We posted the first Oregon ArtsWatch story on July 1, 2011, four years ago, with the same enthusiasm and the same naivete that seem to fuel all new ventures. I liked that the date was so close to Independence Day. A free and independent new journalism project, especially one intended to track arts and culture, owes its existence to the democracy that declared itself on July 4, 1776, of the people, by the people and for the people. The democracy enjoined and ultimately established then, arose from the best parts of the culture, and it changed the culture in the process and going forward. We were about to start writing about the arts end of that culture—so starting in July seemed perfect. It still does.
Of course, one can DECLARE independence. Making it stick is another matter. In 1776 it took determination, martial skills and sacrifice (not to mention intelligence, creativity and the tools of persuasion). The opponent was clear: the British empire and the habits of heart and mind that encouraged obedience to that empire. And fear has always been a formidable enemy.
ArtsWatch started just as the American free press started to wither in a drastic way. The opponent in 2011 was not the Internet, no matter what journalism people say. The Internet is a medium. In my view, we faced something more difficult to fathom, let alone to engage and defeat—the determination of our economic system to commodify and sell every object and experience in the culture, and the culture’s acceptance of that imperative. Independent news—about the arts, the environment, or politics—should not be commodified and sold, because then its imperatives are market-based, capital-based, and not about the flow of reliable, innovative and trustworthy news and opinion essential to a free society, by which I mean a democratic one. During my lifetime in journalism (1977 to the present day), newsgathering became more professional, but paradoxically, its scope narrowed, contenting itself with marginal issues and the personalities of politicians and skirting the gigantic problems that threaten to overwhelm America and the world. You know them better than I do: climate change, economic inequality, persistent racism, sexism and other biases. The American press treated celebrity marriages, breakups and fashion choices with the same intensity as it treated climate change. Each had its fleeting moments in the news cycle. This isn’t a press criticism site (I wish someone brilliant would start one—we’ll link to you!), so I won’t go into the local manifestations of this evolution, though again, you know them better than I do.
News doesn’t work as a product, at least not very well. We started ArtsWatch as a public trust, and we eventually became a 501(c)(3), because we thought it was a way of declaring our independence to you, our readers. That simply means that we are here to serve you by reporting honestly, fairly and openly about the culture. We have our thoughts about that culture—that it should itself be more democratic, creative, innovative, fair, accessible, and honest—and those ideas figure in our posts. We aren’t neutral observers; we are far more passionately involved that that. But we try to incorporate old-school journalism values, such as accuracy, transparency, and fairness, in our posts. We have sponsors (hey, click on their ads to the right!), but they do not influence either the selection of our subjects or the content of our posts. Fortunately for us, they are enlightened enough to understand the value an independent site brings to the cultural life of the state (thank you, sponsors!).
With independence comes responsibility. It’s a cliche. It’s also true. We have the responsibility to push our thinking, our research, the form of our stories, and the writing itself to our limits as writers and editors. One of the other problems with Old Journalism, in addition to its fear of its own corporate owners and advertisers, was its hidebound, factory-floor approach to both the process and the product of its reporters and editors. At ArtsWatch, we encourage our writers to experiment, in hopes that they find new subjects and new ways of expressing themselves that will connect better with you, our readers. We have a long way to go, but every day, we get another chance to try something different. At our best, we take those chances.
The connections between what I have just written about arts and culture journalism and the arts themselves are clear and striking. The imperative to commodify and sell tends to flatten the ambitions of our cultural institutions and artists, forcing them to think of their art (theater, dance, music, visual arts, literature, film, and all the hybrid forms of these) as products. So, we see them produce the equivalent of a story about Miley Cyrus’s latest rebellion against…well, whatever she’s rebelling against…rather than something more useful to us (whether as an escape from or a direct confrontation with the existential events of our collective lives). One of the many things I love about the arts is that they are too unruly to commodify easily. You can’t commodify Beethoven’s 9th Symphony; really, you can only play it well. It’s long and spoken in a musical language that is difficult to understand sometimes, but when it connects, it changes your emotional weather. An image from Miley’s latest daring body-painting escapade can’t do that, I’m afraid. Honestly, that’s why I don’t worry TOO much about the survival of Twelfth Night or Swan Lake or A Love Supreme.
At our best, in this cultural watershed, we resist and subvert the market as it stands. We’ve started to encode that resistance in our cultural DNA. We will be informed by our own experience, research and imagination, not the expectations of the market or the limits of the rules and regulations that have controlled us. We will sacrifice whatever it takes to be independent in this way. It’s not a method to generate better products (though it does!); it’s a way of life. Once you’re committed, there’s no going back.
At our best, again, this culture is participatory. We are not independent alone; we are independent together. Our best ideas are fed and tested by our encounters with others. Anyone who does something amazing, gives us something to shoot for—and sharpens our aim at the same time. ArtsWatch at its best is a community of writers and readers, roles that can change in a heartbeat. The more active that community is, the better it is for ArtsWatch, and we believe, the better it is for the culture generally. Without self-examination, it’s hard to plot a way forward.
So consider this an invitation…join us! Visit us here on our website; submit a story to us or use our comments section. Follow our posts on Facebook and Twitter and leave comments when you’ve got something to say. Even better: Subscribe to our eNewsletter, ArtsWatch Weekly! Bob Hicks has made it a fabulous resource. More than that, tell your friends about us—the larger this community is, the better chance we have of making the culture more free, more responsive to our real needs, more interesting. This may sound…grandiose? But really, what is culture? Simone Weil says it’s the formation of attention, and I’m inclined to agree: If we pay attention to the cutting edge of our creative lives together, the arts, then that’s who we are, at least in part (in addition to the other things we pay attention to). Otherwise, we live on the thin gruel of commodity culture, which leads to heart and soul disease, studies have shown. And we wouldn’t want that!
Many of you have been with us from the very start. Thank you! We are four now, and we couldn’t have made it without you. We have lots of ideas for the next year, some of which we’ll be talking about soon. Please stay in close touch!