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The Internet Publisher’s Lament

This weekend I got word that the Houston Press, my city’s longtime alternative weekly paper, is going online-only.  I received the news via a text message from a friend. He complimented me on being ahead of my time.

As an Internet publisher, however vindicated I should feel (and however long it’s been since I actually read the Press in print), I find myself mourning this news.

In the summer of 2000, I purchased the URL glasstire.com, with the intention of creating a website dedicated to visual art in Texas. Today, many redesigns and many thousands of articles later, Glasstire is the oldest online-only art magazine in the country. We have never published a print edition, for the simple reason that print is a money loser. It’s expensive to produce and distribute heavy piles of dead trees. By contrast, Glasstire cost $35 to start up. That was the price for a URL in the year 2000.

I think about what life was like 17 years ago when I started Glasstire, and frankly it’s hard to remember. There was no social media. No streaming video. No wireless Internet. Many galleries we dealt with didn’t have websites or even email addresses. For years, people would send us slides or postcards in the mail, which we would scan.

We knew things wouldn’t continue this way. But it’s one thing to have a sense about what’s coming down the pike; it’s another thing to actually live it. There is always something unforeseen in the foreseen.

We knew newspapers and even magazines were a goner, eventually, but it didn’t sink in what that meant. Today, there are only two full-time salaried visual art critics in Texas — I’m talking about people who only write about art. And they both work for Glasstire.

There’s no sugarcoating it: this week’s announcement is bad for the Press. Many people are losing their jobs because of this transition from print to online-only. But the Press’s demise as a print journal is also just a smaller piece of a much bigger transition we’re all making together. Because of course, as goes the Houston Press, so too shall go the San Antonio Current, and the Dallas Observer, and the Austin Chronicle, and eventually, every daily newspaper, every magazine, and even every book. The writing is on the wall.

And I like the Internet. I probably spend a majority of my waking hours on it. I find information in seconds that would have taken hours in the past. I read delightful, well-written articles about subjects I don’t know anything about (baseball). I discover books to read and TV shows to watch and recipes to cook and old friends to connect with.

But it’s also clear that our natural tribalism and our tendency to want to see things in black and white with no vague gray area — in short, the strategies that have enabled our species to survive for millennia — are metastasizing via the Internet, splintering us into ever more discrete and tiny factions, blinding us to the reality that most of the time, things simply aren’t black and white. Most things don’t clearly require a fight-or-flight response. Which is totally okay, not that our lizard brains are good at realizing it. And so we panic and flail and get into passionate arguments with strangers on Facebook.

Glasstire has taken me from being a young to a middle-aged person. I’m at an age now where I have a clearer sense of the rolling tides of generations coming and, inexorably, going. I see the direct sequence back to events like women’s suffrage or the Civil War or the writing of Hamlet or even the construction of the pyramids at Giza, and I realize those events really weren’t so long ago — it’s just links coming forward from our collective ancestors to us. My parents’ generation, the last to remember life before TV and video games, will be gone soon. My generation, the last to remember life before the Internet, will follow swiftly behind, and then there will be no living memory of the morning newspaper as a physical object.

It’s a death. At the risk of sounding apocalyptic, we are all collectively experiencing a death, not only of a type of technology for acquiring information (i.e. print), but a way of life — and, critically, a way of our brains functioning — that has existed at least since the invention of the printing press.

The simmering fear we’re feeling as a species as we experience the early throes of this death is manifesting itself in the rage and anxiety, the bafflement and violence and tragedy, that screams at us from our various devices every day: We Are Fucked!!! TIME TO PANIC!!!!

(This article took me two days to write. When I started, there were at least 26 people alive in Sutherland Springs, Texas, not two hours from where I live, who are now gone. The deaths resulting from one sad loser’s fear and nihilism, once again, are literal as well as figurative.)

It’s hard to talk about in the shadow of our latest mass shooting, but anybody who’s experienced the death of a loved one knows that life does go on afterwards. Things continue, even when it seems strange or impossible that they should do so. There is going to be something on the other side of this death of print media we are collectively experiencing. These are the early stirrings of a profound shift, most likely an evolutionary shift, towards a new kind of life, even a new kind of humanity. Print is going the way of the dinosaurs, just like dying from cancer or not being able to easily travel in space will. Put simply: what we’ve always needed to do as a species to survive is changing. Our survival strategies, hard-wired though they may be into our DNA, are going to change.

If this makes you feel anxious (and it does me, and it is completely reasonable that it would), instead of focusing on the panic of the disappearing analog world we’ve known and loved all these centuries — instead of mourning the print demise of every publication out there, because more will be coming — I wonder whether it is possible to focus on what it is about humanity that will endure through this transition. If we are embarking on an evolutionary transition, what is it about our species that we want to endure? Is there a way to make that happen?

Practically speaking, this news about the Houston Press comes at a moment when I’m questioning how I want to live my life. I wonder: do we want our days to be dictated by the dozens of emails we receive every day? Must we really devote our limited time to whatever trivial push notifications app developers foist on our phones? This week I asked this question in the form of a statement on Facebook: I said was thinking about going back to a paper system for keeping track of tasks. (I’ve tried a number of productivity apps, and they all exhaust and bore me, making me feel more out of control than I do without them.) I couldn’t believe the number of responses my mundane observation got. Apparently, there’s a reason there are so many mindfulness apps and coloring books and warm fuzzy productivity solutions that tell us we’re creative. I’m not the only one feeling anxiety and thinking that maybe I should pick up a pen more often. (My new At-A-Glance calendar arrived yesterday — via Amazon. Thanks, Internet!)

Which brings me, finally, to art. In the midst of all this anxiety for things that are passing (which includes the gallery system, art schools, and other things specific to art-making), one of the things I’m not worried about is art. Art is going to be fine. I don’t think this habit of manifesting ideas is going away, certainly not anytime soon. I think whatever our future holds, there will still be the pleasure of sudden familiarity—the aha! of recognition that any great artwork or story or play kindles in us. And I take comfort in that.

It’s Monday morning. A new week. Time to start writing stuff down.

Mary Pickford reads the news, 1910.

 

also by Rainey Knudson
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6 Responses

  1. Thoughtful piece. And Glasstire has provided many former print writers a new space. And about that “metastasizing via the Internet” — the hard wired mimetic tendencies of humanity are indeed amplified in cyberspace. Just something to think about…

  2. Ben

    Thanks for this great piece, and for Glasstire.

    This is embarrassing for me to say but, until reading this, I didn’t actually realize that you paid full-time salaried art critics. I just assumed without checking that (like every other website!) you relied on freelancers. I’m very happy to have been wrong about that.

    So, THANK YOU for providing full-time salaries for the important work of criticism.

    1. Rainey Knudson

      Thank you, and to be clear: Christina Rees and Brandon Zech are on our staff full-time, but most of our writers are freelancers. So we do depend on freelancers quite a bit (thank you writers!)

  3. Bored Member of Houston

    I wish the Houston Chronicle depended on freelancers for art writing. The 4th largest city in the US doesn’t have a critical arts writer. Thanks for all you do, GlassTire.

  4. Richard Soler

    Rainey–I decorated a party for you when you were a teenager with a western theme. Talk about time going by and being in a new place because of it! Thanks for Glasstire and the awareness you create! Coming late into the fine art field, your publication is a good guide for all that is happening in the state. Thanks and congratulations!

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