Alternative newspapers are an important element in a city's art scene.
In 1928 modernist composer Arnold Schoenberg said that "art is from the outset naturally not for the people," and over the past 150 years or so, plenty of other Modernists have said similar things about their art, and this is certainly true for a lot of their work. But I sometimes wonder if almost all great art is a poor fit with today's culture and in some real way an alternative to it.
All serious art - whether a Brahms symphony, a Basquiat graffiti paintin, a Stravinsky ballet or a T.S. Eliot peom - requres some level of understanding, patience and mental energy on the part of the spectator. The pop culture in which we're immersed isn't like that at all. Intentionally the opposite, it traffics first and foremost in familiarity and ease.
My thoughts about this were triggered by a recent visit to Austin. As I always do when I'm there, I picked up a copy of the city's venerable alternative newspaper, the Austin Chronicle, a weekly that began publication in 1981 and still provides a thorough accounting of the Austin art scene, particularly its music.
When I lived there, perusing the Chronicle was the best way to find out who was playing where and the amount of coverage given to music and the arts convinced working musicians that this was a place they wanted to be. To get a mention in it was to feel as though you'd arrived on the scene.
The country's first alternative newspaper was The Village Voice, established in 1955 in New York City by novelist Norman Mailer and two others. They were convinced that traditional news outlets completely missed most of the city's real artistic energy.
In general, there's far more that goes on in any city than the dedicated writers on the local papers are able to cover, and that's even more true today in our age of shrinking newspapers. Today's alternative newspapers play an important role in a city's art scene precisely because the arts are increasingly understood by mainstream culture as some sort of unnecessary adjunct to everyday material concerns, rather than being an elemental part of what constitutes a good life.
All that isn't utilitarian in our culture today, whether in public schools or news broadcasts, becomes disposable, becomes "alternative" in a sense. This is the great power of alternative newspapers: They are the voice of one crying out in the wilderness. Testifying about what could be understood as important if materialism and utilitarianism weren't so dominant in their power. Every town that hopes to have a vibrant arts scene needs such a voice.