THE BEST OF ARTS AND ENTERTAINMENT:
An art rant
By Jon Garelick
WHEN THE PHOENIX began its "Best" issue five years ago, we were given a
refreshing mandate for our "Editors' Choices": don't worry about the commercial
aspect that most such sections usually entail. Think outside the box. Don't
worry about including every advertiser (or potential advertiser) out there.
Just think about stuff you like, and take it from there. If you think reading a
book of poetry on the plaza in front of Holyoke Center in Harvard Square is the
height of Western civilization, then write about that, and create a category
like "Best Place To Contemplate the Height of Western Civilization."
Likewise with this introductory essay to the arts-and-entertainment section of
our Editors' Choices. I was told that it didn't necessarily have to sum up or
"introduce" the contents of the section. It merely had to be an essay about the
arts, on a subject of my choosing.
That mandate was my license to kill. And over the past five years, I've been
all over the map describing my experiences in the arts world -- as editor,
writer, critic, fan. I've tried to focus on the art experience at the expense
of all the verities of journalism -- I was often vague about the who, what,
when, where, and how, at least in the usual sense. I'd write about someone
buying a Fugs CD in a used-record store, not bothering to mention the name of
the store or even what part of town it was in. I'd write about seeing a Chekhov
play without ever mentioning the venue or company, or even the names of any of
the actors -- only my experience of seeing it, the experience as it unfolded
before me and in me, the whole realm of excitement, anxiety, boredom,
sleepiness, daydream reveries. The job of the critic more often than not is to
report on a work of art as an object. This is what it means to be "objective"
in arts journalism. Art as product. Which more and more these days means art as
So it's been fun -- liberating, even -- in these essays to look at art not as
product, but as process. And not even the artist's process, but my own. Even in
the self-indulgent, undisciplined alternative press, you'd be surprised at how
often we editors remind our writers: "No one cares about you and your
feelings. The reader wants to hear about the thing you were assigned to
What a joy, then, finally to get my own precious feelings off my chest, like
the psychoanalyst shrugging off the veil of his objective distance, rising from
his chair, and shouting at the back of the analysand's head there on his couch:
"What about my problems?!"
So here are my problems, friends. The arts have become so commodified at
this point that it's virtually impossible to tell journalism from advertising.
Editors thrust and parry with publicists in creating the fiction of actual
"arts news." Part of the editor's job is to create a product that will attract
attention, to find an image -- a photo or an illustration -- and the right
headline that will make walkers in the city stop at one of our little red
boxes, open the little plastic-windowed door, and take one of those suckers
home. Pass it around. We love it, our advertisers love it.
I'm not trying to denigrate the marketplace. I love the marketplace as much as
the next bourgeois liberal. We're often told by publicists out there: "We need
your help on this one." To which I might reply: helping you isn't our job. Our
job is to serve the reader. And our reader is best served by our enthusiasms as
critics. Our enthusiasm unmediated by hype. A couple of "Bests" ago, I quoted
the art critic Dave Hickey on the value of "little stores" -- you know them,
the little out-of-the-way places, the used-record and -book stores, the rock
and jazz clubs, the specialty shops, even the fancy-ass galleries. Like Hickey,
I once found myself in a fancy-ass gallery -- this one on Newbury Street --
inquiring about a particular artist and, much to my surprise, the gallery
manager offered to pull some of the artist's work out of the back room. Even
though it was quite clear I was not a customer. As Hickey says, the defining
characteristic of a little store is not size or affluence, per se, but that
"people would talk to you not because you were going to buy something, but
because they loved the stuff they had to sell."
So what is "arts news"? The composer and critic Virgil Thomson once said that
he based his column in the old New York Herald Tribune on the principle
that "intellectual distinction is news." In other words, quality is itself a
news hook -- not popularity or timeliness or what all the other kids are doing.
That's always seemed to me a pretty good way to find something to write about
-- and to read.
Jon Garelick can be reached at email@example.com.