Media Matters

Poor Los Angeles. You can’t help feeling sad for this city, which has been trying so hard to prove that it’s a first-rate visual art metropolis. The Pulitzer Prize committee doesn’t think so. This week’s announcement of the Pulitzer in criticism, which went to Jonathan Gold, a restaurant reviewer for LA Weekly, follows on the heels of the last criticism Pulitzer to go to LA, in 2004. That was for a car writer.

I’m not here to debunk writing about food, cars, and other popular pursuits. But in their eagerness to make a point, the Pulitzer people have ignored, yet again, the current energy of art and architecture in LA. Good criticism is part of that picture. Without it, the renaissance can prove fleeting.

What irks me is why LA must be the place to unfurl the flag of critical populism. It’s such a shopworn cliché. At a time when catastrophic management is shredding one of the great papers in the nation, it would be nice to see an affirmation that LA and its beleaguered hometown daily can play in the cultural big leagues.

portfoliocover.jpgMeanwhile, back on the East Coast, cause for optimism. The much-anticipated business glossy Portfolio is here, and it’s chockablock with arts writing. Business Intelligence (the magazine’s tagline) has been deemed to encompass awareness about cultural industries. The cover is a spectacular homage, by Scott Peterman, to Berenice Abbot’s classic aerial shot of Manhattan. The skyscrapers in the picture look like so many glowing gold ingots. A special section, Culture Inc., is devoted to arts and philanthropy. The assignments are somewhat predictable at this point, with the obligatory briefing on the Chinese art boom, etc. But there is real promise here.

A word of caution. Robust art coverage in business magazines is a canary in a mineshaft. During the last boom, by the time Fortune and Forbes got around to it, the market bust was already around the corner.

5 thoughts on “Media Matters”

  1. Knight is definitely excellent but I’m staying out of the Pulitzer thing, because I haven’t read the other writers. Perhaps there should be a cultural-criticism and a consumer-criticism division, since the fields are really quite different?

    As for Portfolio, having skimmed the stuff that’s available online, I have to say the arts coverage reminds me a little of that Vanity Fair Arts issue: I’m happy to see this topic get so much acreage, but so not pleased with what’s actually there. I liked (regular AWS commenter) Lindsay Pollock’s billionaire-effect piece because it delved into various less-discussed market segments. But otherwise the arts stuff is, as Andras says, sort of predictable. Like, “We need do something about the art market, but we’re not sure our readers really know or care about it, so let’s keep it simple and light.”

    One major thing missing in the Marianne Boesky profile was her distinctly combative stance on resale agreements. Boesky, who holds a law degree, has successfully countered at least one intended auction sale by invoking such an agreement, whereas most dealers treat them more as moral pacts than legal documents. (That puts Boesky on the frontlines of the dealers vs. auction houses range war, which makes all the more ironic the revelation that she and artist Barnaby Furnas once hatched a plan to get back at Michael Ovitz – for flipping a Furnas painting into auction – by “painting Ovitz’s image on a dead animal’s skin and then covering the portrait with hexes and curses” and then selling it at auction.)

  2. One shouldn’t be too hard on Portfolio. Nor be surprised at the similarity with Vanity Fair, which comes from the same Condé Nast stable. Every commercial media product has a specific market and a target reach. The writing therefore needs to be pitched just right to reach the numbers that VF and Portfolio need to make the money they do. Too narrowly insider, and they lose readership. Too mass market, and they lose any cachet they are trying to acquire.

    Perhaps they have pitched the first issues a little safe (and not just on the Art content). It can take a few issues for a magazine to find its voice. But I don’t think it’s a bad start for what is essentially an upper end business lifestyle mag. If they broaden the understanding of an Art market in full blown “there’s no tomorrow” party mode, then they will have done us all a service. Even if later it all comes crashing down around our ears.

    [In the interests of full disclosure, ICS was one of the founders of WiReD magazine, sold to Condé Nast in 1998.]

  3. Having fought for years in the trenches of arts-journalism advocacy, I second Marc’s comment that there really ought to be more than one criticism Pulitzer. But I would go further.

    In every other category but art, the Pulitzers reward merit in a broad field of journalism, such as national reporting or international reporting. When it comes to culture and the arts, the category is limited to criticism. This is a narrow, particular, and outdated notion of what arts coverage is about. Its like saying the prize for national reporting should go only to coverage of the White House.

    At a minimum, there ought to be some kind of distinction between criticism and feature writing. If the goal is to elevate journalism, how about a prize for arts reporting. Even within criticism, since the prize lumps together all art forms — including, these days, beats like cars and food (which I applaud) — the bottom line is that there are maybe two dozen top writers who have a realistiuc shot at the prize. For everyone else, the competition is meaningless. This helps explain the withering of arts coverage in many papers, since editors don’t push for good arts coverage in the hope of winning a Pulitzer.

  4. Oops meant to post this all week… From the comments to’s Our Big, Fat Portfolio Review: Even Our Pessimism Was Optimistic, a total evisceration of the new magazine. Again, having not read the magazine, I have no idea if it’s fair. After all the writer, Gawker founder Elizabeth Spiers, is the High Priestess of Snark:

    “Elizabeth — well, fact checking is clearly not the strong suit over at CNP. In the same article, Wolfe calls Jamie Niven of Sotheby’s “the most prominent auctioneer in the business.” That’s totally preposterous. He doesn’t even do the house’s most important sales. Tobias Meyer does.”

  5. Tom Wolfe’s recent opus connects to a thread of ours about a kind of kneejerk anti-market mentality that seems disingenuous and out of date. His basic premise is that hedge-fund people are evil and stupid; old money people are stupid too, but the author finds them charming.

    Wolfe clearly delights in the money culture — witness the white bespoke suits, the white Escalade, and his intimate familiarity with Upper East Side status symbols. Yet he makes a brisk trade out of lambasting this scene in a tone that sounds derisive and scornful.

    My problem is that The Bonfire of the Vanities was a long time ago, and fighting the battles of yesteryear, with the same blunt tools, seems threadbare, like the couch upholstery in those old country clubs that Wolfe so knowledgeably describes.

    There is a generational point of view here that no longer seems helpful. It links Wolfe’s critique of the money culture to the PS1 “Not for Sale” show.

    Sixties oppositionality worked because the money culture, such as it was, was being criticized by outsiders. It’s harder to criticize the money culture when you’re a part of it. Whether it’s Wolfe in his custom built Cadillac or a curator who works for a powerful museum, pretending to be David against the money-machine Goliath doesn’t come across as an honest or effective analysis of the system.

    People with an insider’s view should help us understand the complexity of “the market” by offering a nuanced picture from the inside. By faking oppositionality, they risk handing over the reins yet more fully to the very people they demonize.

    (Full disclosure, a family member and several close friends work for Conde Nast, and I’ve written for them.)

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