Subscribe to Oregon ArtsWatch 4: Is journalism a dirty word?

Yesterday, the First ArtsWatch Membership Drive took a Heat Day off. (In some parts of the country this year, we might have had to take a Heat Summer.) Still, some memberships came into ArtsWatch Central! We are very grateful. But a lot of work remains, a lot building, just like in the Carl Morris mural above.

To recap my previous posts, the argument for something like ArtsWatch is pretty simple.

1. We observe that locally created culture is crucial to the health of our community.

2. We know that we create that culture together, both as artists and as audiences.

3. We have learned that the more we think about, describe and engage our cultural life, the richer and more adaptive the culture becomes and the richer and more adaptive our own experience of it becomes.

4. A full-throated journalism project dedicated to providing news, commentary and criticism of that culture, one that subscribes to the basics of good journalism (transparency, open-mindedness, fairness, accuracy), can improve and encourage the engagement of artists and audiences with each other.

That’s pretty dry, isn’t it?

All I’m really saying is that Oregon and Portland are better places, almost by any measure, the less we rely on Hollywood, New York and national chains to create our culture for us. Not that we can (or should) ignore national culture. But a local artist (let’s say a painter) has a better chance of “reaching” me than a painter in New York, simply because she reflects, to a certain extent, and shares the same place with me. She feels the same urban stresses and excitements, experiences the same coast, mountain and basins, runs into some of the same peculiar people, hears some of the same peculiar stories, gets angry about many of the same things that I do and shares some of the same sense of community that I do. In her paintings, certain colors will resonate, certain lines (even abstract ones) will seem familiar and I will recognize certain creative jumps, both in her career as an artist (which I have a chance to know because I’ve seen her work here before) and in the culture as a whole. Plus, she may be right over there, having coffee at the same coffee shop, distractedly doodling.

So, my imaginary painter meets me and I meet her. She can address me directly in her work, my needs and concerns, or she can give me something that I didn’t know I needed until I saw it. We have this wordless creative conversation, creative for me because it moves my thinking and feeling and dreaming along. And once I’ve moved along, she has to, as well.

This experience is improved both by individual reflection on my part and by discussion with other people. And the more I know about my painter, the basics of her life and her approach to art, the better my experience, in the same way that the more I know about the basketball and the Blazers the more interest and enthusiasm I have for their games and the more likely I am to receive the pleasurable catharsis that sports can sometimes ignite. Art is far more complicated than sports, and it takes more observation and thought to enjoy it, though in the same way we might thrill at the leaping ability of a basketball player, even if we don’t understand the game at all, we might also thrill at a dancer or a particular shade of scarlet.

And actually, we know a lot more about both art and basketball than we sometimes think. It’s hard not to know something about basketball in this culture and it’s hard not to know something about painting, too. Our species has been painting for 40,000 years—at least. Every day, it seems, that number gets pushed back as new pre-historic settlements are uncovered.

How do we learn what we need to know about painting? Lots of ways. But one of the best is to engage with someone who knows a lot about the subject, about its history and developments, about its possibilities and limits, about the individuals who practice it and how their new achievements fit into other new achievements and the historical ground of the art form. And that’s where ArtsWatch comes in.

Journalism, I’ve been told, is a dirty word in some circles. I get that, given how it has been practiced in recent decades. I’m going to be addressing that in a future post. But at its most basic, journalism is very simple and very useful. It informs us about new developments we might have missed (news). It makes sense of them on their own terms (commentary). It discusses what they mean (with the judgement that implies) and how they fit into the bigger picture. The better the journalist and the process, the more useful that selection of news, that explanation and that judgment will be.

“Useful” is the key word, because it implies “audience,” we as consumers of journalism decide what’s useful and what’s not for us. Though of course, the results may vary: What’s utterly unimportant to me, may be absolutely crucial to you. That’s what makes journalism (and art, for that matter!) exciting and frustrating to practice. What I think is my very best thought, you may find utterly totally inconsequential. Curses!

One more point?

Journalism as it has been practiced has followed rules (mostly) and judged itself by how carefully it complied with those rules. Not that the rules are bad (in fact, most of them are crucial), but we should judge ourselves by how useful we are to you more than anything.

And the only way we can find that out is to engage with you, to understand that our reports are simply part of a conversation that started way before our reports were posted and will continue long after they’re forgotten. A conversation about art, about meaning, about ways forward, about what we’ve done well and where we need improvement, about the past.

Journalism is about helping to develop that group narrative, that shared story, that common sense. Journalists are part of the culture they cover. They have the responsibility to help make it better. They do this by doing their best work and then listening to their readers add data, make better sense of the painting (or dance or political decision) than the journalist and make better arguments. And then take all of that into account in their next story. The understanding of journalists has to progress just as the understanding of the culture does. It’s the only way we stay relevant in the least.

In the first year of ArtsWatch, we’ve experimented with the way we engage with you, our readers and listeners. We could have done more, but the one thing we have tried to do particularly is listen… we can’t figure out what you need and what would be most useful to you unless we know what you’re thinking. You’ve changed our thinking about a lot of things (just as the art we’ve encountered has). You’ve pushed us in surprising directions. You’ve made us work harder!

And that’s why we want to keep ArtsWatch going. It’s partly selfish, sure. We love doing this work! But we think that we have a role to play, too, and together we can make things more interesting for everyone: for actors and directors, painters and curators, composers and musicians, choreographers and dancers, writers and cartoonists, filmmakers and performance artists, artists who work in the spaces between these categories, and for all of the audience members they amaze.

I’ll be continuing this discussion in days to come, explaining the project more specifically. And if you want to help us out by becoming a member? That would be the best!

Our memberships start at $35…

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