Tuesday, July 09, 2013

A Conversation with Tyler Green on the Art Journalist's "Narrative"

Note: This is the latest in a series of conversations on the shifting narratives of roles within the art industry. Previous posts in the series include:
Art journalism has undergone a radical shift over the past 20 years in my opinion, but then perhaps so has journalism in general. A revolution brought about via technologies that bring tremendous pressure for nearly immediate publication, often even as the described events are taking place (with the previous practices of reflection and in-depth investigation or analysis suffering in its wake) has also led to a decentralization of control over how we view the world (i.e., over "the message"), which has its up sides as well, but comes coupled with an odd sense that something is old "news" before we even understand what it was that happened. In a world as rich with complex ideas as the art world is at its best, that's not necessarily an innovation that makes things better for understanding.
There's a significant additional difference with art journalism, though, as Tyler Green points out in the conversation below, that corresponds to how the art market, rather than art itself, has increasingly (almost entirely) become the story in the US. Yes, I'm guilty of that leaning here myself, but this is in part a self-declared marketing tool for a commercial contemporary art gallery, so....
Moreover, I suspect there is now a widespread editorial-level conclusion that Americans simply don't care about fine art. I mean, just ask yourself whether this

seems even remotely likely to happen in the US today (hint: it was a feature article in a self-declared "humor and general interest magazine" on an important living painter that discussed his actual process). Then again, perhaps it's more a "chicken or egg" thing. If mainstream magazines don't discuss developments in contemporary art, how are the general public going to know they're interested in it?
It's against this set of assumptions on my part that I asked Tyler Green whether he would have a conversation about the "narrative" of the art journalist today. For those of you not familiar with him, Tyler Green remains perhaps the most stubbornly committed art journalist I know. He has regularly spoken truth to power (and yes, even upsetting me from time to time with his insistent [but always defensible] call that we all seek to consistently put our best, most professional foots forward). Moreover, he has always done so with the public's best interest at the center of his appeals. In other words, he's a true member of the Fourth Estate. 
Here's his biography (from his blog, Modern Art Notes):
Tyler Green is a Washington-based art journalist. He edits and writes Modern Art Notes and is the U.S. columnist for Modern Painters magazine. Green’s newest venture is The Modern Art Notes Podcast, a weekly program which he independently produces and hosts. It is distributed each Thursday via MAN, iTunes, RSS feed and on MANPodcast.com.

Green and MAN have been featured in The New York Times, Time, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, the Dallas Morning News, the Detroit Free Press, the Boston Globe, the Houston Chronicle, the Denver Post, the Rocky Mountain News, the Kansas City Star, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Slate, Contemporary, Art & Auction, Black Book, Art in America, and on many NPR affiliates. The Wall Street Journal has called MAN “the most influential of all visual arts blogs.” Later the WSJ said, “You won’t find a better-informed art writer than Tyler Green.” The Washington Post has named Tyler Green one of Washington’s 14 “young and influential” cultural figures.

Away from MAN, Green has written for Fortune, Conde Nast Portfolio, Smithsonian, Washingtonian, the New York Observer, LA Weekly, Black Book magazine and has contributed op-eds to newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, the Philadelphia Inquirer and to the Wall Street Journal’s arts op-ed column, “In the Fray.”
The narrative for most art journalists (that is, a writer whose publisher/editors discovered they had, in addition to strong journalistic instincts, a knack for the complex task of translating the visual language of fine art into words) like any journalist, used to be they would find or be assigned a particular beat and cover it consistently for a specific publication or media outlet (i.e., TV or radio network) that had a budget to cover travel expenses (e.g., to send them to the Venice Biennial or Documenta or to interview an artist or museum director half way across the country) and a decent full-time salary with benefits. If they were notably successful, they might be hired away by a bigger publication/network or an arts-specific publication, often becoming a semi-celebrity within the art world, getting lecturing gigs or panel discussion invitations, possibly becoming the editor of a major arts publication/network, and hopefully eventually publishing their collected works in a book or two or launching their own TV series.
Winkleman: Does that narrative still apply or seem realistic? What components of it are less likely now or less desirable now?
Green: I don't know if any of it still applies. There are a few of those jobs, but more and more covering art means covering the market. (Which isn't covering art, it's covering business.) There are many more art-related business reporters in New York than there are art reporters.

The old model is gone. We should all stop bitching about it, myself included.

Sad, simple truth: There are very, very few established art-focused media outlets any self-respecting writer/reporter/critic should want to work for, even on a freelance basis. You're better off building and owning your own thing. (Exceptions, with the caveat that writers taking under about $1.50-$2 a word are wasting their own time: ARTnews is quite good. The Art Newspaper is often super-smart but is understaffed in the US. The magazine for which I'm a columnist, Modern Painters, is on a strong run of late.) Away from art-focused magazines, there's really only The New Yorker. Calvin Tomkins was a great profile writer, but like his magazine's art critic, he's lost his fastball. [Tomkins in 2010, on Julie Mehretu: "In her junior year of high school, she 'came out,' as she put it. (For a ridiculous moment, I thought she was talking about a white-gown debut.)"] Sadly, the estimable New York Review of Books ignores contemporary art. 
Aside: This is a horrid moment for artist-profile writing: That match of format and subject seems on the way out. 
This is not to say that there are not good writers around: We should not equate the lack of opportunity for upward mobility (and larger audiences) with the lack of quality. Christopher Knight is still at the top of his game. Andrew Russeth and Maika Pollock at the Observer are both generous and a pleasure to read. (In fact they're both so generous that I wish that I could trade them about 20 percent of my over-cynicism for 10 percent of their generosity.) Carolina Miranda has helped make ARTnews fresher and must-read again. I wish Katy Siegel had one of the Big NYC or LA critic jobs because I like reading what she thinks, and I don't see her around enough. Ben Davis is oft interesting and thoughtful, but he seems to save his best thinking for the art world rather than art. That's fine, and I can understand it's a meaningful contribution, especially in New York. Phong Bui's Q&As in The Brooklyn Rail are terrific. Unfortunately, too few of these writers know or care there's an America west of the Hudson. You can be a good New York writer without leaving New York, but you can't mature as a thinker and a writer without leaving, and leaving often. But that's another issue.
Winkleman: What changes in the art world in general (as opposed to the publishing world), if any, have led to changes in the field of art journalism?
Green: I am the wrong person to ask about the art world because it does not much interest me. Art: I like. The art world I'm happy to leave to New York, LA, and to the art fair circuit.
Let's also be clear about this: Art journalism is all but dead. It's being replaced by art media, which reports less (often not at all), cares little about accuracy (when did you last see a correction on your favorite art media website?) but which is less constrained by tired tropes.  
Winkleman: Most of the art journalists I know came to their profession almost by accident. Indeed, the first arts master program at an accredited school to teach journalists to write about arts and culture was founded in 2005 (the Goldring Arts Journalism Program at Syracuse University), making arts journalism as a profession that one studied for specifically at the graduate level a fairly recent occurrence. What changes to the profession does the introduction of masters level programs for arts journalism foretell in your opinion, if any?
Green: I cannot understand, for the life of me, why anyone would go to graduate school to prepare for a job or career that no longer exists. I don't understand why any of these programs exist or how they're useful. 
Winkleman: Journalists from many fields who used to work for publications have found themselves free agents due to changes in the industry. Many formerly employed arts journalists (some might say too many) have side-stepped into public relations. I don't necessarily see this as a good thing (mostly because there are so many now that my blog receives probably a dozen appeals a day to write about events entirely unrelated to its topic). Other free agents have responded with innovations on the arts journalism model. You're top among the journalists I think of when I see necessity being the mother of invention in this regard. Your blog, Modern Art Notes (MAN) is widely considered not only a pioneer of the medium, but has been called  “the most influential of all visual arts blogs,” by The Wall Street Journal. Your relatively recently launched weekly MAN Podcasts are a growing treasure trove of interviews that I believe are historically important. What other changes (good or bad) do you see in the field, either specifically in response to publications cutting staff or in response to new opportunities somewhat independent of that?
Green: Thanks for the kind words on The MAN Podcast. I'm really thrilled that people seem to be enjoying the program. These days depth interests me a lot more than drive-bys, and folks who listen to The MAN Podcast provide me with the opportunity to explore that a bit.
As is typical when an industry collapses, the massive decline of art journalism has created opportunities for entrepreneurialism. Philanthropy has massively failed to respond to the decline of art journalism and to encourage new models of art-related reporting, and because reporting is expensive, reporting on art and artists will not come back in a meaningful way until philanthropy wakes up. 
That's not to say that there aren't interesting art media out there (just that they don't do a lot of reporting): Hyperallergic has matured and helped motivate me toward my own entrepreneurialist turn. Art Practical is almost always interesting. Creative Time's Artists Report project/publication started slowly but has become a must-read. Rhizome often zips right by me (I'm old!), but it quite often introduces me to things I feel like I should have known about. Aperture's newly re-designed online presence is a big improvement. (Speaking of projects-within-institutions: I'd still like to see the Walker Art Center build on Paul Schmelzer's excellent work by commissioning more original content.) Conscientious Photography Magazine is beautiful. I'm enjoying the heck out of Andrew Berardini and Sarah Williams' The Art Book Review. I don't really know what Little Brown Mushroom (aka Alec Soth and Brad Zellar) is -- I guess it exists at the intersection of media and an artists-project? -- but I love it and I wish I was doing something that wonderful and smart and catchy. I'm sure there's plenty out there about which I know not enough, too.
I'm surprised how little of the new things that interest me are from the Midwest or the West. Especially Los Angeles.
Winkleman: In an offline exchange, I asserted that the globalization of the art market has had an impact on art journalism, but you noted you're not sure how. I suspect that comes from a vantage point of separating out market/business journalism from journalism about art. And yet, with museums seeking international trustees, the proliferation of international biennials, and an expectation that (because the world is shrinking) those artists who are speaking to an international audience will garner more attention, I still think globalization must impact arts journalism in some ways. Or am I still missing something?
Green: Only what, three or four or five US museums have a significant international trustee presence on their board? All artists are speaking to an international audience, they just don't all receive one. I just don't see how globalism is impacting art journalism/media at all. (Or really how it might/would.)
Winkleman: One of the topics that keeps coming up throughout this series of conversations is the shift at museums from a focus on programming around art objects to one on programming around "art experiences." On the face of it, that wouldn't necessarily seem to impact art journalism, per se, but perhaps it has. Your response?
Green: I guess we're talking about corporate-sponsored carnivals like the recent Guggenheim and PS1 things? I'm not sure what the heck those are, except for development opportunities. (And when I hear museum directors discuss them, they sound even more like planned development opportunities.) I don't go to them because, well, they don't sound very interesting.
Winkleman: There's a sense in the US that journalism in general (well beyond arts journalism) has been co-opted by corporate interests and that the Obama administration, reportedly in the interest of national security, is systematically cowering the remaining writers willing to speak truth to power. Beyond the type of philanthropy that might "respond to the decline of art journalism and to encourage new models of art-related reporting," do you have any opinions on how journalism itself can recover from the current widespread sense that it's been reduced to mostly stenography?

Green: Too much journalism is go-along-to-get-along, and art journalism is no different. (Carol Vogel is an able stenographer.) If there are rewards for enterprise work -- be it reporting, think-pieces, whatever -- then enterprise will thrive. Alas, I don't see a lot of rewards for enterprise in the current art journalism/media landscape.

Winkleman: Some would argue that arts media outlets are giving their readers what they want (I recall an artnet.com magazine declaration that their most widely read column, by far, was the monthly horoscope, for example). While I myself have complained about the quantity of celebrity gossip on some arts media sites, I have to believe they have access to fairly detailed analytics on who's reading what and that that dictates to a large degree what they publish. Beyond some smart and well-meaning philanthropist helping fund a high-quality publication dedicated to art journalism, do you think there's a readership issue to be solved here?

Green: Ah, this is a very good question and I'm glad you asked it.

TMZ is more read than the New York Review of Books, so should the NYRB not exist? Just because many readers like to be entertained by crap should we all be doomed to Charlie Finch? Of course not.

Fortunately, there is no direct correlation between import and audience: At its peak, 15,000 people subscribed to The Partisan Review, and a mere fraction of that total was on board in 1939 when Clement Greenberg wrote his first important essay for the publication. Any idea that a mass audience is necessary or imperative to justify the production of quality work (or its ability to have lasting import) is poppycock.  

No, art is not as popular as wine or celebrity gossip. The economics are not there. That's why for there to be a NYRB-level publication about art, one that is probative, one the features enterprise-driven reporting and independent criticism, it will have to be philanthropy-supported. There's nothing wrong with that -- it is the same model on which art museums and private universities work.

But I think it's also worth nothing that there is at least some evidence that people will consume content that is at least marginally closer to the NYRB than to Charlie Finch: Apparently enough people read Ben Davis that he often cuts loose on Artinfo. I'd like to think that The Modern Art Notes Podcast demonstrates that listeners will turn out in enough numbers to support art-intensive content, both in terms of product and the business that enables it. (If you haven't heard our show, it's entirely, 100 percent about art. Not business, not gossip, just art.) Still, I know that producing a podcast, even 52 of them a year featuring 90 or so guests per year, is inexpensive. Producing reporting and independent criticism is not.


Anonymous Michael Winkler said...

Most artists currently enjoying widespread acclaim are reflections of an unprecedented shift in the visual arts toward language-based expressions of meaning. It started in the 60's when artists began to treat written language as a visual phenomena. When visual works having a formal content consisting of written words became celebrated, a bridge was established between language and visual art which fostered an acceptance of external narratives as existing within the conceptual boundaries of the work. A text which is insignificant from a literary standpoint can theoretically be transformed into a masterpiece through its affirmation as an image when assessed within the historical context of the visual arts--since any text can be an image, all texts relating to the work have the associative potential to be carried into it. We've now reached the point where the Whitney Biennial treated an essay in its exhibition's catalog as a work in the exhibition. When the literature referencing the work also becomes the work, it neutralizes critical comments by subsuming them.
The justification for treating a word as an image is founded on ideas in linguistics and philosophy. However, most current theorists of contemporary art are unaware that the legitimacy of treating words as images is fundamentally rooted in an historically accepted theory of word-recognition. Bouma Theory states that we read words by there overall shape or outline--it seemed logical to assume that if we can learn to ascribe a specific meaning to the arbitrary image of a word's shape, meaning was probably arbitrarily ascribed to all images. If the shapes of words and the shapes of images are both conveying meaning through the same experiential mechanisms, it seemed reasonable to treat them as being in the same category of signs.
However, we've now learned that identifying the sequencing of vocalic gestures is the essential feature of the recognition of a spoken word, rather than identifying its phonetic content. Similarly, it's been discovered that we don't read words by their overall shape or outline as was believed. We actually read the individual letters (Parallel Letter Recognition). Consequently, the signs for words aren't sounds or images, they're relational patterns which have no material-form intrinsically connected to them (the identity of a letter rests solely on the role of that letter within the alphabetic associations of the lexicon of the language--the agreed-upon character used to convey a letter is entirely irrelevant). The arbitrariness of the visual forms used to convey letters doesn't equate to an arbitrariness in the signs for written words--the sign for a word resides in the recognition of the underlying pattern of the letter-sequencing, not in the visual features of the letter-characters themselves. Since the alphabetic sign for a word is comprised of a specific relational pattern which has no intrinsic physical form, the materiality of language is an illusion based on a misconception of what we are actually seeing when we read a written word (after learning to read, we eventually loose the awareness that we're processing letter-to-letter patterning).
The experience of reading a text is a dynamic process specific to literary signs which has no meaningful connection to the materiality of visual signs; consequently, printing text on a gallery wall doesn't impact the purely literary nature of the message any more than the reading of this text is impacted by the place in which it is read. The same is true of reading a text aloud. The visual context doesn't transform the message because the actual media of written words is a patterning of temporal sequencing which is not experienced in a context of spatial materiality. We will eventually formulate a genuinely interdisciplinary approach to critiquing visual works presented in connection with literary messages--the work currently being supported won't hold up very well when a literary assessment is factored into the critique.

7/09/2013 02:56:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

...no more takers on this topic, guess criticism is dead. Bunch of over-rated cultural blowhards anyway!

7/10/2013 06:42:00 PM  
Blogger Roy Forget said...

@anonymous who wrote: "...no more takers on this topic, guess criticism is dead. Bunch of over-rated cultural blowhards anyway!"

I guess I will take your comment at face value, given the exclamation mark at the end. Either way, perhaps the lack of further commentary is because Mr. Green had already spoken/written so eloquently about the topic in his conversation with Mr. Winkleman.

What is a cultural blowhard anyway?

7/11/2013 01:17:00 AM  
Anonymous Christine Regan Lake said...

Christine Regan Lake

What a great article! I love all the resources.

As a new artist I have been trying to navigate my way through the plethora of art blogs and websites out there and have spent a good amount of time coming up feeling frustrated.

This article has given me a great list of website to check out and writers to follow.

I agree with the commentary about people wanting to read the horoscope and etc. I think that that is simply a representation of what is happening in our culture on a large scale. A large segment of the population simply wants 'surface stuff'.... they are the 'fast food intellectual set'.... they don't reflect.... they just run/rush and want to distract themselves. I think this shows up in so many areas. You can see it in how they speak and how they live their life.

I think it is a much smaller sub set of people who like to dig deep and reflect on ideas or art or even to reflect on their own life.

Thanks for the great read.

Christine Regan Lake

7/11/2013 12:07:00 PM  
Anonymous Gam said...

still pondering this myself,
timing is prescient with the LAs
dumping of its art reporter


The idea of a newspaper trying to follow its advertisers worries me. Why have books been able to 'survive' as hard print without including advertising - heavens even visual arts still avoids this as well - regardless if proven sponsorship from others (IE LOGOS) is our cultural norm - I've always wanted to include a coporate logo on my paintings as proof that I'm with our times (and to subsidize my subisidy of creating the work) ...

Why are newspapers not leading but areinstead seemingly following an audience? Do they really believe advertisers cant benefit from exposure to their audience? Why do they seek the advertisers audience? Yeah the money, but dont art aficiandos constitute a particualr demographic that would be of value to the advertisers?

Our follower mentality disturbs me.

Maybe they need a print on demand technology. Maybe they need to reevaluate their raison d'etre, cause they still have much to offer us all, instead of becoming collators of mass twitters.

Maybe it is not so much the death or art writers, just a shift of how they reach their audience..

gotta think on the broad themes you are drawing here Ed. It's cultural and not art industry specific.

7/11/2013 12:38:00 PM  
Anonymous Walter said...

Tyler is an idiot who has no experience in doing anything but gassing off -- the notion that he leads any kind of discussion at all is simply ludicrous -- and shows the real problem with art writing: the limited intelligence of its readers.

7/11/2013 11:09:00 PM  
Blogger findingfabulous said...

When was the last time someone asked " do you think this would be more successful if the blob
of red in the corner was more globular" or " the impact would have been greater had Jay-Z tucked in his shirt and sung in f-sharp"

7/18/2013 02:08:00 PM  
Anonymous Gam said...

(hope this doesnt repost)

some interesting reflections on changing narratives/raison d'etre/modus operandi in these related articles. (they might be out of sequence with your multiple posts Ed) ( ...should the art markets fluctuate (flux-uate ; ) )




(culled from http://www.theartlawblog.blogspot.ca/ )

7/19/2013 10:08:00 AM  

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