Subscribe to Oregon ArtsWatch 6: Guiding principles department

Albert Robida, A Night at the Opera in the Year 2000

For those of you joining us in midstream here (welcome aboard!), I’ve been attempting to explain  the rationale of Oregon ArtsWatch. Just because, you know, about time! AND because our “business model” (and I put that term in quotes advisedly) depends upon you and your financial support, just a little bit but from a lot of you who are deeply engaged in the arts of the state and especially Portland. We figure if we can’t convince you to support our project, then we can convince anybody!

So yesterday, I shared the introduction to a memo I wrote way back in the day, after it became apparent that the Standard Model of journalism, especially print journalism, was not going to work any longer. Was it the the business model? The collapse of advertising as the Internet started re-distributing advertising dollars (both display and classified ads)? Sure, that was part of it, and that’s what analysts and the people in charge of newspapers focused on, mostly: how to protect their primary revenue stream (advertising) and establish new ones (by charging online subscribers, say).

I worried about that, too. But I also thought that the product itself, the newspaper, needed to improve a lot before we could reasonably expect it to attract larger audiences and the advertising that would follow them. I won’t go into all the changes I imagined because at this point fixing the newspaper isn’t my problem, if it ever was (those decisions were being made far above my head). But I do want to talk about the kind of arts writing that I hope for ArtsWatch, and you can pick around the site a bit to see how well we’ve done (or not!).

1. We acknowledge that we are part of the larger culture and that we want us to do well. We aren’t remote aesthetic philosophy bots, just as happy to see our local culture circle the drain as not. We live here, we have a stake here, and our writing is all about being useful to the culture as a whole, and specifically the arts part of it, as we can. Of course, we know that “useful” is far from an absolute term, and we count on you to let us know how we’re doing.

2. We understand that our writing is subjective, the product of particular writers at particular times, and by its nature, it is contingent and incomplete. That doesn’t stop us from trying to describe the world around us as accurately and usefully as we can, though, as we come to grips with the art and artists who are our concern. We just have to be available for the inevitable corrections of our descriptions, and we should always be reaching beyond ourselves, to places and sub-cultures we don’t usually go.

3. That involves openness. I’m not sure that needs much elaboration. If you sense that we were not “available” enough to encounter a concert or a play in a constructive, creative way, then we’ve goofed.

4. Things are connected, especially the arts, where so many cultural strands entangle, and our writing should reflect that, as we follow those strands into various knots. And, going back to #1, we are one of those strands ourselves. (So are you!)

5. The culture is exciting and heterodox and occasionally dark. Our writing shouldn’t back away from any part of it, even the parts we think our self-destructive. Maybe especially those parts.

6. Because we understand our subjectivity, we need to be as transparent as we can be. We need to tell you what our premises are and where our information comes from. We trust our own observations, but only up to a point! And then we should check them against the observations of others.

7. We are in the interpretation business, too, implicitly (sure!) but also explicitly. We should understand that what something means to us won’t mean the same thing to you, and that’s part of the fun of it all, this comparison. We aren’t going to be “right,” but to go back to that old term from Pragmatism, we can be useful. And we can’t default to the old stereotype of the “snooty critic.”

8. The old journalism verities—accuracy, fairness, clarity—are essential to making our arts reporting worth considering.

9. As critics (when we are critics), we need to figure out creative ways to jostle ourselves out of the “received opinion” that is as much a default as the snooty critic is! Our criticism strives to be creative, in much the same way as the art we consider does.

10. Connected as things are, it’s difficult to be honest. The consequences can be dire. But ultimately, that’s what we’re here for: Our best reporting, descriptions, interpretations and writing. We can’t back away from that.

I could go on, because this is a subject dear to me. Each point has a dozen sub-points, at least! But that should give you some idea of what ArtsWatch is about. Not that we aren’t open to suggestions… we are! Just try us.

Next, I WILL get into the business model part of ArtsWatch, and why your support is so critical to the project. But maybe you’ve already decided to plunk your cold hard cash down and buy some arts writing, good as we can make it? I love the sound of THAT. If so, pick out a level of support below, and please proceed!


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