Jan 8, 2011

Some Characteristics of Cultural Magazines

Cultural magazines are characterized by:
1. low circulations,
2. low revenues,
3. under-staffing,
4. volunteer support,
5. great longevity.

Some Definitions

Cultural magazines are devoted primarily to works of art, which can be defined for discussion purposes as (in the words of Hannah Arendt):
those objects which every civilization leaves behind as the quintessence and lasting testimony of the spirit which animated it.
Works of art are not consumer goods:
Art works are distinguished from consumer goods whose duration in the world scarcely exceeds the time necessary to prepare them;
Nor are art works the products of action:
such as events, deeds, and words, all of which are in themselves so transitory that they would hardly survive the hour or day they appeared in the world, if they were not preserved first by human memory, which weaves them into stories, and then through our fabricating abilities.
Art works are the most durable of things, and partake of timelessness:
From the viewpoint of sheer durability, art works clearly are superior to all other things; since they stay longer in the world than anything else, they are the worldliest of all things.
Art works (and the magazines devoted to them) have a distinct place in society:
They are the only things without any function in the life process of society; strictly speaking, they are fabricated not for mankind, but for the world which is meant to outlast the life-span of mortals, the coming and going of the generations.
Not only are they not consumed like consumer goods and not used up like use objects; they are deliberately removed from the processes of consumption and usage and isolated against the sphere of human life necessities.

Magazine Categories

Magazines devoted to “the sphere of life necessities” are classified on the Mags Canada website under several headings:
Family, Home, Garden
Lifestyle and Travel
News, Opinion & Business
Sports, Hobbies & Recreation
Magazines devoted to cultural subjects outside the “sphere of life necessities” are listed under two headings:
Literary & Culture
Visual Arts
(the Mags Canada website lumps Visual Arts and Entertainment into the same group, which is a significant categorical mistake, even though none of the magazines listed in the group are entertainment magazines.)

Mission Statements

Cultural magazines have a difficult time saying what they do in a way that differentiates them from each other and/or makes them appear interesting to a casual browser, as these examples taken at random from the Literary Section of the Mags Canada listings demonstrate:
“offers the best in narrative, photography, comix, poetry, puzzles, weird cartography and offbeat literary contests”

“publishes engaging, eclectic and challenging writing and art by Canadian and international writers and artists.”

“Each issue of this award-winning magazine is packed with stories, poems and creative non-fiction by emerging and established writers. “
These difficulties of definition are intrinsic to cultural publishing, which cannot be said to fulfill the consumer need for information required in the daily pursuit of everyday life, whether for entertainment, news or recreation.

Cultural publishing, although it knows it when it sees it, is not yet able to say what it it sees and knows and that its current and prospective readers see and know.

Publisher and Reader

The role of the cultural magazine publisher extends to the role of curator and patron of the arts; roles that are also played by the readers of cultural magazines.

Readers of cultural magazines may be characterized as having leisure time to devote to cultural activities –
– as opposed to recreational time, which is devoted to entertainment, hobbies, sports and other diversions.
The readership of a cultural magazine consists of connoisseurs with varying degrees of sophistication and a range of tastes that determine which magazines will be read by any individual and how the work presented will be judged.

Cultural magazines must cultivate a readership of connoisseurs rather than an audience of consumers.

Cultural magazines have small readerships that appear to have very little cross-over. A study of this total readership would be a big step toward understanding this fragmented audience.

Cultural Magazines are collectible rather than consumable

Each issue of a cultural magazine adds itself to the previous issues, without replacing any of them, or reducing their relevance.

These qualities make it difficult for cultural magazines to achieve the effect of immediacy or timeliness attained by magazines in other (non-cultural) categories.

On the other hand, each issue of a non-cultural magazine is replaced and made obsolete by  succeeding issues. Hence the logic of the standard newsstand system of cover-only returns.

Marketing and distribution models must be designed to reflect the timelessness of the cultural magazine.

The Mags Canada newsstand system of destroying “obsolete” copies contradicts the cultural magazine mandate, which reflects timelessness and accumulation rather than periodicity – copies unsold when a new issue appears are still valid as they ever were and could or should be retained for further circulation. (Several ways of achieving this can be imagined.)

The Entertainment Spectre

Although Mags Canada does not display any “entertainment” magazines on its website, it does maintain an open slot for them (on one of its pages) in the double category of Visual Arts & Entertainment. This may be an unintended hangover from the Free Trade Talks, when the Americans were demanding the elimination of public support of culture on the grounds that such support constituted unfair competition to the American entertainment industry.

In the American argument, all of Culture is subsumed under Entertainment.

Culture and Politics

“The common element connecting art and politics is that they both are phenomena of the public world.”

The argument for cultural publishing begins with understanding that works of art, in Arendt’s words, “must find their place in the world,” just as the “products” of politics, that is: words and deeds, also need some public space where they can appear and be seen, where they can fulfill their own being  in a world which is common to all – that is, the public commons.

Art objects cannot attain their inherent validity in private: they must be placed in the care of the keepers of public spaces, or the publishers of cultural magazines:.

Generally speaking, culture indicates that the public realm, which is rendered politically secure by the words and deeds of politicians, offers its space of display to those things whose essence it is to appear and to be beautiful.

In contradiction to this notion of culture, the arm of government known as Canadian Heritage has erased the concept of cultural publishing altogether by renaming it “micro-publishing” and deleting it from its list of heritage activities.

A Panel to Consider the State

A Panel to consider the state of Cultural Magazines might consist of four publishers, each of whom to offer a (possibly revised) mission statement for their magazine, and a brief account by each on one of the following subjects:
 – how circulation works in their magazine
 – how funding works in their magazine
 – how editorial and other tasks are handled
 – how longevity seems to have been achieved