On Monday mornings, art-curious people around the nation catch up on the news at Modern Art Notes. This Monday, MAN's "Weekend Roundup" provided links to reports from the Los Angeles Times, the Dallas Morning News, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the San Diego Union-Tribune, along with this item: "Emily White in City Arts Seattle on the art journalism drain—and what it means for non-NYC cities." Hours later, the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts blog linked to the story: a "must-read article about the sad state of arts journalism."
Described by City Arts editor Emily White in the story, the situation is dire: It is a blow to the art scene of Seattle, and to arts journalism in general, that Sheila Farr, art critic of the Seattle Times for the last eight years, left the paper last month after her position was cut. White's writing echoes the logic of many others who have bemoaned the tide of layoffs hitting arts criticism in past years.
"Local newspapers have lost critics with over two centuries' worth of collective experience in recent years; the Times alone lost art, classical, and pop critics in 2008," White wrote. "Farr's departure was especially regretted. She was an original voice, distant and passionate. 'Sheila is a poet,' says painter Tori Ellison."
Ellison is the only artist White quotes. White is the only other authority to comment on Farr in the story. White declares Farr "a very good art critic":
"In her final weeks, Farr continued reviewing; it was important to her to get as many shows down for the record as she could. On November 21 she introduced readers to painter Grant Barnhart's show Remember Me When. Farr painstakingly describes his feverish talent: 'Barnhart's addled brand of neo-Americana is built on order, chaos, dark omens and a touch of humor... The imagery turns from innocence to a nightmarish medley of brutality and glitz, testosterone, bare midriffs and vicious girl fights.'
"In the review, you can almost see the work—you want to see it, perhaps, even to drive across town to see it, the way people come out to see a rare star when it appears in the night sky.
"Yet like a telescope snatched from an astronomer at the moment of discovery, Farr's Times gig was obliterated. Remember Me When is news because a critic noticed it. When the critics are no longer there to discover art, who will call attention to it?"
According to White, it's not only the state of arts journalism that's on the line. The situation with Farr is emblematic of the struggle for the very survival of art in Seattle.
None of this is true. And the simplistic and underinformed story that White wrote in City Arts is a case of the sickness it diagnoses, not a cure. White's essay is, simply, bad arts journalism. A truer story would have focused on the fact that none of the three culture critics—Farr, Patrick MacDonald (rock), Melinda Bargreen (classical music)—let go from the Times in the last year or so was passionately engaged in the cultural dialogue of the city and the nation.
Back to Farr: Her tenure was a mixed bag, and her departure is, too. She made contributions both critically and in her reporting (I especially appreciated her thoughts on the opening of the Olympic Sculpture Park); she also ducked big issues on a regular basis, preferring not to weigh in, ultimately squandering the power she'd been given. Her departure is the evacuation of a fixture, but hardly of the only light in an otherwise pitch-black room.
While White makes Farr sound as central and as important as Ann Powers in the rock world—whom White quotes in the story—the truth is that Farr is known by the majority of artists, dealers, and curators in the city as the critic who never showed up. When I first arrived on the scene, I thought this view of Farr was a limited case of sour grapes, but I had to admit later that it contained truth: In my own dealings, I almost never ran into Farr on the job (by contrast, I'd see her competitor, Regina Hackett, almost constantly), and her byline appeared only slightly less scarcely. While researching a 2007 story about Times freelancer Matthew Kangas, who nine Seattle-area artists say solicited them for gifts of art over the course of two decades, I had to acknowledge that while Kangas might have been shaking artists down, at least he was paying attention to their work: For the year 2006, he wrote 20 reviews, while Farr wrote five.
Another critic in Seattle much more closely fits the description White used for Farr: Hackett, art critic at the daily Seattle Post-Intelligencer since 1981. White did not mention in her piece that she worked as Hackett's boss for some months last year as arts editor at the P-I (White was also once editor of this newspaper). For that matter, White didn't mention—in her reference to Farr's "introduction" of the artist Grant Barnhart to readers—that Hackett had written a review of Barnhart's work that came out before Farr's. (So had I.) Two of the three full-time art critics in town had not only already done what Farr then did, but had already blogged about Barnhart, too.
Art has been persevering in Seattle without the help of its largest daily paper for quite some time now. Is that Farr's fault or the Times'? It's impossible to say. What we can observe is that the Times has proved itself immune to every vibrant advance in cultural journalism over the last 20 years—from the amazing blogs at the Guardian in London, to the simple but effective multimedia work at the New York Times, to the hard-nosed consistency of the institutional critique at the Los Angeles Times—resulting in an approach that's as sure of its institutional authority as it is astonishing in its dullness, and as steady as it is failing.
"By pushing out distinguished writers whom readers trust, the dailies are sinking themselves," White writes.
Wrong. Dailies are sinking themselves under the weight of their own (possibly deliberate) ignorance of what constitutes distinguished writing these days—and by thinking that "distinguished" is the goal. Editors don't even realize that the cultural critics they have (or once had) on their staffs—minds paid to be analytical—are the people best suited to help them think through the complex issues that have been raised in the last 20 years of print journalism, from declining readership to the internet. Great critics are agents of revolution. To proclaim a national day of mourning for the loss of a notably disengaged critic at a deeply disengaged newspaper—the Times checked out of the cultural conversation of Seattle and the nation long ago, if it was ever part of it in this young city (when is the last time you saw a Times culture writer in the midst of a national dialogue?)—is to miss a far more important problem than whether this city has three full-time critics or two.
Someone who doesn't know the difference can't be expected to diagnose an institutional sickness like the Times'. And arts journalism—hell, all journalism—cannot afford any more of the tired, false oppositions White espouses (between arts and sports, between bloggers and institutional writers) or any more sweeping arguments that ignore the facts on the ground. It's a war out here.