Exploring the role of arts journalists as cultural mediators

Arts journalism should make cultural productions more accessible to the public

Commonly included at the end of a newscast or in the last pages of a newspaper, readers will often find arts journalism, a hybrid creature whose significance is, at times, forgotten. However, the capability of arts journalists to present new perspectives on societal issues makes them important mediators of culture and ideas.

Arts journalists stand between two different fields: the realm of arts and entertainment productions and the media. They can be described as intermediaries who relay information about art productions from the artist to the public. From this perspective, one could consider them to be producers of cultural meaning. Their responsibility could be defined as a mediator role, as described by scholars Thomas Hanitzsch and Tim P. Vos in their study of the different roles taken on by journalists. According to the authors, the mediators use their journalistic interventions to share ideas that are useful in creating social unity.

In the arts field, cultural mediators take on a role that can complement the idea of the mediating journalist. A cultural mediator builds bridges between pieces of art and the audience through different strategies such as guided tours or creative workshops. They also explore the social themes evoked by the artwork. Cultural mediation offers an all-inclusive approach to art, one that invites all members of the cultural field to participate in discussions and ideas related to artwork.

Arts journalists embracing this aspect of their practice is one step towards a better democratization of art. Enhanced accessibility is a good way to fight elitism within the arts field and to encourage more audience members to engage with a diversity of artistic practices.

However, not all arts journalism practices correspond to this model. Art critique writing, which has been central to arts journalism since its creation, can cultivate an inaccessibility of art. In fact, critics have often been considered as “gatekeepers,” especially when it comes to differentiating high art from low art, as defined by Finnish scholar Maarit Jaakkola.

While it is productive for those in the field to critique art productions amongst themselves in order to improve and evolve, it might not be the best approach when it comes to reaching a large audience. In fact, this approach enhances elitism and excludes certain visions and opinions.

Therefore, in order for arts journalism to play an important part in a democratization of arts and to become more accessible to the public, descriptive and analytic texts should take up more space than art critique. Since art productions are often open to interpretation, the vision of one single critique on a piece restricts the variety of meanings available to the public.

In a study by Andreas Widholm, Kristina Riegert and Anna Roosvall, the authors described an increased tendency amongst arts journalists to move towards more descriptive articles, ones that resemble typical news pieces. While an article with a deeper analysis offers broader information on the artist’s inspiration for a work of art, a shorter descriptive piece is more accessible for individuals who may be not as well versed in the arts.

Raymond Bertin, editor-in-chief for the JEU live arts magazine, explained that his publication produces long format articles for their printed publication that provide background information and analysis on complex debates. They also propose critiques that are available on their website two days after the premier of a show.

Analyses, like those proposed in JEU’s printed publications, can arguably provide new perspectives on societal issues. Scholar Chantal Mouffe argues that all artistic productions are political in the context of an agonistic democracy. This term refers to productive conflicts in the political sphere that question the current power structures in place. Arts journalists are embedded in this process as they bring forth these artistic ideas through mass media with the prospect of inciting productive discussions.

Riegert, Roosvall, and Widholm conducted a study in Sweden amongst veteran arts journalism editors from different media platforms. They interviewed them on their impressions regarding the political value of arts journalism. Their research compiled various visions which all explored arts journalism as a necessary complement to daily news. The editors that were interviewed believed this type of journalism was necessary to analyze social and political issues more deeply. Thus, most of them embraced both the objective and subjective aspects of arts journalism as it would question assumed paradigms. These visions confirmed the important role that arts journalists play as educators and mediators.

Some observers consider there to be a crisis in the current state of arts journalism. Jaakkola analyzed the published literature on this subject and discovered five main problematic poles in the current practice of cultural journalism. One of them, commercialization, is defined by Jaakkola as the simple promotion of cultural products to support the entertainment industry. The author explains that scholars are concerned that, from this perspective, journalists would be used by publicists to promote blockbuster productions.

A cultural journalist acting as a mediator would instead intend to deconstruct a work of art to delineate its political and social implications, therefore surpassing its promotion, and  highlighting thoughts and debates related to the work.

Articles produced for outlets like JEU or in the literature magazine Lettres Québécoises, aim to develop a deeper understanding of art. Annabelle Moreau is the former editor-in-chief for Lettres Québécoises and the director of the Société de développement des périodiques culturels québécois, the organization that brings together arts magazines in Quebec.

According to Moreau, one of the most prominent issues these outlets face is distribution. The association developed a distribution network for these productions to promote them among bookstores and other retailers. Nevertheless, their reach remains limited, especially in a digital era which constantly sees new individuals entering the media sphere.

Therefore, cultural magazines can be considered as a media production parallel to arts journalism produced in mainstream media. They have the freedom to offer insight on specific artistic ideas and issues, which is not always the case in larger newsrooms. While the separation of cultural magazines from mainstream media protects their independence and freedom, it also perpetuates the elitist aura surrounding the arts sphere. A more inclusive approach to longer forms of arts journalism would be pertinent to reach a broader audience and fulfill the mediator role of arts journalists.

Collaboration between mainstream media and smaller magazines could serve as a solution towards a democratization of arts through media productions which would give greater visibility to arts journalism while also making room for political and social analyses.

There is a conversation to be had between arts journalists and scholars, one that needs to foster reflection and offer different strategies in order to allow arts journalism to reach its full potential.


Graphic courtesy James Fay

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