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The Arts

Aug 5, 2011

What do we want from arts media?

Some scant research is beginning to reveal that arts journalism runs on objectives and principles that are quite different to those of conventional journalism, writes Lucinda Strahan, a lecturer at the School of Media and Communication at RMIT University.

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The axing of the ABC’s weekly arts show Art Nation takes me back to a few years ago when Melbourne’s Astor Cinema nearly shut down. I would hardly ever make the trip to see the scratchy prints they play there on the big screen, but I hated the thought of it not being there. Not many people watched Art Nation but it seems many don’t like the thought of it being axed.

But I doubt the anxiety this week is actually about the program itself. This is another episode in a wider, long-running debate about the function and obligations of the media when it comes to the arts.

As I have pointed out previously, some scant research is beginning to reveal that arts journalism runs on objectives and principles that are quite different to those of conventional journalism.

The arts journalist’s public is quite a different beast from the one the might be served by the press gallery. The best arts journalist works not just to “speak truth to power” and uncover information, but to passionately communicate the transcendent power of the arts, through informed and critically engaged reportage.

In the search for the proper role of the ABC when it comes to arts coverage, this might be a good place to start. It’s important to pin it down because without a clear framework for exactly what the proper function of arts journalism should be, the debate degenerates into furious squabbles and ambit claims.

My favourite quote so far this week has come from Lyndon Terracini, the artistic director of Opera Australia, in The Australian who said: “It’s important for the national broadcaster to make sure that the whole spectrum of the marking of art in this country is covered, or as close to that as possible.”

This seems like an impossible brief that would probably require its own channel (or is that the point?) and a field of money trees. The arts sector needs to get real and get specific about what arts media can and should be doing.

A good place to start could be to admit that most people want it to do everything at once: the media should be accessible and covering the entire spectrum of art making for the broadest possible public, but it must not “dumb down” the arts. Arts coverage needs to be intellectually rigorous and critical challenging but also hip to the new millennial grooviness of our “vibrant creative cities” and their hordes of cultural tourists.

As Nicholas Pickard pointed out in Crikey, much anxiety in the sector is about the disappearance of “serious arts content” in the media. By this, they mean critical review and intellectual analysis, which used to be the bread and butter of broadsheet arts pages.

Serious critical review and analysis is having a difficult time everywhere in old media. The LA Times just sacked its freelance critics, recently a local critic of more than 20 years told me he was kissed goodbye at the Fin Review without so much as a handshake. This is a real shame as credible, career critics are incredibly rare on the ground and still vitally important to the intellectual culture of the arts.

Art Nation was more at the other end of the spectrum, a magazine-style show that was a contemporary update of the stuffy Sunday Arts and its knee-rug ambiance. Art Nation brought ABC arts into world of groovy urban arts scenes and hipster sensibilities. The problem with this kind of coverage is that while it addresses new arts demographics, it is often vacuous. Arts journalism needs to be more than a trendy what’s on guide.

The ABC’s Artscape is staying, which is good. For me, Artscape’s MONA: feel the weird and Virginia Trioli’s interviews with artists such as Gilbert and George strike a good balance between accessible contemporary arts coverage and critical engagement. Whether these should be produced in-house or not is perhaps a different question.

I agree with the argument that arts coverage should be recognised as one of the best arguments for public broadcasting. No one will ever be able to justify in commercial terms the particular pleasure of watching some crazy creative genius in Bendigo knitting with spiderwebs, or a blinding performance by a virtuoso pianist, or the thrill of coming across Paul Newman in Hud on ABC 2 on a Saturday night.

But these things really do matter and can have life-changing effects on people. Wasn’t it listening to a crackly radio somewhere out in mid-west America that led Bob Dylan to Greenwich Village in the ’60s? It is precisely because arts broadcasting can have such profound effects that it is important to consider it properly, carefully, and get it right.

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