January 29, 2019

Doing the Work: Carolina A. Miranda and Siddhartha Mitter in Conversation

Photo: Carolina Miranda

Octavia E. Butler, Notes on Writing, part of Octavia E. Butler: Telling My Stories at the Huntington. Photo: Carolina A. Miranda

Carolina A. Miranda and Siddhartha Mitter are two of the most insightful arts journalists working today. Between them, they have bylines most everywhere, including briefly overlapping at WNYC/New York Public Radio (where I was working when I met Siddhartha, and began avidly following Carolina’s gif-infused dispatches). These days, Carolina is on staff at the Los Angeles Times, and Siddhartha travels widely from his Brooklyn base for a variety of publications and projects, including The New York Times and Artforum. As the industry continues its nosedive, imperiling nuanced arts coverage, they remain witty, wickedly incisive forces for good. What a pleasure to have them in conversation here. —clr


Siddhartha Mitter: Let’s start with the fact that neither of us is in Miami this week. 

Carolina A. Miranda: Hell no!

SM: I’ve actually never been to the whole Miami crazy art week.  

CM: I did it a couple years in a row when I was a freelancer. I’d do little bits for WNYC, but I wasn’t really doing a lot of reporting. It was just an excuse to go look at things. And then I would do weird things, like visit the Elián González house or the tombs of Latin American dictators. I just don’t think an art fair is a story. 

SM: I suppose it’s a vessel of stories for people who are in the trade press. Which you and I are not; we’re looking at the craft and the culture, but we’re not in the position of the industry press.

CM: Exactly. A lot of people who go there, they’re covering the wheeling and dealing, they’re doing those comparisons of, you know, what David Zwirner is showing this year versus what he showed last year. And that’s just not the kind of reporting I do. There’s so many writers that like to complain about how terrible art fairs are, and then they go cover them assiduously. So I figure, I’m doing my part for humanity by not covering them at all. 

SM: I’m still fairly recent in really focusing on the visual art scene; coming in from other areas in culture journalism, it’s not that complicated to engage with it in critical and aesthetic terms, or in sociocultural terms. But the market is extremely strange.  

CM: What makes it so strange?

SM: Well, these are culture products that are also an asset class; the art market has the traits of a speculative finance market as well as the traits of books and music, which are not speculative goods. The worth of an object, or of a product, is in part about its public resonance and in part about whether or not it can allow its maker to sustain a creative life. How it serves as an investment object for the person who bought it pulls things in a lot of directions at once, and it creates a strange culture.  

The Art X Lagos art fair. Photo: Siddhartha Mitter

The Art X Lagos art fair. Photo: Siddhartha Mitter

CM: The thing about the market is that, in general, we’re talking about this fragment that is actively traded. And within that fragment, this little itty-bitty fragment that’s traded for a lot of money and generates a lot of headlines. The money’s easy to talk about. Like, the David Hockney painting that sold for however many millions of dollars at auction a couple of weeks back, we can have this whole discussion about what makes that painting significant and Hockney’s role in portraiture and in painting Los Angeles and in depicting gay life. Or you can reduce it to price: “Oh, it sold for ninety million, so therefore it must be important.” 

SM: One of the weird things that “commercially successful” artists have to do, which is different than what a writer or a musician might do, is they have to figure out how to manage their market. There was a very interesting piece a couple of months ago in The Wall Street Journal about Njideka Akunyili Crosby. One might have thought that it was going to be a profile of her, but it was really a market story.

CM: She is also in Nathaniel Kahn’s new documentary, The Price of Everything. I don’t know if you’ve seen it yet?

SM: I have not.

CM: He follows several individuals who represent various layers of the art world: Amy Cappellazzo, representing Sotheby’s, and Larry Poons, the older artist who the market’s no longer enchanted with. Jerry Saltz makes an appearance. There’s this scene with Njideka, who has had a fairly meteoric rise; she had sold a painting to someone a couple years back and now she’s watching it go to auction. Kahn puts a laptop in front of her, and she watches her painting, which she probably sold for five or six figures, sell for vastly more than that. You see the sick look on her faceshe’s essentially had this creation turned into a flip. 

SM: Very quickly. 

CM: That scene shows you how fast that system can put an artist in its maw. And then the artist has to figure out how not to get chewed up.  

SM: I like what she did just recently, which was to give a work for the Studio Museum auction, which proceeded to go for a very similar price, nearly $3.4 million. But that now goes to the Studio Museum, so it’s her working the timing and the fact that her “market” is so high. It’s an elegant piece of counter-programming.  

CM: Yeah, it’s not an easy time to be an artist. There is this polarization we face in society, that we also face in galleries. There’s always been a hierarchy: the scrappy artist-run spaces; the mid-range galleries where you can buy work by emerging artists, and where artists could begin to make a living doing what they’re doing; and then you’ve got your high-brow and your blue chip — someone like Gagosian being an example of the blue chip. And what’s been happening is that those mid-range galleries are disappearing. Places like LA and New York are really expensive places to run a gallery; people go to art fairs now to acquire art, so having that storefront space doesn’t always make financial sense. I think the big question hovering in everybody’s mind is, if those galleries cease to exist, what happens to this critical step for artists who are beginning to find their voice? 

SM: For example, some news that just broke here is the closing of the Steven Kasher Gallery, in Chelsea. Kasher is a gallerist who has a very long commitment to progressive work; and he’s probably the white gallerist who has the most in-depth engagement with Black documentary and art photography now, among his other interests. His gallery is closing and he’s becoming a director at Zwirner.  

CM: Wow.  

SM: I haven’t spoken to him since the news broke, but from the email that he sent around, it does not at all imply that he’s bringing the photography practice to Zwirner. He’s talking about finding new homes for his artists. That was a hard email to read. 

CM: Kasher represented people like Martha Cooper, who was instrumental to recording graffiti in New York City — I can’t imagine a blue-chip gallerist like David Zwirner showing her work. So what does a photographer who works in that vein, that isn’t something that perhaps appeals to the blue-chip types, do? Who buys it? Who engages with it? Who criticizes it?  

Carolina Miranda interviewing architect Jorge Gracia. Photo: Marcus Yam.

Carolina A. Miranda interviewing architect Jorge Gracia. Photo: Marcus Yam.

SM: This is probably the right point for us to note that the same elimination of the middle has been taking place in the art press, and in the press in general.  

CM: Yeah. Here in LA, it’s been the annus horribilis. The LA Times has a happy story to tell for now, but we had a year in which LA Weekly was bought by a group of anonymous investors that came in and immediately eliminated all of the editorial staff. It turned out that it was a group from Orange County, libertarian-leaning, not as progressive, not with the alternative weekly worldview. Since they’ve taken over, it’s been cheery celebrity profiles and stories about cannabis (because apparently some of them have cannabis businesses). LA Weekly has historically been this absolutely vital voice in Los Angeles. Jonathan Gold emerged out of LA Weekly — his singular views of food, that was cultivated there. 

And then there was the case of LAist, which was trying to unionize, like their sister site, Gothamist — and their owner didn’t want them to unionize, so he essentially had this petulant rich guy shit-fit and shut them down. So in a span of months here in Los Angeles, you had two essential voices for coverage of art, politics, music, culture just go away. It was devastating. Those places are really important incubators of talent in terms of writers and they’re really important sources of criticism for the artists who are featured in their pages: maybe you don’t get the big review by Christopher Knight in the LA Times, but you get something smaller in LA Weekly and that’s the start of an engagement with criticism. 

SM: And of course we had our own parallel horror story here in New York, which is the end of the Village Voice.  

CM: How exactly did that go down?

SM: So we know that rich people buy these outlets, and then they screw them up in one way or another, right? One mode of screwing them up is just outright asset stripping and using the brand for some entirely new purpose, which is pretty much the LA Weekly story. Another way of screwing it up is coming in as a savior and then breaking the toy. And that appears to be what happened with the Village Voice. For a few years under the new ownership, the Voice actually got good again. And that makes it especially sad that they, first, decided to go all digital and get rid of the print edition and then a year after that, shut down the thing altogether. But I was happy to write for them in the last three years of the paper’s existence. You’re a staff lady now, but as freelancers we can be very cynical about the brands that we contribute to, because we know that things can screw up at any moment.

CM: Well, I was a freelancer for eight years so…

SM: Before you moved back into like, the golden pastures. 

CM: Into corporate media! I heart corporate media. 

SM: Yes. But the Voice was the rare outlet that I really felt a special, historical pride to be contributing to. That name and that history: fifty years of the Village Voice and how fundamental it has been in the culture of this city, and the culture of this country. 

CM: When you think about who was sounding the alarm on Trump’s corruption way back when?  

SM: Wayne Barrett!

CM: Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice

SM: I mean, everything goes back to the Village Voice. I suppose it’s a small mercy that it was just shut down, as opposed to turned into a parody of itself like LA Weekly. But it is a loss. More for the culture than for us personally, I think. Those of us who are still in this journalism game, whether as freelancers or staffers, at this point, I think we’re just too stubborn. I mean, we’ve seen it all, right? 

CM: We are the Rasputins of art writers. They can’t kill us.  

On the job in Tijuana, with the street musician El Muertho (The Dead One). Photo: Marcus Yam

On the job in Tijuana, with the street musician El Muertho (The Dead One). Photo: Marcus Yam

SM: Yeah, we have a combination of resignation, cynicism, belief, and stubbornness that is like, “Okay, we’re going to figure it out.” But what the problem is — and this comes back to what you were talking about — is people in the galleries, in smaller museums, in dance companies, in alternative theaters and all of this constellation of independent culture-making that makes the life of a city and of a society — come to you and are like, “Shit, we really counted on you guys.” And with all the alt-weeklies gone or unrecognizable, all you’re left with is people just hoping that they’re going to get some of the very sparse real estate in a few big papers and magazines. Otherwise you’re down to the blogs. And bless their hearts, the blogs cover a lot of stuff, but they don’t pay any money. 

CM: They don’t pay any money. And then the other thing is that it’s often a captive audience. It’s the art world. Part of the beauty of being in a place like the Village Voice, where you’re surrounded by other subjects, or an LA Times or an LA Weekly, is that somebody that had no intention of going to see a gallery show might stumble into your story and be compelled enough to go check it. 

SM: Yes, or go to the museum for the first time in a year. 

CM: The internet has made content delivery (for lack of a better expression) too focused. I still get the print paper on weekends and reading it allows for the happy accident. I don’t follow sports at all, for example. But I find myself reading stories in the sports section; you run into something accidentally and this whole new world opens up in front of you.  

SM: Like the bookstore or the library effect, where you look for something on a shelf and you end up seeing all these other great things. But I wanted to ask you — a lot of us have experienced vicarious joy at the LA Times regaining its independence, and the success of your union drive. And I see that the LA Times is reinvesting in foreign bureaus and things like that. Is there a corresponding expansion in the arts and culture?

CM: We have a brand-new editor of the arts and entertainment section, Julia Turner, who comes from Slate, and I do see the paper investing in someone like her as a sign that culture is worth investing in. There has been so much written, some of it great, some not, about how LA is this rising arts scene, and I think there is a sense in the masthead that that is something we need to cover assiduously, and we can’t let The New York Times do it for us. Because God forbid.

SM: That seems reasonable. What the alt weeklies did — and what, local, regional papers did at their best — was community-building accountability journalism, right? Holding the powerful to account and dealing with mayors and landlords and police departments and all of that. And the other thing they did was culture. The accountability conversation and the culture conversation are so important to a healthy community. Now, it strikes me — and this is kind of the optimistic reading — that slowly the new models are figuring themselves out on the accountability journalism side. Between the non-profit, ProPublica-type experiments, different foundations, and partnerships with existing media, and other new ventures — I feel like at the end of the day, if there’s a corrupt mayor, there will be people going after that story. A whole generation of journalists in the field are going to be left in the lurch, but I think that as a craft or as a practice, it’s going to find its way through. But on the arts and culture side, I don’t see the new models yet. I don’t think there’s the same feeling of urgency.

CM: Culture is not seen as important. I mean, what’s the first thing they cut from an education budget? It’s not math or science, it’s art class. Who are the first writers to get cut from a newsroom? Art writers. Right now, an independent writer can maybe get some foundation grants if they are working on a book project. There are a few grants, like the Warhol, where you can get support for short-form journalism. But for a long time, the Warhol Foundation only funded bigger, more academic stuff. A few years ago they started funding short-form work, partly because I think it became clear that they had to. There are not models for supporting arts journalism, at least financially.

But there are people that are thinking about it. I’ve been part of a group led by Elizabeth Méndez Berry at the Nathan Cummings Foundation. I don’t know if you’ve met her?

SM: We’ve waved at each other over the internet, but we’ve not yet met in person.

CM: The Nathan Cummings Foundation is a social justice foundation that has teamed up with the Ford Foundation to work on this effort called Critical Minded. One of the things that she is focusing on is the overwhelming whiteness of criticism, certainly when it comes to fine arts criticism. We are now at a moment in which artists of color, Black artists, Latinx artists, women artists — are getting more equitable attention institutionally. But the disparities in terms of representation on the critical side remain the same. So for her, it’s thinking about, if we have Latinx artists out in the field, how are we supporting the discourse around them? She often points to the example of when the film Coco was released —  it was not reviewed by a single Latinx critic in an American newspaper, because there were no Latinx critics at American newspapers covering film. But grant cycles work very slowly. So it’s just a beginning in terms of thinking about how to support journalists.

SM: Yeah, I don’t see it either. I was fortunate to get one of the Warhol Grants last year and I couldn’t do some of the most interesting work that I’m doing right now without it — but these are very limited opportunities. They don’t build the field in terms of bringing in new people who would like to learn this work. Because it’s actually not easy work and there is a lot of mediocre stuff passing as criticism. Coming from all quarters. Coming from the fusty, old, typically white male quarters and coming from the quote-unquote “diverse” people who are not being edited properly and who are being hung out to dry when they write something that needs a little bit more thinking.  

CM: That was something that came up in the Critical Minded sessions. One of the big needs is mentoring. The important role that a place like the Voice served was that it became this place for young critics of color to write about music.  

SM: Yeah, and other stuff too. People came through there.  

CM: And it’s where you got edited and it’s where you got your ideas kicked back if they were half-baked. Writing is all practice and one of the things that came up with a lot of younger writers in the room at Critical Minded was, “We do not have that. We do not have people helping us shape our work.” And I feel like unless you have something to replace that entire structure, it’s going to be very difficult to have entire generations of writers who can do the kind of critical thinking that we would want from them.

SM: So we have a problem.

CM: We do. The International Association of Art Critics, AICA,  does an art writing workshop in which a writer is assigned a mentor — I worked with a writer last year, serving as her editor, going through her work and saying, “You might want to open with this idea rather than that idea.” Having those questions asked of your work, it’s so important. It’s what my editor does on a daily basis. The AICA program is great, but it’s, you know, ten people.

SM: Yeah, and editing is great. I think a lot of us who have become relatively decent writers are probably decent editors too, but we just can’t do it all.

CM: Exactly.

An arts reporting workshop in Lagos. Photo: Siddhartha Mitter

An arts reporting workshop in Lagos. Photo: Siddhartha Mitter

SM: But it’s fun. I’m doing projects in various African countries at the moment and when I do culture reporting elsewhere, I don’t like to just show up and do it and leave. I also like to, in some way, contribute to my colleagues who are trying to do the work there. And so we did a workshop with a bunch of Nigerian arts writers, two Saturday sessions with people going out and writing stories in between. I can’t imagine doing the work without that kind of interaction. And instead, whether it’s going into another country or whether it’s being just in our own existing cities, we’re atomized. Freelancers are out there on their own, staff people are stressed out and there aren’t enough of them. And people are put into situations of being competitive with each other when actually the world that we cover is so enormous and there’s room for like, five times more of us than there are. And so there’s a sense of a professional community that is stressed at best.  

CM: Working at an alt-weekly or a place like LAist or the LA Times, it gives you a cohort, it gives you people you bounce ideas off of. A few years back I was at a going-away party at the Times and I was talking to one of my colleagues, Jeff Fleishman, a film writer. He and I were having this very random cocktail party conversation about international film, wondering: What does it mean to have technology that makes it easier to make films? And what does it mean for American film internationally as this tool of soft power? And it ended up becoming a story. We went to the Palm Springs International Film Festival, we talked to film directors from Ethiopia and Guatemala and Hungary and all over. I wouldn’t have done that story on my own. I don’t think either one of us would have.

SM: Yeah, because it emerges through a bull session.

CM: There is the whole cliché of “criticism in crisis” and “the death of criticism” and blah blah blah. I tend to believe that when somebody says something is dead, it will soon be reborn in another form. I think the traditional ideas we have about criticism are changing. Like, in the architecture world there’s a move toward not just focusing on buildings, but on larger questions of urbanism and sustainability, etc. And there’s a sense that readers in general are more interested in thinking about how things connect to one another in a city than they are in the purely formal qualities of one building. And so I think there’s this questioning going on about the purpose of criticism and who it’s for and what topics it touches. And I think that’s interesting and healthy, because I also think, as dire as things seem, would I want a future that looks like the past? Well, not really.

SM: Not at all.

CM: Exactly. For however chaotic and “disruptive” the internet has been, it’s also allowed this flood of new voices. I feel like I would not have a career at the LA Times if it were not for the internet. I didn’t study art. I don’t have a degree in art history. I didn’t go to the Whitney Independent Study program. I don’t have any of the credentials that it would have traditionally taken to write about art.

SM: Same. I didn’t study anything cultural. I studied politics and economics. But I agree — I mean, I love the internet and I love being able to read interesting journalists and critics and thinkers and artists in The Guardian and in Le Monde and papers in other parts of the world. And I’m sure you probably read all kinds of interesting Latin American journalism and criticism that I don’t have language access to; there’s probably great stuff happening in Mexico and in Colombia and all the rest of it.

CM: There is. When institutions crumble, it takes a while to rebuild them and what’s happening now is, we’re in the crumbling phase and the new thing hasn’t been built yet. Or at least that’s what I try to tell myself — that it will be rebuilt in some form! I try to be an optimist.  

SM: Yeah — the thing is that the work continues. Right? And as long as there is urgency, there will be work towards that urgency. And will there be enough? I don’t think that my politics, whatever that means, are particularly different from five or ten or twenty years ago, but I do think that whatever it is that’s going on around us right now has sharpened my sense of urgency and some degree of cultural-political mission in doing the work.

Hanging out in Harlem with artist and educator Maren Hassinger.

Hanging out in Harlem with artist Maren Hassinger.

CM: I agree. My major was Latin American studies with a strong focus on history and that has always motivated what I’ve done: I’ve always been interested in political work, I’ve always been interested in points of view that aren’t always widely heard. And, when you are the member of an underrepresented group, there are things that are revealed to you in terms of general attitudes in the United States. What Trump currently embodies are things I’ve seen in our society all along, you know?

SM: Definitely.

CM: And I feel this responsibility to think about what voices I elevate; however diminished newspapers are, for an artist to get a big profile in the LA Times, it’s still something significant. So I think about the stories that I elevate and how they might land in this moment. Though that’s not the exclusive lens by which I choose stories: sometimes I just want to talk to an artist because I find their work incredibly aesthetically pleasing.

SM: And those are compatible, you know. Those are not —

CM: Mutually exclusive.

SM: Nor are they inconsistent.  

One of the great things about working in culture is that you can’t be Tom Friedman or David Brooks and write the same column over and over, because we deal with creation and creative people. We have to keep learning. And at this point, at age fifty-one, I know that I cannot imagine doing work where I don’t have to learn something every day. Resistance as a practice for me is really about being challenged to think and learn every day.

CM: And to be smart and to be nuanced. Not everything has to be a sensational, conversational, snarky internet bit. Sometimes you’re going to tackle serious things that maybe don’t get a bajillion clicks, but are important to tackle. I also think that we’re not just writing for now, we’re creating this historical record. The way I think about is that I’m writing for the me of the future, the person who’s going to go do some research and is going to stumble onto my story. And what am I telling them? So I think part of my political resistance is refusing to make everything so reductive, to make everything a Twitter headline, to make every story a fun internet story with high potential for going viral — we can’t succumb to that.  

SM: No, we wouldn’t be able to live with ourselves. Or I hope we wouldn’t be able to live with ourselves.

CM: No. Plus it’d be boring as shit.

SM: It would be boring as all shit!  

CM: All the shit in one place.

Let’s talk about something else. You were just in Nigeria, what were you doing there?

SM: I was doing arts journalism. I was looking into the Lagos contemporary art scene.

Studio visit with sculptor Olu Amoda in Lagos, Nigeria. Photo: Siddhartha Mitter

Studio visit with sculptor Olu Amoda in Lagos, Nigeria. Photo: Siddhartha Mitter

CM: That sounds amazing. In a piece you wrote on the Nigerian culture scene for W magazine, you were talking about some of the gaps. In some of those fetishistic stories that you see about places like Nigeria and Mexico City — you know, Mexico City, the new Berlin! — there is this gloss that happens and also this avoidance, certainly in the American media, of class. So you get these very lively stories about all this culture that’s happening, but you don’t really get any kind of analysis on like, well, who is producing this and what allows them to produce it?  

SM: Exactly.

CM: Like, Mexico has a very strong grants program for artists. It’s a government that supports its artists very well. Other Latin American countries don’t do as much, so in terms of being an artist, who that’s available to is a very limited population. So what you see coming out of those countries are sometimes the global jet set, not the country itself.  

SM: That’s true. In Nigeria there’s no government support whatsoever. But at the same time, there is a very strong entrepreneurial culture, which can serve creative people — there’s just a strong sense of individual initiative and hustle, and that can be quite useful also for artists and “creatives.” So that’s one of the dynamics that immediately strikes you when you’re there. It’s quite inspiring, actually.

CM: If the internet has flattened anything, it’s this ability to connect internationally in ways that we hadn’t before.

SM: I love that. I never understand these people who are like, “Oh, Twitter and all that is just people who all agree each other and it’s all this echo chamber.” Quite the contrary! Like, my Twitter feed is people in fifty countries. You know? Let alone communities and areas of interest. Who are these people following?

CM: Yeah, Twitter can be enraging, but it can be funny and ridiculous and sublime. I’ll find myself, you know, reading stories that have run in Spain and Mexico and elsewhere and it’s so rich. And then you can also have these really dumb moments that are amazing too. William Powhida, the artist, he and I just like to send weird images of Joaquin Phoenix back and forth to each other in endless chains. I definitely think it’s a work of art. 

SM: I think you seem like an LA lifer. Am I wrong?

CM: Yeah, I can’t imagine leaving here. You know what it is? The city’s so damn big and so sprawl-y that you just never run out of things, ever.

SM: I sort of feel that way about New York, but it’s stressful as fuck. The cost of living is horrible and the collapse of the public infrastructure is — I mean, it’s quite impressive as a phenomenon, to see the public infrastructure enter a death spiral, but it’s —

CM: Bad, huh?

SM: It’s really, really unpleasant.

CM: Well, LA’s public infrastructure has always been terrible. So yeah, you kind of embrace that when you move here.

SM: I still love your city, and I look forward to being back there soon.

CM: I love it too — it’s an uncouth, bananas mess and I love every square inch of it.

Comments (2)

  • Ann Suter says:

    Yea, Siddhartha!

  • Fantastic dialogue. I’m very interested in the ways dance criticism does and does not fit in this visual arts criticism story. And THANK YOU for noting the absurdity of those “criticism is dead” cries. Onward!

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