Eleven Principles of Arts Journalism

Everything I Ever Learned About Arts Journalism I learned at the USC Annenberg/Getty Fellowship 10th Anniversary Reunion

Principle 1: Plan ahead, then ditch your plans

Phase one of the Fellowship Reunion was mad planning before it even began. An impressive amount got done over the phone, by e-mail, in every way possible by those who had the time and foresight to do it. Interviews were lined up; appointments made; meetings booked and phoners arranged for the 10-day stretch.

The “Thawing the Critical Response” team to which I was assigned began – almost immediately – to move in several seemingly divergent directions. Team leaders Nekesa, Olu and Ariel (also on the team: Ryan and Matthew) had different ideas about what to pursue, and debated over e-mail the value of tweeted reviews, for example, looking for a way to define the whole idea of “critical response.” I joined in, briefly, to assert my own view that a tweeted review perhaps was not an end in itself, but might be part of something bigger (a debate that seemed of little or no interest to anyone, by the way).

Meanwhile, Ariel found a couple of exhibition spaces whose directors agreed to allow us to stage “events” around their exhibits, so as to try to engage an audience in responding in some new and perhaps interesting ways to the material at hand (while Nekesa convinced performer T-Pain to become a test case for her in observing the trajectory of tweets from audience to artist and back to audience again).

These were good starting moves – and they were carried out and abandoned in various ways, depending on the circumstances. So much of what happened delivered unexpected messages: a discussion with the director of LACE was both unscheduled and revealing (more on this later).

This sense of the value of change and digression was echoed by the Moving group, made up of three team-leaders intent on observing the culture from the streets rather than the highways. Joshua spoke of the spirit of biking, the sense that you can experience changes of mind and plan with ease. He took a two-wheeled journey to an area he loves, South Central L.A., where he veered off plan into South Central’s piñata district.

Others on that team (Michele, Alissa) did interviews with bikers and designers as they (unexpectedly) coincided with an L.A. bike summit.

Principle 2: A Guided Tour is not necessarily a better way to understand art

I tagged along with a tour of the show at MOCA called “Under the Big Black Sun, California Art 1974-1981,” the tour given by the head curator there, Paul Schimmel. This had been arranged by the “Cultural Context” team (Carol, Kim, Carolina, Randall) as they searched for a way to understand what happened in art in California and when, and how to create a valuable timeline/reference for it.

A brilliant performance ensued: Schimmel talked non-stop for an hour and three-quarters about his choices of the art for the show, pointing to certain pieces and putting them in the context of world and/or US events. He was a powerful advocate for his own work, and his talk functioned as an explanation of the show itself, as well as a window into his curatorial process. Not only that, but he shared little tidbits of inside knowledge with the 6 or 8 of us on the tour.

“I love this work, it is spectacular,” he said of a tall and indeed spectacular work of stacked canvases slathered with multicolored paint that dripped out the edges of the stretched canvases. “I’m trying to arrange to keep it.” He noted the synergy in one art installation between a “roaring” movie projector and the sound and image it projected, a loop of the MGM roaring lion. He used the word “obviously” so often, even his most remote ideas seemed inevitable.

“This was obviously inspired by the Burghers of Calais…” etc. “This is obviously a reference to…” and so on. Stitched together in this way, it seemed like a cohesive (if absolutely enormous) show. But – it needed so much support. If not for the tour, I feel certain I’d have been mystified by much of the art, not to mention the placement of it sometimes very high up, sometimes far from any visibly logical arrangement.

I don’t object to getting a little help in understanding a museum show, but this was much more than an audio tour. This was a performance. It suggests a new kind of exhibit, in which a “host” is installed for the purpose of explicating the work, a little like the waiter who says “My name is Frank and I’ll be your waiter tonight,” and gives you the specials and the ordering system. If you hate it at dinner, just imagine how much you’d hate it in a museum. If anything, the tour made the notion of a journalists’ online timeline of art/culture/political events seem even more urgently needed.

The day before I had, like others on the Fellowship, gone to the Hammer Museum to see “Now Dig This,” a spectacular show of work by Black artists from the 60s and 70s, part of the Pacific Standard Time program of events. This was a knockout, no explanation needed. Though big and quite satisfying, the show was not huge and not overwhelming. And the spirit of it was generous: plenty of information and solidly interesting and sometimes revelatory work that was beautifully selected for both quality and content, and could stand on its own.

Principle 3: Audience is everything and nothing

It was both boring and fascinating to spend several hours at LACE on a sunny Saturday afternoon. This was the first attempt of the team called “Thawing the Critical Response” to stage a question and answer event around a show there of cultural artifacts related to LA’s history of performance art. Nobody came.

As the hours stretched on, the rooms stayed mostly empty. We began to feel responsible, astonished that the busy street (Hollywood Boulevard) delivered so few patrons to the show. I became transfixed by the Scientology Testing Center right across the street. A man stood outside, handing out coupons for free stress tests.

We tried a similar approach, standing out in the street, trying to pull people in like hawkers in front of comedy clubs and bars. Still, nobody came.

At some point, the director of LACE came on the scene. When we began to talk about the dilemma of having no audience, she seemed unconcerned. When we observed that an appealing video hanging inside the gallery might be better placed facing outside, to draw people in, she said that many had made that suggestion. But, she said, “it is one thing for LACE to put the video screen facing out to lure people in, and it is another for people who come to the show to say ‘this must be outside, you must put this outside.’”

She spoke of giving people “the room to make those observations.” When we asked how she imagined she might expand her audience, she mentioned the website and social media – but not really for audience building, more for information and awareness. This prompted olu and me to talk for a long time about journalism, responsibility and audience.

What made us so desperate to pull people in? Was that our job? Was it the opposite of our job? Was audience necessary? Had the ease of information created by social media made audience rather than art the main issue? Should audience be the main issue, or at least an issue of equal weight? What about curious and misunderstood art, wasn’t there art that quite rightly had no audience but might build one in time? And so on. Answers? Not really. Just questions.

Some of these issues apply to the “story” team as well (Celeste, Jennifer, Laszlo, Kevin, Neda, Douglas), as they grappled with what it means to tell a story in a different way with audience expectations changing every day. Neda described her conversations with people who are expert at telling stories in new media, and who urged the team to go into the communities for a better understanding of audience. Putting storytelling technology in the hands of that audience is a big part of “arts journalism next.” So is a more playful style and attitude.

Principle 4: Cultural history is vital, but it is not necessarily art

It was revealing to be at LACE, seeing the exhibit of artifacts that purported to tell the history of LA performance art, and later to see a Fowler exhibition on the Chicano art movement. Both were of interest, and especially the Fowler exhibit, which contained genuinely untold and interesting history.

But after those two, the experience of seeing art at the Hammer was an incredible lift. The art by Charles White, Melvin Edwards, John Outterbridge, Samella Lewis, Bettye Saar etc. was art, meant to be looked at, meant to inspire reactions and connect with audience. David Hammons’ “Bag Lady in Flight” was memorably evocative, almost like a piece of frozen animation. I love cultural history, and I’m committed to it as a subject – but I’ve never been so aware of how dry and removed it can seem, particularly in the wrong hands. More than ever, I felt the importance of finding stories and episodes and details that will bring it to life, as well as the value of mixing the history and the art together to enhance both.

Principle 5: “Chance is a Fool’s Name for Fate” (from The Gay Divorcee, 1934)

It was Saturday night, and I begged off official fellowship events to attend a concert a the GAM Art Center called “Music and Conversation,” a tradition now seven seasons old, apparently, with a season that is usually several concerts long. It was planned and hosted by a woman named Jane Brockman, a composer whom I had encountered by phone when I arranged to record her comments for a piece on the film composer Leonard Rosenman (“East of Eden,” “Rebel Without a Cause,” “Fantastic Voyage”).

This was one of those unexpected L.A. events not much celebrated, not advertised. Huge spread of good food on tables around the room –s hrimp, vegetables, cheese, bread, plenty of wine. A hundred people, I would say, in attendance. After a pre-concert snack, I sat down in a random seat, at which point an interesting looking couple sat down in front of me. I was curious about an article of clothing that the woman had on and, having had a glass of wine or two, I was inclined to ask about it. I leaned forward to get her attention. “Excuse me, I’m admiring your shawl from the row behind you, is there anything you can tell me about it?”

“Not really,” she said. We resumed our positions. Then, suddenly, she turned around. “Are you here alone tonight? What brings you to the concert?”

I explained I was in town for a few days and had met Jane Brockman by phone only, over a radio piece on the film composer Leonard Rosenman. “Who happens to be my father,” she said. What are the odds?

Principle 6: It’s not the medium, it’s the message (with apologies to McLuhan)

At the “Artists and Journalists dinner” (for lack of a better name) on Sunday night, I sat next to the artist Dominique Moody. As we talked together, completely uninterrupted, for the entire meal, I tried to remember the last time I’d sat and talked at length to a distinguished artist about his/her work without any outcome in mind. We had a hugely satisfying conversation about her new work. She’s had to face some problematic issues surrounding her eyesight so, she explained, she’s doing larger, more conceptual, three-dimensional work. It was a lesson in adaptation that could apply to anyone for whom some physical problem might get in the way, except that it didn’t seem at all to be getting in her way. It is an adaptation, plain and simple, by an artist who lives to work.

Principle 7: Sometimes a website is just a website

The Engine 29 Garage team (Andrew, Laura, Michael, Peggy) set themselves a simple yet vexing task: to make a newspaper’s website work better. It’s a redesign problem based on studying the old, and dreaming about the new.

Without aiming to solve the issues of ALL websites or predicting the future or even penetrating the deeper meaning of Los Angeles, the team has grappled with the practical realities of newspapers, and how websites and social media can extend their reach and possibly strengthen the papers’ lives.

They are imagining a theater site with a theater entryway pictured, leading to an assortment of welcoming features that will blur the lines between the theater community and the theater audience. They talked with community engagement experts, who advised them on the construction of something with room for contributions, someplace less proscribed and more open. It might turn out to be a model for others, but it is starting from the very specific problems they are addressing, and moving out from there.

Principle 8: The least likely person might have the answer

On a visit with the Game team to Otis, an art/design college which awards degrees for toy design, game-art etc., we listened to Harry Mott tell us about games. Harry, we observe, has the atmosphere of a fictional character, full of contradictions and quirks. He is almost monumentally unassuming. He is completely and utterly fascinated by games of every kind. He knows it all.

Rick observes that, many years ago, he was probably all alone in the universe with his obsession. Now he is a big shot at a College of Art and Design, with access to any game he can find, with the possibility of inventing some he can’t. In the screening room at Otis, he shows us trailers for games – some the very violent ones you would expect, others more Disneyfied, with sentimental music and floating flower petals which, when manipulated, spur other petals to float and flutter.

Harry, a believer in games, was convinced that this team project was not a conceptual exercise, but a real live project, ripe for development! He urged the team to remember “to be open to change, and to enjoy what you’re doing, that’s the whole point!” And one other thing, he said. When making a game, “don’t make people feel stupid.”

Smart man, Harry.

Principle 9: Wisdom is absorbed en route

As usual, many of the moments to remember happened on the bus rides and dinners “between” events. At dinner at the restaurant Mas Malo, Celeste and I batted around ideas about how to open an interview. Her detailed description of how she “prepares” an interviewee was revealing: because she works live, she doesn’t have the luxury of warming someone up on tape, so she described an elaborate warm-up before the interview begins.

She converses a little with the subject, to let him/her know she’s done her research. After that: “Are you ready now?” she says. “Comfortable now? We’re going to start the interview. Everything good? We’re going to begin.”

Then she poses a completely disarming question to that person, she says, that only THAT person can answer. The interview begins at full speed and volume. My problem is usually different, as I do both short and long taped interviews, where a lot depends on getting deep “moments” that I can excerpt and intercut with music and/or other sound. I, too, believe in the disarming opening question – but I can afford to warm up to the big stuff by starting a little smaller and perhaps more gently. Either way, the opening question sets the tone.

On the bus to a talk at USC, Edward and I talk about the Renzo Piano “addition” to the Morgan Library in New York. Piano was given the task of designing a newly added space to the Morgan, making one space from the old and the new, and I was moved by the elegance of what he did. Lifson had qualifications. He observed that Piano (whom he very much admires) had in some way lessened the impact of the old building, and he missed the sense of Old New York that had been so present.

I’ll have to go back and look at it again with that reservation in mind.

Meanwhile on a walk with Joshua, returning to the hotel from the historic L.A. walk and dinner, I was able to tell him some related history about the old Penn Station, a beautiful building which was demolished amid much protest in the early 60s. It was the destruction of Penn Station that created the Landmarks Commission, this after New York realized –too late — it had destroyed one of the great structures in its history to make way for a cheap, businesslike, suburban-looking train station with no art or stature attached in any way.

Principle 10: The Wonderful Shabby Bookstore, or: Look for opposites

In the walking tour of old L.A  given by Aaron Paley on Tuesday night, we were ushered into an absolutely fantastically shabby place, The Last Bookstore, at Spring and Fifth Streets. It was notable for two remarkable features: a “front desk” propped up by literally hundreds of books, arranged in an artfully unarranged manner; and a paperback display above, with the books fanned out against the wall in the shape of what may have been a fish, or an abstract design. The shop specializes in used books of all kinds, better appreciated standing on the marble floor of a dilapidated old L.A. building. As Bordersdisappears and Barnes and Noble struggles, there stands The Last Bookstore in all its faded glory.

Appreciating L.A.’s shabby corners of culture and history is all the more dramatic because it is L.A., known the world over for the fact that there is so much glitz and glam and very shiny money here. It is a little like appreciating New York for its wide, open spaces, which can be explored in a similarly subversive spirit. It is often the most interesting kind of research, and it may reveal paradoxes in every art form (such as the notion in jazz, for example, that it is the constraints of harmony, structure and melody that “free” the player to improvise around them).

Principle 11: Sometimes you run out of principles, but that’s okay. In fact, it is all okay.

Doug McLennan began on day one by stating the problem and the purpose:

“We want to construct an argument,” he said, “that reasserts the importance of arts journalism. The world is changing – we’re awash in culture – the bright lines between professional journalists and the rest of us are slipping away. We need to look at what it is that we do and assert the argument that it is important. “

It must be important, because the principles are still the same. Not that they might not be influenced by the big changes to come.

More from Doug:

“You need to be looking at everything you do and challenge everything you do, and ask the questions: What is audience? What is your value to that audience? What is your responsibility? It is also good to reassert your journalistic place – no need for you to start learning how to edit video – if you coming out wanting to edit video that’s fine, but if you come out feeling and knowing that you are doing the right thing in the right place and staying right there, that is okay too. “

We’ve asked ourselves those questions, over and over again. Answers? We’ll let you know.

Sara Fishko

Sara Fishko's features are a staple of cultural programming at WNYC, New York Public Radio. She produces and hosts "Fishko Files," a long-running series of audio-essays on music, art, media and culture. She was also the writer, producer and host of WNYC and NPR's "Jazz Loft Project Radio Series," a multi-part documentary series drawn from thousands of hours of midcentury archival tape. Fishko is known as well for extended, incisive interviews with the likes of Keith Jarrett, Dave Brubeck, Philip Glass and Murray Perahia. Her work has earned multiple awards, and has been heard across the country on “Morning Edition,” “All Things Considered,” “On The Media,” “Studio 360,” “Soundcheck” and “Performance Today.”

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