Wednesday, May 5, 2004

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Arts & Ideas, R.I.P. (1997-2004)

The New York Observer's Rachel Donadio reports that in September, the New York Times will be eliminating its Saturday Arts & Ideas section from the paper.

To which I can only say, Amen.

I've never forgiven that section of the paper from running an article back in the summer of 2001 claiming that Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's Empire was "the next big idea" in international relations theory. Based on that article, I purchased the hardcover edition of the book and wasted several hours of my life wrestling with their turgid prose and nonfalsifiable nostrums (Alan Wolfe efficiently dissected the "meandering, wordy, and incoherent book" in this The New Republic review from late 2001).

According to Donadio, it appears I was far from the only one to dislike this section of the Saturday paper of record:

Since its launch in 1997, the section has become a favorite punching bag for intellectual journalists of all stripes, with Mr. [Lee] Siegel shouting where others have only dared to whisper. (In a New Republic article in 1998, he famously called Arts & Ideas "a weekly banana peel dropped in the path of human intelligence.") "The problem with the section was the nature of the section," Mr. Siegel said. "You just can’t isolate ‘ideas’ from the rest of culture, of life."....

Its on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand approach makes for toothless coverage of ideas that already don’t necessarily lend themselves to newspaper word-lengths or style. As one intellectual journalist and Times-watcher summed up the problem: "They don’t use semi-colons."

"I never felt it had a very strong identity," Jay Rosen, a press critic and professor at the New York University School of Journalism, said of the section.

The Observer also quotes from Siegel's hysterical parody of the section:

"Professor A thinks that all urban Americans more than 20 pounds overweight should be exterminated in order to increase leg room on buses and subways. Professor B thinks this violated the civil rights of overweight people. Of course, this is an old argument, one that goes back to the first century, when the Romans would routinely shorten their slaves in order to have a clearer view of the street during rush hours. Professor C thinks that this argument will continue ‘for as long as people share the public space with other people.’"

posted by Dan on 05.05.04 at 03:21 PM


I thought the den Beste thing earlier today was more hilarity than I could stand, and now here's a political scientist making the implicit claim that serious ideas in the field are, get this, falsifiable.

posted by: chun the unavoidable on 05.05.04 at 03:21 PM [permalink]

Now if only they can take an axe to the Sunday Styles section, I'll be happy. Sure, my wife will miss it, but it is hard to take a paper seriously that has a whole section devoted to such newsworth topics as how Viagra has affected the dating scene.

posted by: Patrick on 05.05.04 at 03:21 PM [permalink]

This is will almost certainly be the same fate for liberal radio. There is only so much silliness which will be tolerated by the free market. The NY Times was probably motivated by financial concerns. It had to pull the plug to stop the financial hemorrhaging. I haven’t subscribed to the NY Times in over a year. Why subsidize fools?

posted by: David Thomson on 05.05.04 at 03:21 PM [permalink]

I guess I should try being fair towards the NY Times. Sometimes it does publish something worth reading. This morning, for instance, Nicholas Kristof write a column concerning “Those Friendly Iranians.”

“Finally, I've found a pro-American country.

Everywhere I've gone in Iran, with one exception, people have been exceptionally friendly and fulsome in their praise for the United States, and often for President Bush as well. Even when I was detained a couple of days ago in the city of Isfahan for asking a group of young people whether they thought the Islamic revolution had been a mistake (they did), the police were courteous and let me go after an apology.

They apologized; I didn't.”

See, even I can give the Devil his due!

posted by: David Thomson on 05.05.04 at 03:21 PM [permalink]


Some of the section's screwiness is explained in the article; there was a deliberate decision *not* to write the section for an academic audience. But a) there's a limit to how much non-academics care about arguments among academics in the first place; and b) the way to make a specialized section succeed is by making it must-read for the people who care most about the subject matter. One doesn't title the Book Review toward non-book-readers; one writes it for the book-readers, and the interested onlookers can get a kick out of reading the conversations that they're not part of. I don't buy the gadgets in Circuits, but I read it, and enjoy the sense that I'm reading stories by and for people who *do* buy the gadgets.

posted by: Jacob T. Levy on 05.05.04 at 03:21 PM [permalink]

I will miss the section actually. It was not such a bad thing to have some of these topics broached in the mainstream media. I thought it somewhat of a corollary to the science times section. Imperfect yes, but are really better off without it altogether?

posted by: Mark on 05.05.04 at 03:21 PM [permalink]

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