The Magazine


Jan 4, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 16 • By DAVID GELERNTER
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I spend part of my time in the art world and part sulking among technologists. The technology world has loads of energy but not enough ideas. The art world has ideas but not enough energy. The "conservative" art world is especially energy-deprived -- the community that believes in the spiritual value of great art and literature; in works of art and literature for their own sakes, not as launch vehicles for ideological warheads. This view is not actually conservative, it's romantic, and has been at war with politicized art since before classical Athens. But nowadays its supporters are mainly conservative and it qualifies (in practice if not in theory) as the conservative view.

It has seemed obvious for a long time, to me and many other people, that the conservative (or romantic) art world ought to publish a New York books-and-arts weekly. New York is the center of American publishing and art, but the New York Times (with its Sunday book review and arts section) is the only serious force in the cultural marketplace. The Times is a liberal newspaper, and naturally covers culture with a liberal slant. It didn't ask for this monopoly position, and tries to be responsible and judicious in wielding its sumo-wrestler power. But the Times just isn't obliged to cover culture from a conservative view-point.

That responsibility belongs to conservatives. Today's conservative political magazines (like this one) offer superb, boffo back-of-the-book culture coverage -- but are not in business to cover the book and art worlds in newsy detail.

The idea of creating this new weekly seems especially plausible right now, in the wake of the '98 elections -- so promising of conservative alienation. Alienation leads to action. If conservatives feel sufficiently unloved, they'll do something to change the cultural landscape. If they are satisfied with the state of affairs, they'll sit back, have another drink, and go on doing nothing. The poll numbers on impeachment should be one more shot in the arm for conservative alienation: The Republican party has achieved new lows in public esteem; the president is aglow with popularity like a great marsh-mallow roasting in a merry camp-fire.

The time is right. But when I ask ranking conservative intellectuals why we can't have such a weekly, the number one response is: great idea; pathetically impractical. In the several years since I first posed the question, hundreds of new technology companies have been organized, business-planned, funded, staffed -- and some have already bit the dust, and some have made it big. Creating a new culture weekly is a different proposition, but maybe not as different as people think. Many technology start-ups are funded by venture-capital firms, but many are backed by rich people, some of whom are searching not for more money but for excitement and a piece of the cultural action. They are approached on behalf of technology start-ups all the time. Why can't they be approached on behalf of revolutionizing the U.S. culture scene?

Let's say one of them funds the new weekly -- call it Alienation. It publishes a few dozen book reviews in every issue, with art and music reviews and fiction and poetry interspersed, and an opening page of short apolitical essays that are so beautifully written, you can't stop reading once you start. Its goal is to publish for a fixed period, say two years, and then gracefully disappear. Its hero is Nanki Poo of Gilbert and Sullivan's Mikado, who volunteers to be executed in a month (thus satisfying a local affirmative-action quota) if only the authorities will grant him permission to marry his girlfriend and begin the honeymoon immediately.

After two years it's possible that another donor will step forward, or that the magazine will be nearing solvency. But as the lovely old folk-saying reminds us, "a water buffalo is unlikely to become airborne even if he spends two years barreling down the runway, and an arts weekly is unlikely to become self-supporting." So, let's assume it dies on schedule. Two steady years of heterodox culture coverage could galvanize the New York (and hence American) culture scene, which is full of people who are unhappy with the regime but lack a place to speak and an institution to rally round. Two years of leadership is enough to create a new movement and new cultural possibilities.

What would it cost? Assume that a reasonable number of copies are printed each week, on actual paper (none of this Web stuff). The bill might come to $ 15-$ 20 million for the whole thing. Small high-tech start-ups routinely raise that much in a second round of financing; some raise it in the first round. It's not such a fantastic sum.