16 March 2012

the Big Apple of discord

The other day I received an e-mail from someone named Amanda Ameer with the subject line "Who is the best arts blogger in America?" With a becomingly modest blush, I opened the e-mail but before I could say, "Mirror, mirror, on the wall. . . " I realized it was some sort of contest, so I'm going to be a little vague about some details here, because though I have read (among other very long books) The History of Clarissa Harlowe in its entirety three times and am up for a fourth, if you hand me a set of contest or game rules I break down well before the end of the first page. Phrases like "four round process" do not encourage me to continue.

There are a number of set debates and discussions I find myself impatient with, because I think the premises are false. When people would debate "allowing gays in the military" I would think, this is a pointless debate, because there always have been and always will be people in the military who are attracted to their own sex; the question is, should we spend time and money rooting them out? Or when people discuss low-paying but virtuous jobs vs high-paying jobs with evil (it is assumed) corporations, I would think, this discussion is pointless, because if there's a moral imperative to do good by others, it's not abrogated just because you decide you want a 401(k); if anything, you can do more good if you have greater income and influence. Or when people discuss whether Mitt Romney or Rick Santorum will be the Republican presidential candidate this year, I think, I wonder how difficult it is to become a Canadian citizen? Seriously, what do I have to do?

What I'm getting at here in my usual hilarious but circuitous way is that the whole premise of the e-mail is false to begin with, because there are judges and public voting involved (just like American Idol or Dancing with the Stars!), so they're not looking for the "best" arts blogger in America, which is so clearly a meaningless concept anyway that it's not even worth discussing; they're looking for the most popular arts blogger in America, or at least the one who can get the most votes, as well as the approval of the judges (Nico Muhly, Douglas McLennan, and Katrine Ames, in case you're wondering), assuming of course that the blogger enters him- or herself (something tells me Alex Ross, Terry Teachout, etc, will not be submitting entries).

Also, about those entries: there are assigned topics. Look, I already have a lengthy list of entries I need and want to write, in between attending even more performances and working full time and generally trying to keep my head above water. I don't need more, especially when they're as unnecessary as Topic #1, the only one so far revealed: "New York has long been considered the cultural capital of America. Is it still? If not, where?" (This contest, I will point out here, is sponsored by a New York organization.)

My first thought after reading that (well, after a generalized "no fucking way") was of that old joke: "But enough about me. What do you think of me?" And then my thought was: a false premise. . . . New York has long been the media (publishing, advertising, public relations) capital of America. Who considers it the cultural capital of America? I mean, besides people who live there, or dream of living there? We still live in a movie culture, and you could make a far more compelling case that Los Angeles, the home of the film industry (and the television industry, despite the head offices in New York City), has been the most culturally influential American city of the twentieth century. (I could even entertain arguments that Detroit, home of the auto industry, has had a greater influence on American culture than either New York or Los Angeles. . . .)

Publicity, connections, all that, can help "culture" happen, or help make people aware of it, but let's not confuse the two things. What you have in New York is mostly abundance: lots of great museums with great art past and present, lots of performers, lots of connections, lots of money. That can produce art, but it can also produce conformity; I always think of Haydn's remark about his isolation in the Esterhazy palaces forcing him to become original. (And, since I'm quoting composers, it's inevitable that someone discussing this contest will quote Bartok on competitions being for horses not artists. . . .) Would Emily Dickinson have written better poems if she'd been immersed in the Boston (or even New York) literary scene of her day? Would she matter more or less to us? (Those of us, that is, to whom she matters at all. It's a big, difficult world out there.)

I assume one of the reasons this topic was chosen for bloggers is so that we can make the obvious points about the digital world breaking down these geographic barriers etc etc. But I think maybe what it's done is just create new power structures, ones which are perhaps less easy to figure out than the old "go to New York and work for the Times" sort of power structure. I'm not so sure this is such a good thing, at least for people like me who always have trouble figuring out power structures, which is why I don't like things that obscure the already shadowy structures even further from view.

Here's where I should point out that though I'm probably sounding full of imperious disdain and arrogance, in my humble heart I know that if a contest involves getting people to vote for you, I am going to lose. I'm just not that popular and never have been (and, honestly, I'm an incredibly nice guy! and I'll prove it: this whole thing is clearly designed to drive traffic to the website of the sponsors, Spring for Music, so here it is, click away, and tell them I send my love). I'm always a little doubtful about the need to import even more rejection and humiliation into my life, so I kind of doubt, given the false premises and all, that this whole thing is worth more of my time than I'm giving it here, despite the $2,500 and the tickets to the Spring for Music concerts at Carnegie Hall, which, as I've already pointed out, I'm just not going to win, under the circumstances. (I do find it a little odd that they don't tell us what the programs are; wouldn't that be crucial information for any "arts bloggers" thinking about entering? I guess the assumption is that if it's in New York, much less Carnegie Hall, it's good enough for the likes of us. Old assumptions die hard.) Look, if anyone wants to crown me with immortal digital laurel, I won't object, but you can hardly expect me to read sheets of instructions. But best wishes to all who enter. I'll just sit here, far away from the golden Apple, fiddling away while Rome burns.


Civic Center said...

Well, the bitch never sent ME an invite to participate, so there's that. You are at least more popular in that respect than ME.

Playing around at the margins of journalism and professional press hacks like Ms. Amanda, as we do, is weird. Information really is power, but boy, does it corrupt absolutely, which is why there are professional "message" people being paid to manipulate information channels.

Enjoy the obscurity. There's nothing better in my mind than being a serious cult among the cognoscenti.

John Marcher said...


I hope you submit this to the contest.


Patrick J. Vaz said...

SFMike: Maybe your e-mail address is harder to find than mine? But yes, "the liberty of obscurity" is a phrase that often occurs to me.

And for the record, I'm sure that Ms Ameer is a lovely person.

JM: I really wasn't kidding when I said I couldn't manage to finish reading a page of rules.

Brian said...

Hurray for Patrick! I just now read your post and am comforted and amazed that we are of one mind on this in so many ways.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

I must admit I found your stand more compelling, in that I think you actually could get the votes to win.

I'm thinking of running some sort of similar contest, only the prize would be admission to any Bay Area museum to which I have a membership that allows me to bring in a guest. Your suggestions for topics are welcome!

Henry Holland said...

Los Angeles, the home of the film industry (and the television industry, despite the head offices in New York City)

And the record industry, despite the corporate bean counters being in the (212). Though there were places like Muscle Shoals or Criteria or wherever Tom Dowd was working, a staggering amount of pop/rock hits from ca. 1960-1980 were made in a 20-block radius in Hollywood. There were state-of-the-art studios, top session players/arrangers, the local orchestras provided string/brass parts etc.

All that music you heard in the background on TV shows was done here too. You could make serious money if you were a session player during that time.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Henry, Thanks for making an excellent point. I hadn't realized that.

Civic Center said...

PS: And Amanda Ameer, from all accounts, is NOT a bitch. That didn't quite come off right.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

SFMike: Uh, no, it didn't. Thanks for revisiting it.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Yeah, I like Amanda.

Brian, Patrick is right - you might be able to win the thing.