No Man Is An Island

In Culture in the Age of Blogging (read it in Commentary), Terry Teachout writes of

…stand alone journalists,” a term that refers to self-publishing, self-supporting professional journalists who are unaffiliated with the MSM [main stream media].

He then takes the discussion beyond the blogosphere and goes on to write:

In an analogous development, professional artists have started using the web to market their wares without resort to distributors or other middlemen…

and cites Maria Schneider’s recording project via ArtistShare as an example of how it can be done.

The phrase “other middlemen” led me to think about another issue, one that, while not directly on point vis a vis the Teachout piece, is no less important. If you read my recent posting about ArtistShare then you know that I am a supporter of this business model and I love the idea of focusing on the creative process instead of the final product. I will not lose any sleep or shed any tears when distributors and rack-jobbers become obsolete — I haven’t set foot in a record store in many years and my trips to bookstores grow fewer and fewer — but I do worry about a different group of middlefolk: sound engineers, graphic artists, text editors, and others whose skills add value to an artist’s original creation. No artist should go it all alone, unassisted, although many think that they can, and therein lay my misgivings about this do-it-all-yourself-with-technology age in which we live.

A few versatile artists may be supremely talented on multiple fronts, but culture consumers beware when singers and musicians and writers start mixing their own audio, designing their own packages, and editing their own words. The idea of self-sufficiency brings with it feelings of power and control; it can be quite intoxicating, and it can save you money too. I myself am not immune to the lure, and have been giving a lot of thought as to how I might apply such a model to my own writing career. But hopefully artistic considerations will prevail over commercial concerns. Before I sign on to become my own chief cook and bottle washer, I will take a good look at my own skill set and ask myself if I am really the best one for the job. More likely than not, the answer will be “no.” Besides, technology-enabled fissiparous tendencies be damned, creativity benefits from collaboration, and I can use all the help I can get.

Serendipity and a Grazing Addendum

Okay, so last night I didn’t state the most obvious linguistic connection between writing and breathing — inspiration, derived from French inspirer and Latin in+spirare, to breathe. It’s so darned obvious that I didn’t even think about it. Then this morning, using a few free minutes as I always do to click on a blog or online journal I haven’t seen in a while (it’s just not possible to keep pace with all of them all of the time), I stopped in at Speakeasy to see the Spring issue, clicked on an essay by Jim Heynen titled Faith in My Writing and found the following (emphasis added):

“…In faith, I wait for the gift of inspiration, the gift of an idea, the gift of an insight, the gift of the right word at the right time, even the gift of clarity. To be inspired means to breathe in the spirit. I can live with that notion of openness and receptivity. With faith, I wait for the gift, for what D. H. Lawrence called the wind that blows through us.
“Like most writers, I don’t know when that breath will come. I don’t even know if it will come unpolluted, free from depleted conventions and clichés. I can’t force inspiration. I can’t determine it (though I do have my little rituals), and when it does come it is like a gift that I hope will be worthy of readers.” (read the whole piece here)

If I believed in time warps and parallel universes and other such Star Trek realities, I would think that Heynen and I had been having a conversation, or that at least he had read my last night posting. But, being the pragmatic sort, I just believe that the universe I know is sending me a message. Especially when shortly thereafter I found myself reading an article about The Twin Cities in Publishers Weekly (June 6th) and see that the number one person on a list of leaders on the literary scene there is Linda Myers, longtime executive director of the Loft Literary Center. Significance? Speakeasy is a literary culture magazine published by The Loft. When all roads lead to Rome…


I’ve been grazing on the pages of Bartlett’s Quotations and came across this from F. Scott Fitzgerald:

“All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” (an undated letter)

When I think of swimming under water, which of course necessitates holding my breath, it evokes the sensation of a long journey, pushing through resistance to get to a destination where you can once again find some air. Engaging in this activty requires perserverence plus a measure of faith that your breath will be sufficient to get you there. Writing sometimes feels that way too.

On the other hand, I think there is a correlation between holding one’s breath and keeping strong emotions (especially the bad ones) at bay. Deflecting emotions such as sadness and pain might be useful as a survival tactic, but it can also lead to lackluster life and dreadfully dull prose. Quite simply, one must recognize pain in order to appreciate joy, let alone write about either. Or, as Alfred North Whitehead put it:

“Intellect is to emotion as our clothes are to our bodies; we could not very well have civilized life without clothes, but we would be in a poor way if we had only clothes without bodies.” (Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead – ch 29, June 10, 1943)

National Critics Conference: Musings Part 3 – Love For Sale

The second day of the conference was devoted to cross-disciplinary panels, and money was a consistent theme in both morning sessions as well as the luncheon.

The topic of the first panel was The Role of the Critic in Contemporary Society. Jack Miles, in considering journalism as the first draft of history, suggested we are historians. Coco Fusco advocated asking our readers to consider an issue, putting us in a more activist light. But whether we view ourselves as reviewers or critics, consumer reporters or upholder of standards, promoters or provocateurs, entertainers or educators, we all face some thorny issues, most of which relate in some way to what Coco referred to as “the economics of making a living.”

The vast majority of arts writers must supplement their income, if not with unrelated jobs, than at least with other kinds of writing assignments – other, that is, than criticism and journalism. All too often we are called upon to write press releases and feature stories that are full of hot air. Suppose you are a writer who, in the course of supplementing your income, is hired to write a cover story profiling of the director of a museum or concert hall, and suppose too that there are controversial issues relating to that museum or concert hall – do you

    1. write the puff piece for which you were hired and pay your bills,
    2. write the whole story, warts and all, and then pray for a kill fee (you know they won’t run the piece – even if they agree with you, they are looking for future advertising dollars), or
    3. turn down the assignment and let your answering machine talk to your creditors.

If you take option #1 you risk losing your credibility, #2 can get you blacklisted, and #3 can get you broke.

If it were a once-in-a-great-while kind of thing, it would be easier to say “take the high road.” (Can’t you hear your mother? “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything.”) But such scenarios are becoming not only more frequent, the lines are fuzzier and more imprecise. The panel on Ethical Traps explored some of the murkier waters. What happens when you are assigned to write a review and your editor is on the museum’s board of directors, or your editor happens to mention that The Publisher’s Wife is chairwoman of a charity fundraiser that is getting a percentage from the Fall season’s ticket sales? These are no-win situations because your motives will always be questioned. If you write a favorable review, people will wonder if you liked it, or didn’t but couldn’t say so. If you gave the show a bad review, somebody is bound to say that you were super-critical to avoid any appearances of favoritism.

Norman Lear’s exhortation from the preceding day’s keynote speech would have us provide “perspective on how truthfully and skillfully creative works are speaking to power.” How can we, when Power is our boss (or a major stockholder)? Our mission is imperiled by the ever-increasing privatization of culture. Corporate sponsorship and individual patronage is not new, but it’s become more insidious as the “patrons of the arts” demand more and more control of the arts, all the while laundering their money and polishing their image.

It has become more than simple patronage, there is big money to be made. Of course this money will not be going to the artists, or the writers. On the first tier, it’s all about real estate — think The Getty, Disney Concert Hall, Jazz at Lincoln Center, or Museum of Modern Art. On the second tier there are staffs to be hired: executive directors, artistic directors, curators and programmers, publicists and lawyers and accountants. Eli Broad, a man who created not one, but two Fortune 500 companies, made it clear when he gave his luncheon keynote address. By way of introducing Mr. Broad, let me quote from the Broad Foundation web site :

“Committed to the belief that all great cities need a vibrant center, Mr. Broad is currently leading the effort to turn Los Angeles’ Grand Avenue into a truly “grand avenue,” to rival the main boulevards of the world’s greatest cities.”

Broad rattled off statistics – 2200 Los Angeles-based visual and performing arts organizations, 105 museums, four of the best art schools, 705 musical groups, 220 theater companies, 60 film festivals… His point? Cultural tourists spend more money, stay longer, and visit more frequently than business travelers. Broad took some questions from the floor, but his answers were deflective. I guess he thought that arts writers would be thrilled to have more to cover. Our point? If you’re going to fund more art institutions, you had better fund some media coverage of the arts as well.

By the way, not all Angelenos think Broad’s Grand Plan is such a good idea. In today’s Los Angeles Times, Joel Kotkin, an Irvine senior fellow at the New America Foundation, and author of “The City: A Global History,” opened his commentary with these words:

The $1.8-billion proposal to redevelop Grand Avenue represents the latest in a series of ill-conceived schemes to revive downtown Los Angeles, and former Mayor Richard Riordan was absolutely right when he recently called it “a bunch of baloney” whose main effect will be “rich guys getting richer.”

This brings me right back to the morning’s questions:

  • What is our role as arts writers? To give voice, shed light, and draw attention.
  • How do we navigate the murky waters to make an honest and ethical living practicing our craft? As best we can, with integrity, transparency, and full disclosure.
  • Can art speak to power? Absolutely.
  • Can arts writers speak to power? We have to.
  • National Critics Conference: Musings Part 2 – An Upbeat Attitude

    I sent him a private email, but I want to take this opportunity to thank Los Angeles Times jazz writer Don Heckman publicly for the tone and direction he set when moderating the “Jazz L.A.: The View from the West Coast” panel at the National Critics Conference. It is so easy to succumb to the lure of carping about the downside – whether about the lack of jazz in LA, or the lack of jazz coverage in the media, or even the diminishment of critical thought in the media – but he took the high road and enabled us all to focus on the positives. AllAboutJazz Editor Fred Jung spoke of the terrific mentoring that Los Angeles artists are doing with aspiring musicians. (By the way, this is something that the Jazz Journalists Association has recently begun doing with aspiring jazz writers). Titus Levi, a jazz economist* working at the Center for Cultural Innovation, pointed out that the isolationism caused by the geographic spread of Los Angeles has an upside – it breeds heightened identity and stronger networking. Another often lamented issue is the relative non-existence of jazz icons today; if that is true, Don suggested viewing it as an opportunity rather than a problem. His message (not verbatim) was clear: jazz is in a period of great opportunity – we should have an upbeat attitude and encourage our audiences.

    *I’ve never heard of, let alone met, a jazz economist? I plan to talk more with Titus later this summer, and will report back.

    National Critics Conference: Musings Part 1

    Last week The American Theatre Critics Association, The Dance Critics Association, The International Association of Art Critics, Music Critics Association of North America, and the Jazz Journalists Association held a joint conference in Los Angeles to discuss the state of arts coverage today. My first two lasting impressions from the conference both resonate around my love of narrative journalism. I know this was a conference of Critics, but, despite my being an opinionated soul, I have never defined myself as a critic. And although I was attending the conference as a card-carrying member of the Jazz Journalists Association, I don’t often call myself a jazz journalist either. I am happiest as a writer of true stories — narratives.

    Norman Lear gave the opening keynote speech, and even though it was full of the expected humor and political barbs, his message was serious. He bemoaned our society for “celebrating success regardless of quality;” contrasted Power, which “aims to anesthetize and retain,” with Art, which “aims to probe and startle;” and exhorted us “to give [our audiences] some perspective on how truthfully and skillfully creative works are speaking to power.” He spoke of artworks as the means by which artists “declare [their] individuality while affirming that [they] all belong to a larger family of man,” and he wants us to help our readers “recover a sense of emotional and moral complexity in human affairs.” This was a call to arms perfectly suited to a narrative journalist.

    Prior to Lear’s keynote speech there was a warm-up panel during which Sasha Anawalt, Director of the USC Annenberg Getty Fellowship Program in Los Angeles, said ‘Go inside the world – don’t be afraid of losing yourself.” To this I would like to add, “And bring the reader with you.” Critics who have a tendency to analyze and judge from a distance, to remain outside of, if not above, the art world in question, miss out on so much of the story while protecting their analytic objectivity. As a reader, I love writing that provides a window on a world with which I am not familiar, and I can relate more deeply to narratives that show me that world rather than tell me about it. In crafting such a piece, a writer can only benefit from behind-the-scenes explorations and getting up close and personal with the artists. To circle back to Lear, narrative is the best way I know to explore “moral complexity in human affairs.”

    On My Mind, 1, 2, 3

    What is most on my mind lately is the lack of arts education for young children. This issue is coming up everywhere I turn.

    1. I’ve been working on a story about an urban California school district on the outskirts of Los Angeles where two hundred middle and high school students were inspired to join together to create from scratch a high-caliber marching band that would qualify to march in the parade of parades, The Tournament of Roses Parade, in only eighteen months. The music programs were decimated years ago, the district faces ever-increasing budget shortfalls, and community apathy is rampant. Yet, though music, this diverse group of kids, ranging in size, shape, and color, from varying cultural and economic backgrounds, not only achieved their dream of marching in the 2005 Rose Parade, they began a new tradition, represented their schools with pride, gained the admiration of their peers, and helped to unify the school district.

    2. JazzAtWingspread was all about asking questions such as: How do we raise the marketshare for jazz? How do we reach teenagers to gather new appreciation for this music? How do we encourage the appreciation of the arts? My question is “Why has no one mentioned education?” I know there’re a whole bunch of “jazz educators” — all those high school and college band teachers — but they should be the icing on a cake, not the cake itself. Our society is loosing ground because of the lack of arts education in our elementary schools. That is where arts appreciation must start.

    3. The National Critics Conference kicked off this morning. It is presumably the first time the national organizations for dance critics, fine arts critics, classical music critics, jazz critics and theater critics have converged to discuss the arts and media coverage of the arts in today’s world. Many of the concerns I heard today are no different than those at the Wingspread conference – “how to we increase the size of the audiences interested in the arts?”

    I truly believe that we must expose young children to the arts. I also believe that rather than take time away from “core subjects” or the 3Rs, the arts can be used to explore those subjects. Study the geometry in paintings by Mondrian, the science of sound by exploring different musical instruments, drama of the ancient Greeks, folk dances of foreign cultures, squaredances of the American settlors… Trite as it may sound, children are out future. And, although I really did not plan it this way, that brings me back to the childrens books I spoke of at the beginning of this week.

    Branding – part two

    Well, I was just over at the jazzatwingspread blog reading the comments that have been posted thus far. It seems that one or more people are hot and bothered, and I can understand why. I said that I was a friend of MCG Jazz, and I am. I like the Pittsburgh venue, and applaud the quality of the music they present – both live and on CD. I believe their hearts are in the right place. What worries me is how awfully hard it is to stay clean when you’re playing ball.

    One anonymous commenter wrote “The big record companies only look at sales numbers and not in devloping the art. Members of your own panel are guilty of this.” Absolutely true. I took a look at the list of attendees and mentally crossed off several as being high on the list of exploiters, those who I know for a fact have taken advantage of jazz artists.

    Another comment, actually a long rant posted by “conscience,” made several good points, one of which is that artists who wish to perform or offer clinics at the IAJE convention have to pay their own way and receive no fee. Having been a jazz publicist for many years, I am all too familiar with the rationale – “it’s good exposure.” Jazz musicians are tired of giving it away, and I don’t blame them.

    Conscience also wrote “Branding just sounds like raising the price of jazz – rather than making the music and its infrastructure and universe more inclusive,” and suggested the result would be similar to the pharmaceutical industry where drug prices are so high only because they must cover the cost of advertising.

    I am all for raising jazz awareness and increasing revenues, but only if the music makers, the artists themselves, get their fair share. Without them, there is no music.


    In 1998, having relocated to sourthern California, I needed new business cards. I could have replicated my old cards that had WRITER in addition to my name and contact information, but I thought it too plain. I needed something that would be descriptive, unusual, and therefore memorable. I consultated with a friend and we came up with a tag line that is still on my cards and letterhead — “Biographies and other expressions of the human condition.” I still use it, not because I think it’s done much for me, but because I don’t have anything better in mind.

    Most of us creative types — writers, musicians, painters, and so forth — don’t seem to have the business gene. Oh, some of us are organized, some have learned to schmooze and sell, but real marketing know-how is something one has to study and cultivate. It is an art form all its own. And those creative types who are born with that gene, well they work on Madison Avenue and make the big bucks creating ad campaigns for Aflac, Nike, milk, and California cheese. Perhaps I’d have more business savvy had I completed that MBA degree I started when still in my 20s. But maybe it’s not too late to learn a few of the secrets.

    I’ve got my eye on a most interesting happening that will be taking place from Tuesday evening (May 24th) through midday on Thursday (May 26th). A group of the jazz world’s powers-that-be (think Jazz at Lincoln Center, Blue Note Records, Concord Records, BET on Jazz, Jazz at Kennedy Center, Monterey Jazz Festival…) will be meeting together with some management and marketing gurus and a few artists to discuss “how to work together to raise market share for jazz.”

    Being a jazzer myself, as well as a close friend of MCG Jazz (one of the conference organizers) I have more than a passing interest in this event. But the truth is that I will be watching closely because I hope to learn something that might be applicable to myself and to others who are close to me.

    My peephole into the event is the Jazz at Wingspread blogsite , where I and others will read about the initiatives to be discussed and may post our comments and suggestions. Check it out.


    I swear we didn’t plan it. I didn’t even know about it until this moment, but it seems that Terry, Isaac and I are all on the same thought train today. About four hours ago I wrote and posted Fond Memories and Strong Opinions, and it wasn’t until just now that I had a chance to check Terry’s blog, About Last Night. What do I find there? An endorsement of the need for “considered, intelligent, thoughtful criticism” and a link to Isaac’s full piece at Parabasis, which also points out the difference between critics and reviewers. It’s a “must read.”