade when a show is subpar… and often these are people you have broken bread with. Well you know what? Too bad. That is the nature of the beast. If you are not willing to be objective and to honor the time honored firewall that makes journalims what it is – then you need to get out of the business-because you are not fit for it… get a job at the arts council or with the city, or as marketing director at your fave nonprofit then you can party and socialize with your pals in the arts to your hearts content and you won’t be misleading your readers.

  18. Anonymous says:

    Nobody’s misleading anyone, Edward. For starters, this column very clearly does the opposite of that. And if you’d read my coverage over the last two years, you would know that I don’t shy away from calling a spade a spade (to borrow a cliche that I would never use in my own writing).

    This monkish, J-school “I couldn’t possibly be a human being I just report objective reality” approach to the job is part of the reason newspapers are in such trouble. Nobody believes it, even though most stories read as if a committee of bland cyphers wrote them. The audience doesn’t demand moral purity and utterly objective judgment, because it does not believe those things are possible. And they’re probably right about that.

    I, too, am first and foremost a journalist. I’m just unwilling to adopt and strike the moral pretensions and poses that pass for nobility within the profession. A newspaper is not a church; it’s a business. When journalists pretend otherwise, they look ridiculous to the rest of the world.

    What readers crave is transparency, which this column provides. They want frank disclosure, they want to know where your heart is. And more than that, they want to know that you have a heart in the first place.

  19. Anonymous says:

    I work in the Bay Area as one of those buggers who fills inboxes with listings, releases, pitches and thank you notes. I don’t get this adversarial impression at all. I feel as though the arts and lifestyle journalists and editors, despite the griping one may hear from some arts admins and execs, want and try to support the arts (all of it, from the big guy to the little guy) as best they can. This is most evident if you ask the wrong (or right, depending on context) question and receive a passionate tirade about how the journalist or editor can’t support arts in the way they’d like to because of recent cut backs to their departments.

  20. Anonymous says:

    This discussion really should be called “Whither Arts Criticism?” What I hear Tom Strini saying is that it should no longer be the province of newspapers. It is possible to commingle (as Linda Binder cogently says “ advocacy and critique. ” What I hear dissenters saying is that this model borders on hackdom. Who is right? If you make a judgment based on reading newspaper music criticism in mid-sized American cities these days, the verdict is easy: newspapers, as a general rule, lose. For some reason, reading (especially music) criticism in the local tabloid can be perversely enjoyable because it is so dreadful. If you want to read the work of hacks, and work yourself up into a lather that could conceivably bring on a coronary, the local daily is often the best place to go. The pleasant reality is that first-rate, provocative arts criticism is thriving these days. Read Alex Ross, read this online journal, read blogs, (I would say even read my drivel,but I’m too modest) …but for God’s sake, don’t read….well…never mind…

  21. Anonymous says:

    Jonathan, you’re quite right. Alex Ross is outstanding, and music criticism in America’s newspapers is mostly terrible. One of my favorite music sites is http://detritusreview.blogspot.com/, where three musical academics gleefully and viciously dissect deeply stupid writing about music. They never seem to run out of that. — Strini

  22. Anonymous says:

    where is there moral pretension? not writing something like this?

    “Well, they got through it”.

    but instead writing like this:

    “the event was a triumph for the artists and audience alike.”

  23. Anonymous says:

    to Edward,

    Tom’s referring to the many different levels which can be addressed with grace and kindness in a finished review–this of the total
    event–apart from the traditional and, silly by modern standards, wielding of a baseline middle finger.

  24. Anonymous says:

    you know, this is a lot like the art of medicine. a really great doctor just pulls an idea out of a hat as if there was, for him, a vision.

  25. Anonymous says:

    I agree that a new bar could be set by worthies in arts criticism. However, it will always be suspect as bearing some element of the sludge of past corruption. If a review is openly hideous, it swells the hearts of the performers and artists who cherish it as proof that they are misunderstood by the lowlife.

  26. Anonymous says:

    quote du jour

    “at every word, a reputation dies”

    …..Alex Pope

  27. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for a great commentary Tom. You guys at TCD are doing some good work here!

  28. Anonymous says:

    I strongly recommend the article “art criticism” by Donald Burton Kuspit in Britannica Online Encyclopedia, where this exact same idea is shown to have appeared in historical contexts in fascinating settings going way, way back.

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