Visual Art 11-11-2002

Art and Media: Jon Spayde

Art and media. Quick--define both concepts and describe how they coexist. Provide examples and analysis to support your position. Be witty, sound smart, and make your peers proud.

Art and media. Quick–define both concepts and describe how they coexist. Provide examples and analysis to support your position. Be witty, sound smart, and make your peers proud.

An unenviable task, and we foisted it upon a series of artists and media mavens. All were asked the same six questions; their responses are as thoughtful and various as we hoped they’d be. The first response is from Jon Spayde, senior editor of the Utne Reader. which is just out with an issue on the arts. More will follow . . .

How would you have answered? Send any responses to this site at

Jon Spayde, senior editor of the Utne Reader

Do art and media have responsibilities and obligations to one another? What are they?

Certainly. Media is essentially a messenger, a conveyor and interpreter. In conveying and interpreting art, the media need to balance sophistication and accessibility, neither dumbing down the content of the art they are covering, nor indulging in opaque artspeak. It seems like a big challenge, but I think it is doable–and more doable than it is currently done. I’d like to see more arts coverage done as thought-leader journalism; I don’t see why art, even very advanced art, has to be ghettoized in the “art press,” with its opaque rhetoric and gallery-oriented commodifying approach, or ghettoized in the music press, with its fanboy ethos. I think the media have failed in their social responsibility to bring arts coverage into the dialogue about the culture?s present and future. Political scientists and other pundits, and nonfiction authors, and occasionally fiction writers, get to help shape public opinion via media outlets; poets, musicians, dancers, etc. are treated solely as purveyors of entertainment commodities. And this in an era in which many artists have profound social and political commitments. This is not a matter of asking inarticulate artists to pontificate on political questions; it’s a matter of elucidating the messages in the artworks and in the careers with skill and care. Media should understand that the strange surreal films of Matthew Barney, with their obsession with biological mutation, are statements as powerful, if more oblique, than some Johns Hopkins researcher’s opinion about biotech.

Which is more powerful, art or media? Does that balance shift?

Both are powerful, but in different spheres of the self. Good art has incomparably greater power to fascinate and change the individual and the group of immediate receivers of its messages; media has the greater power to define the external “reality” within which we all live and move, though that definition generally includes banality, predictability, and other things that do not fascinate.

Are there examples from your field or career that illustrate how art and media work in symbiotic or opposing fashion?

I’ve just completed editing a special issue of Utne Reader on the arts in which we tried to discuss and profile a very wide range of artists in a way that would be both sophisticated and accessible. Trying, in other words, to do what good media practice demands–reach out to the maximum number of readers–without sacrificing too much sophistication where the art is concerned. The symbiosis we tried for was a sort of statement: “You, the ordinary, intelligent reader, don’t have to be afraid of the demands that advanced art puts on you. We are trying to show how vital and worthy of your attention the whole art scene is, even if at first glance it looks forbidding and elitist. We are trying to encourage the reader to see the arts as something worth engaging with, as you would engage with any complex and meaningful issue in your life that has no easy answer–parenting, being a good citizen, etc.” We tried to say that art is not merely for relaxation and “vegging out,” as it is mostly sold to us by the corporate culture.

I don’t know if we have succeeded, but I appreciate media that try to keep this balance. New Art Examiner [now sadly defunct] in Chicago, though a true art-scene mag, is more thoughtful and issue-engaged than, say, Artforum from New York, with its insider-y tone. I think mostly media are rather unimaginative in the way they bring their role and art together: reviews are the main way, of course, and you get the closest thing to a sort of accessible coverage of sophisticated art in something like the Arts and Leisure section of the New York Times. But even there the taste is pretty stodgy, and the emphasis is on established and very well-funded art. Mostly I think the mass media perpetuate the bad idea of serious art as basically for coteries, and that art cannot touch large numbers of people unless it is amalgamated somehow with popular culture. There is truth to this–it’s an objective problem–but the media are not helping interpret and frame uncompromising art as the valuable thing it is. A problem here is that mass media inevitably flatten everything, and you could say that we get just as flat a picture of our politics as we do of our art.

At what point do media and the arts converge?

At several points. First of all, as I and my colleagues have tried to show in our special issue on the arts, due on newsstands at the end of November, many sophisticated artists are giving their work a big-media sheen today. Matthew Barney, mentioned above, is a sculptor who happens to make big-budget, very professional-looking films that are nonetheless as artistically demanding as anything in the galleries. This seems to be a reaction against an older ethos of experimental film, coming out of conceptualism, that said all experimental film needs to be grainy, black-and-white, and dull-looking. DJ Spooky is a hip-hop DJ whose work is carried out in clubs, but who has a real artistic ambition and a sophisticated view of history and culture. Then there is the huge question of the tolerance (or lack of it) of our large media conglomerates for the production of real art–real, good novels coming from massive publishing houses. Clearly, in publishing we are in an era in which most new good writing simply has to appear in the nonprofit press first.

What is the purpose of art? Of media?

These questions are so huge that I will go short and aphoristic. The purpose of art is to take the top of your head off. It should astonish you with a view of the world, or something in the world, so fresh and disturbing that it sets your whole body going–you cry, you feel, you think at great speed. Eventually, you hunger for a realer, more honest, more beautiful world. This hunger doesn’t come as a direct response to the “message” of the art (I am never incited to change the world in the way that some propagandistic artist wants me to), but simply because the good work of art has so vivified your senses and your feel for life that you can no longer tolerate numbness, routine, or received truth.

The ideal purpose of media is to convey news and opinion compellingly and truthfully. The real-world purpose of media is to deliver a consumer to an advertiser. In a capitalist system this is important, and I do not denigrate the latter, as much as I wish we did not live under a system that makes it necessary. But when media become mere product, as they are doing under the current corporate regime, they lose their reason for being, they become illogical and self-canceling. A product is an engineered commodity made to please a buyer. Information and opinion exist to change and edify a citizen. Human beings can be temporarily flattered by being considered merely consumers, but ultimately the portion of them who are dissatisfied with this state will rise up, create newer and realer media (it has happened twice in my lifetime, the underground press, now gone corporate, and the zine world) on the margins, where 80 percent of the most vital, if not the most professional or technically perfect, stuff happens.

What’s exciting or encouraging about the current state of media, the arts, and their roles in everyday life? What’s discouraging or boring about those same things?

I’m encouraged by:

Mixmaster artists, who fuse disparate genres and styles restlessly and inventively. Singer Lila Downs. Installation artists (who fuse painting, architecture, performance, sculpture), and on and on.

The incredibly vital zine scene–from tiny, self-published pocket philosophy mags to big, glossy, strange art pubs.

A trend in American poetry and prose to fuse avant-garde language experiments with emotionally charged approaches to experience (see Fence magazine, the work of young poets like Joyelle McSweeney, and fiction writers like Ben Marcus).


Corporate arts sponsorship that lets arts survive but only as accomplices of the corporate culture–“partners” of the bottom-liners.

Media conglomerates and information and opinion as product (see above).

Corporate censorship when policies or persons in the parent corporation are critiqued in a book or TV show produced by the same conglomerate.

The commodification of arts as entertainment, leisure activity, instead of rigorous and noble means of engaging with the world.