Culture & Conversation

Looking Ahead at Politics and Art


2017. Solid round numbers ending in a lucky seven, the words have a strong ring. Hearing them I see blue and silver. Already, the US presidential campaign, which left many of us feeling black and blue, has produced a silvery consequence.

With America soon to be led by a man whose relationship to fact is promiscuous in the extreme, a commodity once known as “hard news” is making a comeback. According to Fortune, many mainstream media outlets have noticed “significant bumps in their paid subscriptions coming out of this year’s election.” People are ravenous to know what’s going on, desperate for solid evidence that what they read and hear is true.

Reporters won’t have to sift through container loads of Pentagon papers, searching for a scoop. On a daily basis, this story is going to be led by the main subject himself. We won’t be able to get enough news, even when we’re sick of it. And we know we will be, during a minimum four-year virus, assuming nature takes its course.

Coincidently, one major legacy media agency is preparing to meet this expanding market for news. Washington Post publisher Fred Ryan has announced they’ll be hiring dozens of reporters in the New Year. Since it was purchased by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos three years ago, the Post has been put through a serious internal makeover. Some 80 technologists now “sit in the newsroom, making it home not just to editors and reporters, but to software engineers, digital designers and mobile developers”. (Interesting that they are sitting in the newsroom and not on some other floor, the way reporters once were kept in isolation from all other aspects of the business.) Whatever the Post is doing, it’s paying off. Last year saw a 145% increase in digital subscriptions.

For some time, it has been obvious that traditional newspapers would only survive the digital revolution when deep generational change took place at the highest levels. The culture of print media was just too thoroughly entrenched to change. Neither CEOs who came up through the news ranks nor those who slid in sideways from business were ever going to be able to imagine and then carry out the kind of profound changes necessary to re-invent the medium. Especially not when they had shareholders to please, and massive debts accrued from past mistakes. Who can blame them? I don’t believe serious Sinatra fans ever fully embraced rock ‘n roll either. We can be in awe of Sinatra and respect him like hell, but can a Boomer honestly claim he speaks to us?

One hopes a new generation of media leaders will return news to something like a gold standard. There, too, the Trump act offers a glimmer. The widespread failure of pollsters to predict the US election outcome will surely linger as a reminder to all news providers that there’s more to gathering information than chatting with experts or looking at computer-generated numbers.

If the generation of Bezos and Ryan have indeed figured out how to reinvent a major urban newspaper, they are about to be rewarded with the great and timely good fortune of a big, breaking story worthy of journalism’s very raison d’être. In terms of career-making opportunity, the election of Donald Trump is up there with an outbreak of war. Watch the faces: to a man and woman, TV news types can hardly contain their glee.

So much for journalism. What about art?

This is where my sanguine soul takes a hit.

I’m not going to shed tears over the hard time news-dependent comics like John Oliver, Trevor Noah, Samantha Bee and the SNL crew are going to have, now that reality is funnier than they are. They’re smart people, they’ll cope. What worries me is the serious challenge this belief-straining turn of events presents to art.

Not just to the kind that hangs on walls, but to the full splay of writing, performing, making, aka “the arts”; vocations, callings, life and times of, and the industries. I predict we’re in for hard times. A problem of content, simmering for ages, may well become a full-scale crisis. If a news-hungry public wants to know what is true, will an art-hungry public clamour to know why? Will meaning in art come back in vogue? If so, are the current generations of artists up to the challenge?

For about a decade now, I’ve felt uncomfortable talking about trends in art. Despite being an avid consumer of culture, despite hundreds of hours spent launching and working on this dedicated arts website, Rover, which since 2008 has published some 2,400 reviews of creative works available to Montrealers, I find no real trends; generalisations are contradictory. At best, I see three broad adjectival categories:

Dark. Personal. Eclectic.

Dark: a lot of creative work tends to be dark. Especially but not exclusively that of young artists who, like the young in general, have a hard road ahead, are full of energy and unsure of how to spend it. Dressed in black – young or not – one is instantly taken seriously.

Personal: a lot of creative work is profoundly personal. Not always deeply felt or revelatory, or even intense, but about the Self, a mirror of the individual who is creating, therefore a perpetual work-in-progress. By definition, beyond criticism.

Eclectic: there is just nothing that cannot be taken up by art these days. No play too obscure or dated to be revived. No subject that cannot be painted, no dead styles. No taboos, even in the realm of taste. Everything is possible, equally important. Meaning is up for grabs, leading to confusion, making serious criticism impossible.

Audience fragmentation is a result, not a cause, of the chaos in art.

In the brave new world unto which we were born late in the day on November 8th, art will be faced with the challenge of being as interesting and as necessary as the news. That is hardly ever a good thing, in the short term. The generation about to discover Harry Potter may be able to look back on this time and explain how the world changed over the next 10 or 20 years. In the meantime, those of us striving to offer an imaginative response to what we are living through will do well to take a deep breath, pause, and make the next breath count, big time.

Lest this anxiety sound too dark, overly eclectic or insufferably personal, let me end with remarks from the great New Yorker visual art critic Peter Schjeldahl, writing in the current January 2nd edition of that fine magazine:
“Speaking of mental woe, the political developments of the year have cast lurid lights on the general enterprise of high culture, which fine art peculiarly symbolizes by dint of institutional pomp and commercial extravagance. The matrix of privileges that make us conversant in it feels unusually vulnerable to unfriendly points of view.”

A convoluted way of saying that 2017 is a wake-up year for art too. But then isn’t art by its nature perpetually caught up in the Sisyphean labour of reinvention? Except that in some periods, the break from convention is more radical, more painful than in others. To be continued.



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