Did Bloomberg Just Betray the Arts?
While catching up on the world via Twitter Monday morning, I saw a few different mentions of the announcement by Bloomberg that… well, why recap it myself when the LA Times already did such a nice job?
Bloomberg, the New York-based financial news giant, is shutting down its Muse brand of cultural journalism and has laid off its theater critic. The shake-up was part of a company-wide reorganization that came down on Monday and resulted in layoffs around the newsroom.
Bloomberg plans to continue to cover the arts, but with an emphasis on luxury. In an email sent to employees on Monday, Bloomberg editor-in-chief Matt Winkler said that the company has decided “to scale back arts coverage and no longer use the Muse brand."
He said Bloomberg will align its leisure reporting with its luxury channel on its website, and with Pursuits, its magazine for wealthy readers.
Every comment that I saw on Monday regarding Bloomberg’s decision seemed to fall somewhere between "passively disgusted” and “homicidally outraged.” A lot of people with an interest in the arts, whether professional or purely recreational, are still clinging tightly to the would-be sanctity of high culture. In their eyes, Bloomberg is sucking the soul from this hallowed subject as surely as a Ghostbusters’ trap would clear out a haunted library.
As anyone reading this blog would probably guess, I don’t plan on adding my voice to the war cry. Partially because Bloomberg is a private enterprise, not a democratically controlled public institution, and therefore has the right to expand or reduce their coverage however they see fit. But more importantly, because their choice feeds right back into my core thesis about the art market.
The key sentence in the LA Times excerpt is the one that the other critics I mentioned have all been rallying around with torches and pitchforks: "Bloomberg plans to continue to cover the arts, but with an emphasis on luxury.“ Let’s take a step back and consider that idea for a moment - not to assign some kind of moralistic value judgment to it, but instead, to marvel that it’s even possible.
What do I mean by that, exactly? I mean that Bloomberg, one of the world’s largest and most respected news organizations, surveyed the landscape of the arts in all media, and came to the conclusion that, today and into the future, there is a way to consistently report on the field that ostensibly has nothing to do with culture (in the high-minded sense of the word), criticism, creativity, emotion, philosophy, education, or any other role that the arts have traditionally played in the history of human civilization; that there is now a point of view in which the arts can be seen solely as luxury goods; and that research suggests their audience not only agrees with this approach, but finds it a worthwhile enough branch of reportage to justify its existence under the Bloomberg masthead.
In brief: Bloomberg believe that the notion of the arts as pure luxury good, pure commodity, pure asset is here to stay - at least for their customer base, particularly their "wealthy readers.” And that seems to solidify the sea change in the perception of the arts that I believe has been gradually taking shape over the course of the past 15-20 years.
However, one of the reasons I see this decision as a couple of orders of magnitude less dramatic than the Earth cracking in half is Bloomberg’s identity. The heart of their business is financial news. They are not the LA Times or the New York Times or the Washington Post. Their mission is to serve a very particular slice of the population - likely even more particular than the average major newspaper or website, each of which is of course targeted to a specific range of demographics. Bloomberg is not suggesting that the entire world predominantly views the arts as luxury goods - only that their readership does. Frankly, I’m somewhat amazed that they had a dedicated cultural arm to scale back in the first place. That isn’t a jab at their history, just an acknowledgment that traditional arts reporting doesn’t seem to me like it ever fit with the primary job they set out to do.
In other words, I don’t think Bloomberg’s shift should be interpreted as a warning sign that the same mutation is ready to spread to other major news sources, or that humanity as a species now only looks at artwork and sees the equivalent of a stock ticker. I think the scale-back is more a reflection of their revised understanding of their own particular audience. Still, given that that audience is also more likely than almost all others to actively buy and sell art for the foreseeable future, Bloomberg’s decision to focus on the arts as luxury suggests a fundamental transformation in the implications of the term “art collector." Whether it’s an evolution or a devolution is still very much up for debate. But regardless of where you come out on that split, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to pretend the question’s premise is bogus.