Last week, as China’s detention of Ai Weiwei continued even as governments around the world protested, the Washington Post downgraded its art critic position to a part-time responsibility. To put it another way: Just as China decided an artist was so important and threating that he had to be silenced, Washington’s newspaper-of-record decided that art isn’t worth a single full-time staffer. As I noted here last week, the Washington Post replaced Blake Gopnik with the super-smart Philip Kennicott, who in addition to being the Post’s art critic will have other non-art-related critical responsibilities. [Image via Flickr user duncan.]
The Post’s decision is saddening, but it should not be a surprise: In recent years the visual arts has not been a priority in American journalism, particularly at the Post, which missed or was late to every major development in the Smithsonian censorship story, was a week late to report the art cuts in the recent federal budget compromise and so on. The Post is typically beaten to Washington-based art stories by the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times (and even MAN).
The Post’s downgrade should serve as a wake-up call to people who care about art and the place art and artists should have in America’s national discourse: With the exception of only a few newspapers and magazines, art has fallen out of the realm of beats and subjects to which mainstream journalism believes it can devote resources.
In a related story, many newspapers have similarly downgraded their investigative reporting staffs and plenty of other beats too. As a response to the downsizing of probative journalism at newspapers around the country, numerous niche-focused, non-profit journalism organizations have popped up in recent years, notably in the areas of religious, community, environmental and watchdog-style investigative journalism, the field in which ProPublica just won its second Pulitzer Prize. Many of those non-profits don’t just publish their own material at their own sites, they also partner with print and digital publications to increase their content’s reach.
So far art-interested funders and the art world have yet to embrace — or seriously consider — this model, to intensely consider what it would mean for art and artists if news coverage and critical consideration of art and artists continues to be pushed out of the mainstream and into the narrow confines of the art ghetto. Perhaps the Post’s downgrade of its art critic position ignites that conversation. After all, if the Chinese realize that artists are important to a society, shouldn’t we?
Related: Non-profit journalism has been ascendant since at least 2009, when I last wrote here on this issue.