Arts journalists have indulged in a bit of critical navel-gazing this summer, ignited by an article posted by San Diego Union-Tribune editor Chris Lavin on the Poynter Institute website. In it, Lavin examines the imbalance between sports and arts coverage, and suggests that arts journalists, who cater to an "influential but narrow segment of the community," take a few cues from their sports-writing colleagues.

Lavin decries the "secrecy" of arts coverage focusing on criticism, and advocates a return to "story-telling" that brings the "art of making art" to bear: stories about artists and their obstacles. It's a kind of marketing venture he has in mind, one sports has done well, and one that arts organizations, he feels, have resisted. And at the root of this manifesto is a theatergoing experience Lavin had as a student in London, when he came swooning out of productions of Amadeus and Sweeney Todd. "I'd much rather see a good play than a good football game," he concludes, "and I'd like to see our coverage of arts reflect why that is."

More gratifying than Lavin's article was the volley of opinions it triggered, including responses from the New York Times' John Rockwell and the L.A. Times' Christopher Knight. These picked at the paradoxical corner that Lavin had written himself into: that if sports writers addressed a general public--one not versed in sports rules and terms--the result would be a riot of derision (and perhaps pulling of advertising dollars). Some readers wrote to protest that it isn't the personalities of art that interest them, but the works themselves--and for that, bless them: Assuming that people can only be hooked by the stories about "the drama of making art and the lives of the people who dedicate themselves [to making it]" indicates a kind of Spielbergian contempt for the intellect of the audience.

For the most part absent from this debate was the essential division between art and sports: sports are populist, and arts are elitist. This is not a bad thing. It means that the arts appeal to the individual part of you, rather than the part that wants to project itself onto a team. Lavin's article reeks of a fear of expertise and authority--the kind of authority a critic uses to make sense of culture in the contemporary age, and to give it context. It's far too easy to fling charges of philistinism; it's infinitely harder to assume that an audience will rise to the level of the art you produce. Or, for that matter, the writing.

emily@thestranger.com

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