Art in the Mass Media

Kim Varstala from the Finnish Institute blogs about the role of art in mass media and the challenges it faces. The text is a part of the institute’s project Visibility and Impact of Contemporary Art in Contemporary Society.

In 2012, the UK communications regulator Ofcom criticised the five main television channels in the UK for spending only 44 million GBP on arts and classical music programming, down from 72 million GBP in 2006. The answer from BBC director-general Sir Tony Hall was clear: arts programming still had its place right at the heart of the BBC. “But I want us to be much more ambitious”, Hall hinted. In October 2013 the funding for BBC’s arts programmes was increased by 20 per cent.

Yes, people now have the luxury of accessing a myriad of information sources, but the proliferation of channels, specialization and niche marketing is now increasingly fragmenting the mass audiences of the past. Leaving some big players with a large loyal following, while the struggle continues for the rest. In recent years, critics have accused the BBC of reducing its arts coverage, including shunting BBC Two’s weekly Review Show to a monthly slot on BBC Four. “The arts have been central to the BBC’s past and are central to its future. As all arts organisations face the challenge of delivering more in a tight economic climate, it is vital that we work together in new ways to create a bigger and better offer to the public”, a BBC source told The Telegraph shortly after the planned £700m overall savings at the corporation were announced.

In the wake of this criticism, the BBC announced that it is to make its “greatest commitment to the arts for a generation”, with a new focus on bringing culture to the masses. In March 2014 The Telegraph reported that the corporation had recruited Sir Nicholas Serota, head of the Tate, and the National Theatre’s artistic director Nicholas Hytner as advisers. Sir Tony Hall, this time around said that he wanted BBC Arts to be as recognisable around the world as BBC News and BBC Sport. So why does any of this matter? Well, media coverage is of immence importance for individual artists, even a “small” mass media audience is normally many times larger than the total number of people who will visit an exhibition of contemporary art in a private gallery. In his book Art in the Age of Mass Media, British art critic and historian John A. Walker says that more and more artists realize the crucial importance of the media to a successful career. Therefore, more and more artists seek to control and manipulate their image and the presentation of their work through the various media channels. As a channel for information, mass media is capable of transmitting culture from any level on a wide scale.

But, since mass media is designed to reach a mass audience, “success” is often measured in quantitative rather than qualitative terms. According to Walker, the division which sociologist Theodor Adorno identified between high art and mass culture remains: “…in terms of hierarchical schema high/middle/low it has been customary to assign fine arts to the top and the mass media to the bottom”, says Walker. Nevertheless, no one should underestimate the power of the media to relay art images, even though the culture associated with the mass media tends to be of low quality, bland, escapist, stereotyped, standardized, conformist and trivial. Because the popularization of the arts, which the mass media facilitates, has contributed enormously when it comes to increasing the size of museum- and gallery-going public in recent decades.

Oh good, so all is well in art-media-relationships? No. The organization Visual Artists Ireland (VAI) researches the presence of art in the media and is continuously working with increasing cultural media visibility. According to the VAI, the lack of critical forums available for friends of art and culture is a neverending story. In turn, this frustrates the effort of those trying to reach, develop and maintain audiences in the arts. Especially within the current climate, where arts and culture are often seen as soft targets for funding cuts and portrayed as unessential luxuries, is it important that the visual arts receive proper media attention.

In January 2014 VAI hosted the first meeting of a ”media working group”, dedicated to developing Irish media coverage of the visual arts. This group has hitherto concluded that there is much work to be done in terms of the media’s appreciation of the vitality and importance of visual arts to Ireland’s cultural life. But, on the flipside, there is also a need to develop knowledge and skills within the arts field when it comes to addressing the media. The language used by art institutions is often woolly, elitist and full of impenetrable jargon. So, in order to develop skills in critical writing, VAI launched the annual Critical Art Writing Award in 2011. It was devised as a developmental opportunity for writers, wanting to encourage and support critical dialogue around contemporary visual arts. In addition, Cristín Leach Hughes of the Sunday Times also conducted a master-class in art journalism for prospective art writers in June 2013.

At the 2013 Get Together-event in the National College of Art and Design, VAI arranged a panel discussion which addressed mainstream media coverage of the visual arts: Publicise, Interrogate, Record. The panel looked at the specific hooks and angles that make the visual arts ‘newsworthy’. The broad term ‘newsworthiness’ was employed to describe content that would appeal to specialist and non-specialist audiences alike. It is the readers and viewers themselves that choose what to give their attention to, ergo, coverage must be made attractive, interesting and relevant to the broadest possible audience.

Current mainstream print and broadcast media coverage is insufficient in quantity and frequency, both in terms of generating publicity about events and exhibitions and in terms of engaging critically. Typically, lone art critics battle with editors for airtime and print space, while television airs programmes at times that suit the ratings chart. This is good business and may appeal to accountants and shareholders, but it does nothing to enhance connecting art to a wider audience. Late night television slots for arts shows have marginalised the arts as a domain of the specialist, and while arts coverage is available online, this largely attracts specialist and/or pre-informed audiences.

An informative and fundamental point is that television continues to be a cumbersome medium for raising public awareness of visual arts events. Radio and print are more flexible media in terms of giving timely coverage. Those within the arts sector that despite this fact would like to increase their visibility on television should consider coverage in local and/or regional magazine-type television news programmes. Another suggestion that has been proposed in order to solve this puzzle is that weekend daytime repeat slots could be utilised for arts programming in order to develop a more diverse audience. As mentioned above, barriers to greater media coverage of the visual arts include the insistence of the visual arts sector on using artistic language in press releases. Meanwhile, the media perception of the visual arts continues to be one of a specialist domain of little interest to broad audiences. One could argue that it would be healthy for the visual arts sector to look beyond specialised arts coverage and examine how activities could cross over into a broader category of ”newsworthiness” such as, economics, sport, politics, agriculture, health, human interest etc. On other hand, the media is comfortable with the specialist jargon used in sports, science and economics – so why should visual arts journalism be any different and be expected to ”dumb down” its own specialist terms?

The VAI panel’s fundamental conclusion is that the way to develop audiences for the visual arts, and to reach the considerable but poorly served visual arts audience, is good arts journalism. Such should appeal both to specialist and non-specialist audiences while patronising neither, offering sophisticated yet accessible discussion and analysis.

Furness, H. 2014. “BBC’s arts coverage must be more mainstream, Lord Hall says”, The Telegraph, accessed on 22.10.2014
Leftly, M. 2013. “BBC to beef up it’s art coverage”, The Independent, accessed on 22.10.2014
Oakley, J. 2014. Advocacy Datasheet #8: Media Coverage of the Visual Arts, accessed on 22.10.2014
Singh, A. 2014. ”BBC making ‘greatest commitment to the arts for a generation’”,  The telegraph, accessed on 22.10.2014
Walker, J. 2001. Art in the Age of Mass Media, third edition.


One thought on “Art in the Mass Media

  1. Yes, it supports independent and non- commercial art and media projects also.

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