Dallas is on the cusp of something. Will it seize the moment?
The new Arts District is emerging and Dallas is experiencing an influx of arts faculty and institutional curators and directors. Galleries are closing and there’s tense discussion over the future of the Dallas Contemporary. Recessionary psychology has engendered the first (in my experience), optimistic sense of real accountability: What are you doing for this community?
There’s no doubt that the dovetailing of so many issues and events is exciting, confusing and scary for a city which, in the face of the unknown, can revert to its willfully ignorant debutante act rather than present its thoughtful grownup side. But Dallas has a chance to make a great leap forward in its evolution as a dignified cultural place.
There’s no way to overstate the importance of the role the media can play in this turning point, which is followed by a more complicated and vexing issue about the nature of our established local media. It seems to be mired in a ritual of cultural "politeness." It’s a sort of determined anti-intellectualism or phobia about actual criticism or critical dialogue. I’m not referring to the kind of unchecked shit slinging that goes on anonymously in the blogs and their comments sections. I mean civilized, intelligent discourse.
Of course we know that print media and local television news are hanging on by a toenail. But any city in the world that’s taken seriously as an art city has a larger media to cover its arts in a responsible, passionate way.
This is the point in the conversation where someone around the table says, "And that is happening here, on websites, on blogs." Yes it is. The most interesting local art-world dialogue available these days is on the Internet. Renegade Bus and Art&Seek and yes, Glasstire, among others, are having to do—almost for free and without the reach of general interest print media—a job that should have been gaining ground in the booming economy as things started to build here.
Going with the trend of increasing ghettoization of content, we need to remember that only art lovers go to these websites. I’m neither particularly young or old, and I was raised with a belief in the authority of established print media—the word "accountability" crops up again, this time its value measured against the oft-uncharted and unregulated environment of the web—and I believe in the potential for lifestyle and general-interest rags to extract, from a mass of otherwise disinterested readers, new and unlikely fans of novel stuff. For example, because I scan the New York Times online every day, I know far more about makes and models of new cars, and have in turn become much more interested in where auto technology is headed. The "Automobiles" section and a few enticing words leading to stories about them is on the front page of the Times‘ whole website. I follow the trail. This is good. This is horizon expansion. This is what this metropolitan area needs for the arts right now and more than ever.
Is it just too strange to think that a local reader in search of a restaurant review could stumble across an attention-grabbing, and again, intelligent piece of real art criticism in the lifestyle pages of a major media outlet? And then read it? And then do it again the next month? Before you know it, that person is standing by the water cooler arrogantly extolling the virtues of one museum’s contemporary program over another’s. (Kind of the way I talk about the prospect of the US importing the Fiat 500.)
Right now it feels like that day is too far off, held up for the sake of politeness. Don’t scare the readers (and don’t feed the editors!). Politeness, after all, exists to make others feel comfortable.
I was flipping through a late summer issue of FD Luxe, the glossy Dallas Morning News lifestyle magazine. It shows up free all over Dallas. No surprises here: story on Stephen Pyles’ new joint, an overexcited piece on a personal shopper, a few inches on the disconcertingly hot daughter of the DSO’s new conductor. But wait. What’s this?
It’s an item on local art-scene fixture Amy Revier, recent SMU artist grad. Nice catch, FD Luxe. Indeed she did receive a Fulbright and will use it to study textiles and weaving in Iceland. In approximately three hundred words about the wunderkind, the copy made no fewer than a half dozen references to fashion and Revier’s style sense—fair enough, she’s into it—and granted her one (one) thoughtful quote on why she’s interested in weaving:
"Weaving is a very sensual and demanding process, and the entire body becomes invested in it. The product of that ritual-like performance is the textile. I’m interested in the material I’m making having a much deeper life before it simply becomes clothing."
Which is then immediately followed by the uncredited journalist’s quip: "Got it." As in: Right, cute little Amy. You had to get all heady on our dumbass readers. Watch your tone, missy.
The piece ends with a super-fun: "What do you bet she and Bjork end up best buds?"
Is the journalist twelve? Is the editor? This kind of thing passes for our region’s general-interest print publications’ arts writing. Make it fashionable, snappy, dumb and please, make it fast.
This kind of undermining, condescending journalism is used to kill off any sign of intelligent life. (You know what, FD Luxe? Vogue or Vanity Fair or W, your presumed role models, wouldn’t have pulled that stunt.) The journalist isn’t smart enough or curious enough to follow Revier’s idea, and he or she thinks the readers aren’t either, so they kill the smart ideas with the quip. The editors certainly don’t want to make their readership uncomfortable.
(Little experiment here: CUNT. CUNTY CUNT CUNT. Cunt cunt cunt cunt cunt. Now check your pulse. Did that kill you? No? That’s what I thought. Try this now. "_____ is a total cunt." Fill in the blank with whatever name you choose. Fun, isn’t it? The truth about Texans, really, is that we’re all incredibly, unbearably polite until the moment we’re so pissed off that we suddenly pull out a shotgun and blow something’s head off. Our print journalism could tap into a bit of that reflex.)
A smart media should be the ultimate validator, navigator, bullshit detector and dialogue starter in any market. And it’s time to push the idea—the truth—that thoughtful "criticism" does not equal "negative feedback" or "dense and up-its-ass artspeak." Thoughtful criticism is what readers and watchers here can and will rise to if it’s presented with authority, clarity, wit and honesty. And yes, there are writers here who could rise to that task as well, if given the platform and freedom.
When I first met the writer and Centraltrak director Charissa Terranova—I had recently come back from stints in other cities and she had arrived here from Harvard and was starting to write art reviews for various outlets—I told her that based on my previous experience as a critic I felt Dallas couldn’t handle full-frontal criticism. That it needed arts writers to act as boosters, it needed criticism that was more about optimism than competitive comparisons to other cities. This was 2004, I think. And maybe that was still kind of true five years ago. Even three years ago it wasn’t inconceivable that a wingnut Frisco mom could single-handedly humiliate—in the national news—the entire Dallas art community with a cry of indecency over a Rodin sculpture or whatever she was harping on about that her kid got to see at the DMA.
But now, no. No more pandering to wingnut Frisco moms or their ilk. There is simply too much at stake to let anti-intellectualism rule our cultural existence. People living inside the loop don’t tell that Frisco mom where and when to go to Megachurch, or how many cars her garage should hold. Suburban sprawlers harboring Philistine agendas have no business sticking their noses into our urban, art-receptive community. They don’t live here. They are welcome to visit anytime, and take in some excellent art while they’re at it. There’s conservatism inside the loop too, to be sure—but it’s shrinking with each new generation and with an influx of non-native urbanites who expect a hit of actual culture with their morning coffee.
The somehow-ingrained idea that Dallas must be introduced to difficult or intellectual ideas in small steps—"baby steps" I hear from some camps—is surely not necessary at this point. Art is on top of us, all around us, in our consciousness like never before, thanks to that boom. Even Jerry Jones is installing bonafide international art in the Death Star. It’s so great you can practically feel hell freezing over. So this is our reckoning. The world is watching. Don’t blow it. This new era with all that’s invested is, I believe, too big to let fail.
I call a Bernanke on this front. Thus, I hereby charge (like the Fed charging healthy banks to take over ailing ones) D Magazine, and, god willing, the Dallas Observer, to take up the torch (the DMN, with all its reach, never carried much of a torch for serious art criticism, really, more like a fizzling matchstick scratching out the mantra: "be nice, be nice…") and start covering the arts in an honest, consistent, smart, dialogue-firing way. D Magazine is called D for Dallas, not Plano, not McKinney. BTW, D: Good work on dedicating an entire issue to the new Arts District. Someone had to. You had to. The D empire, unlike most all print media elsewhere, is actually growing, and it doesn’t answer to Belo.
The Dallas Observer is owned by Village Voice Media, for chrissakes—a lefty culture (counter-culture!) conglomerate. The Village Voice weekly itself, in New York, has of course a whole stable of regular art critics that are actively engaged and engaging to a large public. We should have a few, too, and here’s my allowance: even if this smart content is mostly channeled to new online tentacles, as long as it’s mixed in with other general-interest content that the print readership surfs around and reads, it’ll help tremendously.
It can be done.
Look at other markets for inspiration. Writers like Peter Schjeldahl of the New Yorker, Jerry Saltz of New York (and obviously Roberta Smith and Holland Cotter and Michael Kimmelman for the NY Times), Adrian Searle and Jonathan Jones of the Guardian in London, Matthew Collings of England’s Channel 4, Christopher Knight of the LA Times, are all, along with their peers, reaching the consciousness of masses of people in their areas because their clear, intelligent criticism isn’t quarantined to art-only sites or magazines. In fact, London was completely transformed in the mid-90s from being a city with little audience for contemporary art to an art-hungry, art-savvy place. It certainly rivals New York as the contemporary art capital of the world, and it happened so quickly. A good deal of this transformation took place because when Damien Hirst and his cohorts began doing exciting things, the existing press—the whole of Fleet Street—was very quick to catch up, and it did so enthusiastically.
And what a payoff: Between 2001 and 2006, London’s contemporary art market grew 385%. If you throw in all the arts, the city’s creative sector employs nearly half a million people, generates more than £20 billion (that’s nearly $40 billion) annually and now accounts for 20% of London’s wealth. Talk about growth.
You don’t have to tell me that Dallas isn’t London, or New York. But for all our architectural bravado, fantastic collections, market growth and monied patrons, you’d think Dallas would aspire to follow in these sophisticated cities’ tried-and-true footsteps. The arts—"The Arts"—is a massive revenue stream in cities that value the culture it builds within and the culture it imports.
One of the greatest things about Texas is its strong sense of self, its "Don’t Tread On Me" independence, its weirdness and unpredictability and a wealth of intellect and common sense interwoven with graciousness and tact. Thus, I will tactfully but not overly politely press my point here.
I am worried. Often the best predictor of how someone—or in this case, something called Dallas—will behave in the future is how it has behaved in the past. There has been a tendency for Dallas to self-sabotage its relationship to its arts over the years.
But we’ve never had so many stars—and so many obstacles—lined up like this before.
Christina Rees was an editor at The Met and D Magazine, a full-time art and music critic at the Dallas Observer, and has covered art and music for the Village Voice and other publications. She was until recently the owner and director of Road Agent gallery in Dallas. Christina Rees is now the Curator of Fort Worth Contemporary Arts, TCU.
Also by Christina Rees:
State of the Union, Part I
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