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Off the Bus, On to D

by Jerome Weeks 10 Dec 2009 6:06 PM

Good lookin’ arts website Renegade Bus is taking a serious, prolonged detour — writes Peter Simek in a lengthy, thoughtful farewell. He’s taking his hands off the wheel to join Wick Allison’s expanding arts coverage ambitions over at D magazine. The remaining Bus drivers — Lucia Simek, Joan Arbery and Teresa Burkett — are taking […]


Good lookin’ arts website Renegade Bus is taking a serious, prolonged detour — writes Peter Simek in a lengthy, thoughtful farewell. He’s taking his hands off the wheel to join Wick Allison’s expanding arts coverage ambitions over at D magazine. The remaining Bus drivers — Lucia Simek, Joan Arbery and Teresa Burkett — are taking time to re-consider and re-fit the seven-month-old site. We wish all of them well: North Texas needs smart voices and outlets in cultural coverage.

Funny thing, though: Simek cites a Cristina Rees essay, “Reckoning’ in Glasstire as influencing some of his thinking on the question of “Should I stay or should I go?” It’s funny because when it came out in October, the Rees essay struck me as maddeningly inconsistent. Even as one certainly understands Rees’ hunger to see some serious local arts coverage — a frustration I think one can partly attribute to the Dallas Morning News‘ yawning and continued lack of a visual arts critic — I couldn’t help thinking that a) she was shortchanging what is here electronically and b) her essay, much like her earlier rant against local art collectors not braving the good stuff, is as much about generating public interest (and sales) as it is a desire to read some intelligent takes on North Texas artists and museums and galleries. That’s not really what arts journalism is for. And I don’t think that increased sales will be, necessarily, the end result of an uptick in arts coverage.

I started to write a response to ‘Reckoning’ back in October but something came up — what was it? Oh yeah, the Performing Arts Center opened — and I shelved the whole thing. You can read what remains after the jump. It ends abruptly — my apologies. But given Simek’s move, I thought some of the ideas therein were worth putting out here.

As Glasstire’s Rainey Knudson told us the other week, Christina Rees has continued her critical drive-by on the DFW arts scene in Glasstire. (You may recall her two-part take-down of area gallery patrons and D magazine’s Art Slam in particular.) Yes, I’m a bit late responding to this — there was something about a major opening or three the past couple weeks.

At any rate, this time, it’s the paltry print media coverage of the visual arts in North Texas that Rees is gunning for, and Peter Simek on Renegade Bus has already replied with his thoughtful, sympathetic take on the matter.

One shares her pain. A number of us at Art&Seek, after all, walked away from the Morning News when it became clear over the past several years that the paper’s arts coverage was not going to deepen, expand or improve. Indeed, the paper’s choice to deteriorate its cultural coverage was frustrating, if not baffling. That’s because, as you’ve probably heard, the media’s business model these days is putting a lot of eggs into local coverage. Yet with cultural journalism, once we get past the popular, corporate-electronic, big-buck media of film, TV, pop music and the like, so many of the arts by their nature are local-bound and local-expressive: the live performing arts (theater, dance, classical music, regional nightlife), the literary scene and the visual arts (galleries and museums).

Why, then, has cultural criticism often been among the first things jettisoned by newspapers? Arguably, the one local area of cultural criticism that has consistently been preserved in print media is restaurant/food reviewing. That’s because restaurants and grocery markets are big advertisers; the other arts aren’t.

So one can share Rees’ pain — but not her diagnosis nor her prescription.

First, she addresses the rise of arts blogs as an antidote to the loss of print coverage and she dismisses all of us — with some justification. We’re mostly preaching to the choir, to the already-committed arts audience, she argues. We’re far less likely to catch the eye of the casual, more numerous, everyday reader, the way a daily newspaper can and thus convert that reader into a patron. It’s one of the great benefits of the big-city newspaper that no one else has really replicated: It addresses a wide, polyglot but still city-based audience.

Yet Rees simply lumps all arts blogs together before dispensing with us: Glasstire, Renegade Bus, Theater Jones and Art&Seek. In this, she ignores the fact that Art&Seek comes connected — ahem — to a television station and two radio stations. Art&Seek’s essential purpose is cross-platform news coverage and community service — online and on the air. The intention is to address precisely some of the problems that Rees bewails. Many of our online reports and reviews are broadcast on KERA-FM — which means they reach hundreds of thousands of listeners. Many of our online video interviews and reports come from our televised segments on Friday’s Think TV program — which also reaches hundreds of thousands of viewers.

And of course, Art&Seek’s reach is likely to extend further now that KXT-FM has started. You may disagree with the coverage, not find it sufficiently or deeply engaging, but that’s not the argument Rees makes: For her, it doesn’t exist or it doesn’t reach a big enough audience. And that’s not true on both counts.

This isn’t meant (simply) to tootle our trumpet but to highlight Rees’ blindness to this electronic media component. It extends, for instance, to WRR’s decades of arts coverage with Art Matters — and that station’s increased focus on area arts with its lunchtime talk show, Classic Cafe. Not a single mention of them in Rees’ essay. Nor of WFAA’s newfound concern for the arts with its re-positioning of Gary Cogill as a full-time arts reporter/movie critic.

I suspect Rees values print media over all others because she’s a visual artist and a former gallery owner. Guess what has typically given the most ink/space/time to her specialty? And for good reason: Visual art is much harder to handle on radio. Admittedly, radio and TV — commercial and non-profit — have historically not done much with local arts. But the point here, clearly, is that this is changing.

What Rees values, though, is not simply more attention, more critical voices, but the right kind of attention: impassioned, informed, uncompromising. And this is the second place where her argument goes off the rails. No, not that such writing would not be highly welcome. But she thoroughly trashes a writer in FD Luxe, for instance, for a single, short, flippant transitional sentence about the artist Amy Revier. So … Rees was expecting thoughtful art criticism in a brief profile in FD Luxe?

Why? That’s hardly the purpose of FD Luxe or its market. It treats the arts as a high-ticket consumer item, one with a bit more dash and glamor and possible downsides than others.

Oviously, this isn’t the right kind of attention for her. But Rees has a distinctly web-ish attitude: The free use of profanity and snark are marks of the uncompromising honesty in criticism that she values. And she goes on to cite as her favorite role models a number of people like the estimable Peter Schjeldahl in The New Yorker — none of whom, it should be noted, rarely, if ever, use such language. I’m not being prudish about this point — anyone who knows me would tell you I’m not. And I’ve certainly shared Ree’s irritation at the excessive, fearful value placed on politeness in Texas, as if it were the only value.

But if Rees wants a wide audience for her kind of criticism, if she really wants to grab the middle-class Moms and Pops and not just the jaded young scenesters, she’s going to find that a wide audience means some awareness of community values. That’s how you get a wide audience, that’s why daily newspapers and broadcast TV generally do not resort to profanity or large doses of easy mockery. She can’t have it both ways: a big, engaged audience and a smart, snarly critic who hurls curse words at what he loathes.

Besides, the fact is that a lot of people tire quickly of the destructive invective that web reviews and web discussions constantly generate. Whatever you might feel about milquetoast timidity, listeners and viewers often find it a relief to find some place out of the constant crossfire, some place that isn’t frightened or namby-pamby but still tries to engage in journalism, discussion and criticism.

Finally, Rees — having written off all other outlets — issues a challenge to the Dallas Observer and D Magazine. They’re her only hopes for the kind of invigorating and invigorated local arts criticism she wants. I really wouldn’t count on the Observer for any sizable, consistent expansion in arts coverage, especially for things like books and the visual arts. The owners, Village Voice Media, are the same folks, after all, who drove rock critic Robert Christgau from the Voice despite his national renown. And, for the same reasons of economy that have afflicted daily papers, they shed most of their local film reviewers across the country.

D Magazine publisher Wick Allison, on the other hand, has made it plain that he’s very interested in more arts coverage, now that his kind of readers have plunked down more than $300 million to build the AT&T PAC. That investment showed their true interests: This will be good for Dallas. And Allison hopes it may be good for D as well. He’s not gotten where he is ignoring that kind of well-heeled Dallas trend.

Considering that he’s occasionally had people like the entertainingly wasp-ish Willard Spiegelman writing for D about arts-related matters, the future on that score, at least, could be interesting.