Thursday, November 16, 2000

"So Long Owen Findsen, Hello Descriptivism" by Steve Ramos - City Beat - 11.16.2000

So Long Owen Findsen, Hello Descriptivism
By Steve Ramos
City Beat

On one level, this column is a sincere farewell to Cincinnati Enquirer visual arts critic Owen Findsen, whose retirement from the morning daily is impending. A good-luck party is planned Friday at The Carnegie in Covington.

Now, I need to make somewhat of a disclaimer. I really don't know Findsen. We've been introduced on a few occasions, but I wouldn't refer to us as even friendly acquaintances. Still, I wanted to publicly recognize Findsen and his work at The Enquirer.

It's my hometown newspaper, too, so when the visual arts critic at the city's dominant media outlet steps down I wonder what's going to be done to replace him. I value the arts community in Cincinnati. More importantly, I'm aware how crucial it is for The Enquirer to cover the arts in a substantial and serious manner.

All of which explains my farewell to Findsen. I'm a little uneasy that the paper's visual arts critic is stepping down with no replacement in sight. My guess is that local artists and art administrators are uneasy, too.

Decisions by Enquirer editors are none of my business, of course, though I've heard that Findsen's job has been posted. But in light of the recent downsizing of arts coverage into the Sunday food section -- the result being an embarrassing section called Tempo-Taste-The Arts -- I find it hard to believe that Findsen will be replaced in a competent or professional manner.

People might find fault with the editorial assignments given Findsen -- Big, Bigger and the Biggest Pig Coverage -- but there was never any doubt about the experience and the knowledge behind his writing. Now, at a time when many daily newspapers hire critics with no knowledge of the subject they're reviewing, you have to wonder who will take Findsen's place.

"I think it's important for the public to have an experienced critic who can break it down and make an impact," says Dialogue Executive Editor Meg Galipault. "A lot of newspapers hire critics with no knowledge, and that's really a shame. Instead of getting a full understanding of the visual arts, esthetics and some kind of humanity lesson, the readers get what I call descriptivism: 'This is a painting with a blue box and the blue box sits on a green field.' "

At Dialogue, a bi-monthly arts publication focusing on Midwest artists and exhibitions, Galipault knows first-hand how important local coverage is to a city's cultural scene. She also understands the impact an arts critic can make on the local arts community.

"My experience, based on the Columbus scene, is that the local arts critic is vital to the community," she says. "They raise the profile of local artists. Granted, the level of criticism is not what it should be, but at least it's there.

"Daily newspapers have a great responsibility to the community regarding the arts. You're not going to see it on television. And if you are at all concerned about a city's cultural life, you have to report on it."

Some Cincinnati artists currently are planning a letter-writing campaign to protest the recent downsizing of The Enquirer's arts coverage. Key arts administrators hope for a personal meeting with Enquirer Editor Ward Bushee, though it's not clear what their impact might be.

As I said, I care about the quality of arts coverage in The Enquirer. Most Cincinnatians don't subscribe to Art in America or Dialogue. The New York Times covers just the New York arts community and national stories. A weekly newspaper like CityBeat can only do so much when it comes to comprehensive coverage of the visual arts community.

Like it or not, Cincinnati artists and arts institutions need Enquirer coverage. On the eve of Findsen's departure, one wonders what that coverage is going to be from here on out.

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