Why arts journalism matters

"It doesn’t matter whether they’re fake or not,” the White House told the world when Trump tweeted videos from the far-right group Britain First.  “The threat is real.”

Suddenly, truth has ceased to matter. We are living in an Orwellian dystopia.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the UK hurtles towards a ruinous Brexit that nobody really wanted. “I think,” said Vote Leave’s Michael Gove, “that people in this country have had enough of experts.” He knew he could count on a roar of approval for this absurd statement. He was right.

Popular disdain for expertise is a given. Professionalism, alongside depth, compassion and nuance, has become suspect. In the Twitter era, everyone is a critic.

A world where news was conveyed by broadsheets and broadcasters who were watched over by scrupulous editors and lawyers with a healthy understanding of liability is fading in the rear view mirror.  Today, information is fed to us on the basis of what those in power think we ought to believe. When NPR’s Laura Sydell tracked an entirely fictitious account of a murdered CIA operative to its source last November, she discovered that the “Denver Guardian” was one of a stable of fake news sites controlled by Jestin Coler, CEO of the ingenuously-named “Disinfomedia”.  Working from home in the middle-class suburbs of Los Angeles, Coler employs more than 20 writers to churn out click-bait. He admits to earning between US$10,000 and US$30,000 a month from this. The principle is simple. Make up things that people want to read. Attract web traffic. Advertising goes automatically to the sites with the most traffic, so income is assured.

Did you hear that Pope Francis endorsed President Trump’s candidacy? That story originated in a Balkan town of Veles, where, Samantha Subramanian revealed in an article for VICE news in February this year, a clutch of Macedonian teenagers are raking in tens of thousands of US dollars per month producing right-wing drivel for the pro-Trump web sites.

Even more nefarious, since they have no excuse for not having known better, was Bell Pottinger’s shameless manipulation of the term “white monopoly capital” in South African social media to further the interests of the Gupta family.

Back in December last year, Zurich-based Das Magazine ran an expose on Big Data and Alexander Nix, the CEO of Cambridge Analytica, and his Swiss researcher Michal Kosinski. Through “psychometrics”, the process of profiling individual Internet users and feeding them more of what they want, the company admitted to having had a hand in both Brexit and Trump’s election. Undecided voters can be identified and targeted, fed specifically-tailored disinformation, and influenced to cast their votes the way their digital puppet-masters choose.

Do you think you are in charge of what you read online? Think again. Around the same time that Das Magazine published its shocking findings, The Guardian’s Carole Cadwalladr wrote an equally disturbing article on Google bias. Type “are jews” into the Google search engine, and Google autocomplete will suggest that you wanted to ask: “Are Jews evil?” Hit “search” on that question, and nine of the ten first articles to come up will inform you that yes, Jews are evil.

It’s not that Google particularly cares whether your views tend politically to the right or to the left, Cadwalladr explains; just that the way the web’s neural networks function greatly favour the way the right-wing works. We think of Google as a neutral instance; it has become a verb, “to Google”. But the ineluctable laws of capitalism and the miraculous profits to be earned from feeding people more of what they want mean that the sensationalist efforts of the fake-news right-wingers, along with kitten and puppy videos, have long since superseded serious news sites in the popularity stakes.

It is a game that Russia has learned to play well. There are clear indications that Russian social media campaigns were at least partly to blame for the alarming rise in popularity of the right-wing AFD party in the recent German elections.

In the context of these seismic shifts, the demise of arts journalism seems like little more than a footnote. Coverage of the fine arts always depended upon an editorial belief that the fine arts deserved to be covered; until the past decade, an opera review’s existence was never contingent on the number of people who would read it. 

That has changed. US-based global financial news site Bloomberg used to have an arts section, run by Pulitzer prize-winning arts writer Manuela Hoelterhof. Then clicks began to matter. Berlin editor Catherine Hickley set an in-house record when she published a visual arts round-up which included lesbians, Nazis, and hedge-funds in the headline.  For a while, the section struggled on, with writers competing to find ways of including lesbian Nazi hedge funds in their exhibition write-ups and book reviews. The effort was doomed to failure, and in November 2013, Bloomberg axed its own arts coverage.

By now, almost every newspaper has followed suit, first cutting its arts staff, then deciding to do without. Some publications still accept cultural news, paying contributors token freelance fees; others will run material that is submitted for free.

South Africa is in no way exceptional in this context. Such arts journalism as there is here is almost entirely confined to the blogosphere, where unpaid writers without editorial control express amateur opinions.

Some of the writing here is, of course, still exceptionally good. Gwen Ansell, in her coverage of the Sterkfontein Composer’s Meeting in March this year, wrote about the problem with her customary eloquence:

“The near-extermination of serious local arts coverage in most of our newspapers (and it’s happened mainly over the past two years) means there is increasingly no record of what our artists do: their processes, their motivations, or their works… For the researchers of the future, this is a potential data disaster. For the musicians of the present, it’s a barrier to audiences, professional development and earnings. For the public, it actively builds ignorance about who we are as a creative people, directing interest instead towards the disposable music commodities of America.”

Over in the US, the celebrated Alex Ross, one of the last remaining full-time professional classical music journalists in the world, expressed similar sentiments at exactly the same time in the prestigious New Yorker magazine:

“The trouble is, once you accept the proposition that popularity corresponds to value, the game is over for the performing arts. There is no longer any justification for giving space to classical music, jazz, dance, or any other artistic activity that fails to ignite mass enthusiasm.  In a cultural-Darwinist world where only the buzziest survive, the arts section would consist solely of superhero-movie reviews, TV-show recaps, and instant-reaction think pieces about pop superstars. Never mind that such entities hardly need the publicity, having achieved market saturation through social media. It’s the intellectual equivalent of a tax cut for the super-rich.”

Cultural criticism is a form of journalism, Ross continues—odd journalism, but journalism nonetheless.

“The Times film critic A. O. Scott mounted a vibrant defense of this sour science in his recent book 'Better Living Through Criticism.' He writes, ‘As consumers of culture, we are lulled into passivity or, at best, prodded toward a state of pseudo-semi-self-awareness, encouraged either toward the defensive group identity of fanhood or a shallow, half-ironic eclecticism.’ The role of the critic, Scott says, is to resist the manufactured consensus—to interrogate the successful, to exalt the unknown, to argue for ambiguity and complexity. Virgil Thomson immortally defined criticism as ‘the only antidote we have to paid publicity.’”

Like Alex Ross, I am one of a tiny handful of music journalists eking out a living from an outmoded form of expertise. Like Gwen Ansell, I am South African. Unlike either of them, I live in Berlin. In Germany, broadsheet newspapers are dying at a slightly slower rate than those of the UK and the US; but German papers, for all their weightiness, have also cut back enormously on their arts coverage in recent years.

These are the concerns which have brought me back to Johannesburg this December, to join BBC investigative journalist and former Truth and Reconciliation Commission employee Daniel Tetlow in running a course on music journalism for the South African National Youth Orchestra Foundation.

If we let Twitter, Facebook and blog sites completely take over as our sources of information, who will be the objective cultural commentators of the future? Where will informed and balanced reflection on the culture in which we have invested so much take place? What will happen to compassion, depth, and nuance in our society?

Six aspiring South African arts commentators will work together on their expertise in the coming days; it the next generation who will have to answer these questions.

What do you think? Those in Johannesburg will have a chance to contribute to the debate in a special public session on Arts Coverage in the Media. Arterial Network, in partnership with Umculo and SANYOF, will host a public discussion on the subject.

Join us for Speak your #ArtOut at 6pm on 12 December, at Parktown Boy’s High School, Johannesburg.

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