What We Talk About When We Talk About Dialogue

In his recent commentary, Dan Blask argues that the Massachusetts Cultural Council’s role in supporting the arts, humanities, and the interpretative sciences should go beyond funding organizations and individuals. He rightfully insists that the MCC is also about encouraging thoughtful conversation among artists, historians, and their audiences, and that the MCC has gone online in that effort via its informative blog ArtSake.

He asks a good question– “what are the arts and humanities if not dialogue?” He is right, but I wish to point out, in a friendly way, the intellectual limitations in his approach to public dialogue. And to suggest that these boundaries undercut the admirable efforts of the MCC to generate a conversation that takes the arts and humanities seriously.

Back in 2007, I began The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering the arts in Massachusetts and New England. The non-profit publication reflects my lifelong interest in critiquing the arts as a means of paying homage to their essential value. It was also propelled by my belief that professional cultural coverage, especially criticism, was in trouble. Traumatized by economic and technological changes, major print newspapers and magazines continue to cut back on their column inches dedicated to cultural news and views. Billions of blogs offer quantity but not necessarily quality of opinion and information.

The Arts Fuse is an experiment: are there ways to combine a traditional approach to evaluating the arts (provoking and educating rather than simply advertising) with the interactive strengths of the Web? That notion of creating community offers exciting opportunities for innovative forms of cultural dialogue. If the public’s only encounter with arts criticism comes via Tweets or YouTube videos, is it any wonder that it can’t articulate or appreciate the value of the arts and humanities? (Thus the understandable though self-defeating recourse of arguing that the arts are valuable because of their economic benefits.) Here is where I find Dan’s approach on ArtSake — having artists share their experiences of creating new work–limited. My version of his initial question is: what are the arts and humanities if not dialogue that stimulates critical thinking?

According to Dan, ArtSake focuses on “artists’ voices – on dialogue about new art.” This approach is admirable, though many artists proffer conversations about their creative process on their own blogs or sites. ArtSake adds the MCC’s official stamp of approval on particular efforts. But what if approval becomes part of the conversation? Audiences, readers, artists, scholars, and grant organizations make critical judgments about the arts and humanities all the time. Online dialogue should go beyond artists illuminating their trials and tribulations. It has to stimulate exchanges about the success of the work–including discussions about what success means–and if it was worth doing in the first place. Evaluation is an inevitable part of serious cultural dialogue–attempts to minimize judgment end up pushing exchanges about the arts into the realm of polite publicity.

The Massachusetts legislature hosts contentious debates among its representatives about controversial social and political issues. Why shouldn’t the MCC offer a civilized and curated space online for debates, criticism, and commentary about the state’s arts and humanities? In truth, a model for significant public discourse about cultural issues is desperately needed. Take a look at the online comments following arts stories and reviews on the sites of major newspapers. Many of the reactions are rude and crude–there is no vocabulary for aesthetic assessment or instructive disagreement.

My attempt to create a space for a lively exchange of views about the arts is the Judicial Review, an online project that was funded by MassHumanities. A panel made of critics, academics, and audience members weigh in on a cultural issue or event. The artist responds to the reactions, with readers becoming part of the confab. Topics for Judicial Reviews range from the aesthetics of food to the Museum of Fine Art’s New Art of the Americas Wing. One of the most popular Judicial Reviews is dedicated to Gish Jen’s novel World and Town, which is set in New England and deals with the Cambodian community.

Dan is kind enough to notice The Arts Fuse and its efforts to provide high quality criticism and commentary on the arts. I am proud of what we have accomplished on a fraying shoestring of a budget–the magazine has over 30 writers commenting on the performing arts, books, movies, the visual arts, music, and video games. Greg Cook’s New England Journal of Aesthetic Research, another first rate resource, is mentioned. But isn’t that list of online magazines dedicated to the arts in the state underpopulated?

Dan goes on to argue that the MCC shouldn’t deal with issues of artistic assessment because “it seemed to us those grounds were already covered.” This is flattering, but it ignores reality–there are continents of virgin critical territory. Economic self-interest drives universities, grant organizations, institutions, and artists to fund ways to get the word out about the arts and humanities. Resources for online publications that publish editorially vetted, independent cultural critiques, which might rile some in the cultural community, are extremely scarce, though a few states and arts funders realize that support for the arts and humanities calls for hosting places on the Web where artists, critics, and readers share their reactions and judgments.

Dan acknowledges the precariousness of the state’s online arts criticism when he mentions the “late, lamented Big RED and Shiny,” a valuable magazine that is no more. As of yet, there have been no replacements. Expanding the ways we think and talk about the arts and humanities is an important task– the public and the MCC should not take the existence of arts criticism for granted.

Author: Bill Marx

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