So many art spaces, but it’s all just self-aggrandizement

Art critics can either take the individuated shapes of social media users, or of multi-personal entities within larger publications. There are bona fide publications for art at Vassar (for example, Vassar Contrast for fashion, the Student Review for the written word). That being said, general publications have the capacity to cover a myriad of topics, but may nonetheless choose to dedicate extraneous space to art. In the case of such a publication, this tendency reveals how editors view themselves as facilitators of what they consider to be worthwhile art.

The volume of content in proportion to other non-arts sections can show the preference of the publications for art over other topics. In some cases, the highfalutin projects covered demonstrate bourgeois artistic sensibilities. Art and discussion thereof does not need to argue for the sake of its own existence or discussion in publications. However, in locales such as the Vassar Bubble and its cousins at other institutions, the way publications engage with art mainly reflects the few people who have fancied themselves curators of what is worthy of being shared. When a publication reviews, highlights and enthuses over irrelevant art, we show that we have irrelevant tastes.

Although the purpose of art may not necessarily be to appeal to the masses, art is often a creature of its time. This is exemplified in the current focus on public art, such as The Miscellany News’ coverage of local artist TC Ik decorating Poughkeepsie with murals for the populace to enjoy (The Miscellany News, “Deece chef enlivens Poughkeepsie with vibrant murals,” 10.03.2019). Moreover, in the case of Vassar, publications like The Miscellany News are able to reward the artistic endeavors of our own on-campus artists, too, as exemplified by a profile of Lofi extraordinaire Marc Indigo, or by various Campus Canvasses, “A weekly space highlighting the creative pursuits of student-artists” (The Miscellany News, “Marc Indigo delivers mellow grooves and Lo-fi moods,” 09.26.2019).

However, well-meaning criticism of art actually relevant to the community which is viewing a publication is often opposed by masturbatory instances of critics writing for themselves, to themselves, on niche topics meaningless to their audience. These often include coverage of myopic music genres and, frankly, artists nobody has heard of or haven’t listened to for quite some time.

Then there’s the phenomenon of cultural and socioeconomic appropriation of music and art by privileged groups. This is exemplified by the coverage of rap and other music genres. Each genre underwent a process in which artists from privileged backgrounds forced themselves in, and were then monetarily supported by consumers from the same group willing to finance the appropriation. In the process, they thereby stripped the genre of its experiential uniqueness. It’s colonialism, but with tunes. Steven Underwood Jr., a writer for prominent Black media outlet Cassius, explains that “The era of Blues, Jazz, Swing and even Country music weren’t only times of glamour forming the necessary framework to an identity erased from 400+ years of marginalization and explanation, but a cautionary tale of what Whiteness will do to you if you’ve the blessing of being young, talented and Black … African-American culture exists in an ethnic void that is fundamentally defined by a history of lacking” (Cassius Life, “The Long History of Creative Theft In Black Music and Arts,” 06.09.18). In various Korners of student publications, we risk becoming Buzzfeed rip-offs, obsessing over inane things like ranking every Kanye West album, as The Marist Circle did recently (The Marist Circle, “Every Kanye West Album: Ranked,” 09.23.2019, The Marist Circle). It’s not about whether minority art is covered—it’s about how and by whom the coverage is done.

This issue is reified in white artists producing art in historically Black genres; think Macklemore and hip hop, for example. A genre which began as uniquely Black was changed by artists who invited themselves into it. In some cases, this has worked as an artistic endeavor. In every case, it’s been in act of white invasion on a nonwhite space.

However, the onus is also on the privileged art reviewer who covers works of art that are particular to minority identity groups, thereby assuming the role of the patronizing curator who deems which may be granted citizenship within the white pantheon of bourgeois art sensibility. This is shown by efforts spearheaded by white students to bring Black artists to campuses, as well as repeated patronizing installations of series covering minority artists in student publications, complete with cute alliterative titles justifying the appropriation.

To better inform and ground my own musings on the state of art coverage by student publications, I examined the Harvard Crimson, as well as our neighbor publication, the Marist Circle. The Harvard Crimson’s Arts online section is, at the time of writing, headlined by a cute graphic labeled with the words “All You Need is Love,” with an additional click explaining it to be a collection of “Essays on Love and Art.” Following this hefty assortment of veritable pieces is the subcategory “Expressions of the Climate Emergency,” represented by the article “Music of the Movement,” by Ilana A. Cohen. The article delves into activism and the music that green movements deploy in order “to transcend a single protest; [song] contextualizes us as part of a movement” (The Harvard Crimson, “Music of the Movement,” 10.01.19). Calculated philosophical reflection on music in activism contrasts our own Climate Strike organizers hastily using songs also sung in the Civil Rights Movement as a futile means of mobilization and self-aggrandizement. Furthermore, collections of entries like Crimson writer Yash Kumbhat’s “Portrait of a Time” invites readers into a writer’s lived experience without obnoxiously relaying the writer’s own personal canon of artistic greatness.

Just as we should observe the physical spaces on college campuses reserved for visual art for the passerby, we should also empirically reflect on the amount of space on a page dedicated to art. Especially when there is a limited amount of physical space, I question why any publication would deprioritize current events or personal stories for something elitist that only reflects a tiny sliver of the interests of the broader community.

Perhaps it is impossible to figure out what proportions of article allotment reflect the readership of a section, or how much reflects the self-absorbed whimsy of the authorship. It is likewise impossible to truly pick the brains of contributors and editors to see if the dedication to the craft of publication is caused by an incessant need to justify one’s own privilege, or whether it truly is their love of art. Perhaps in the world of student journalism, it is all but inevitable that the uneasy push-and-pull of ego-feeding and meaningful appreciation of art eternally continues.

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