As Newsweek Folds, a Glimpse of the Humiliations of Writing Art Criticism There

The Internet is aflame today with the news that venerable U.S. magazine Newsweek will be ceasing its print operations at the end of 2012, to become an all-digital entity called Newsweek Global. The decision apparently stems from the ongoing losses on the print side, and the flight of key investors — but the writing has been on the wall for some time. For those interested in a glimpse behind the curtain, now might be the time to look back at former Newsweek scribe Peter Plagens‘s novel “The Art Critic,” which was published serially in the now-defunct Artnet Magazine back in 2008.

“The Art Critic” chronicles the bleak midlife journey of “Arthur,” a working writer who seems to be a thinly disguised version of Plagens himself during his tenure at Newsweek. In addition to featuring some really groaty sex scenes, and some jaundiced reflections on the New York art world, the novel also has a few passages that convey the humiliations of writing art criticism for an ailing mainstream weekly.

The most vivid comes in Chapter 19, which begins with Arthur being berated into submission by his editor Marsha (“I thought I’d made it clear enough to you that, in the new re-design, pictures would be an even more important part of the story — as well as the goddamned story pitch”). The confrontation ends with a suggestion of the business logic driving the whole apparatus towards irrelevance. Here’s the relevant back-and-forth (bolding ours):

“I don’t want to do a movie lead story every week!” Marsha shouted. “I don’t want to do a pop music feature every week. I don’t want my only alternatives to be television features and bestseller novel features. I want to run art stories whenever I can. But art stories are especially vulnerable because the Mullahs don’t understand them. They don’t understand why anybody in E+ thinks we have to do them. They don’t understand anything but Rembrandt, and they think modern artists are weirdos who make the magazine look ugly. I know they’re wrong, and I try to explain to them why they’re wrong in those tedious meetings upstairs. But I don’t have the ammunition I need to fight for art stories. You’re the goddamned expert, Arthur. It’s your job to get in there and pitch the goddamned art stories. And it’s your job to make sure an art story that’s been pitched and sold stays sold.”

Marsha stood over Arthur like a drill sergeant. Guilt pressed him deeper into the cushions of her office couch. She waited for him to respond, but he knew that anything he could possibly say would come across as an excuse. So Arthur remained silent, waiting for Marsha to finish the indictment. She did not disappoint.

“It’s your goddamned job, Arthur, and you’re letting it be eaten away. Haven’t you noticed that they haven’t replaced our classical-music-slash-dance critic? And it’s been two years since Howland died. Haven’t you noticed that they’ve folded theater into the book reviewer’s portfolio? They cover big-budget musicals only because Karl’s wife drags him to them, and then they do it with poor ol’ Ken, who writes the same goddamned review every time. Anybody this magazine can possibly get rid of, Arthur, they will. Times are tough. Money is tight. The magazine barely turns a profit. There are rumors it’s going to go on the block. If they sell it, I can guarantee you the new owner will be more philistine than our current one. They might cut out art altogether, and you’d be on the street. Tell me, who’s more unemployable than an unemployed art critic?”

— Ben Davis