A Newspaper That Answers `What's News in Art?'

In This Time of Highly Specialized Journals and Insider Publications, One Paper Tries to Demystify Art

`THE FIRST newspaper devoted to art'' claims the promotional leaflet. In fact, more precisely, ``The Art Newspaper'' - as it is plainly called - is devoted to the art world quite as much as to art. ``I think there is a need,'' says Simon Jervis, Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England, ``for a more immediate response to the news than the normal art magazines - which are essentially art-historical in their base - can give.'' He feels that, on the evidence so far of four issues (there are to be 10 a year), The Art Newspaper's concentration on ``news, commentary, and editorial'' is making ``a good effort'' in that direction. He welcomes the contribution.

This new venture, which certainly has all the conventional appearance of a newspaper - size, striking headlines, very short pieces as well as longer, researched articles, different sections, black and white photographs - has an editor who knows clearly what she is after. She is Anna Somers Cocks.

She spoke to me from her London office. Previously the editor of Apollo Magazine (and before that, until 1986, Assistant Keeper of Ceramics at the Victoria and Albert Museum), Ms. Cocks said how, at Apollo, she had been struck by the way ``the art world was like all the other specialized worlds - scientific, medical, whatever: it is fragmented.'' It divided itself ``into modern art, old art, the archaeological people never spoke to the fine art people, people were separated even by centuries : `Renaissance people' didn't speak to `the Goths' and so on! Seriously. There is so much literature coming out now for each specialist that nobody can keep abreast of anything except their own specialization and perhaps one or two other things.'' Her paper brings together as many of these different facets as it can.

She also feels that ``the art world'' is fast becoming ``an art world.'' What happens in one part of the world ultimately affects other parts.

``There is a whole world of art politics now, and law - laws, for example, to control the export of cultural property. So this paper looks at the art world from all these points of view,'' Cocks says.

One result of her approach is a striking internationalism in the paper. News comes from Moscow, Los Angeles, Rome, Barcelona, Zurich, New York, Tokyo, and even from more ``provincial'' places. Museum events are as likely to be noted in Bologna, Lille, or Liverpool as Paris or Munich. The January issue includes pieces about the Israel Museum's new building for modern art and a new art center in Thailand.

Cocks herself ``has four languages,'' but a considerable amount of translation work needs to be farmed out, with pieces arriving in numerous languages. The paper manages to leap over national and linguistic barriers in fresh ways. ``The internationalism of it is a very good thing,'' says Mr. Jervis.

Another enthusiastic reader, Neil Hughes-Onslow, travels extensively on the Continent and in the United States. He describes himself as ``purely amateur'' in his interest in art and ``art gossip.'' ``It is rather difficult to find out what exhibitions are happening in, shall we say, Genoa,'' he says. In The Art Newspaper he finds the coverage ``of things happening so concentrated that `it's almost too much!'''

Mr. Hughes-Onslow, who is on the Executive Committee of the National Art Collections Fund in Britain, praised an interview with Franklin D. Murphy - described by the paper as ``America's most powerful trustee.''

It was an example of Cocks's aim to write not so much about art for artists, as what lies behind the events of the art world.

``For example - if there was suddenly an exhibition of an Italian artist up in the Henry Moore Centre (in Leeds, England),'' then the paper would ask ``what is the international network that got him up there, who's financing it, whose idea was it in the first place.'' She feels that the financing of an exhibition is a ``terribly important question.'' In short, she's interested where the ``power'' lies and who wields it in the art world.

Cocks's idea of her ideal reader seems to be fleshed out by Hughes-Onslow (who wrote the paper a eulogistic letter signed ``Satisfied.'')

``I can't imagine,'' says Cocks, ``that the paper would be of enormous interest to someone who wasn't involved in the art world at all. I think you'd have to be at least a quite keen exhibition-goer, a fairly enthusiastic cultural tourist.''

At the other end of the scale, she envisions readers ``whose meat and drink [art] is, like museum people and scholars.''

Promotional efforts have targeted individuals in the art world almost more than institutions. But the paper is being sold in museums and galleries. The Tate Gallery Bookshop sells some 20 copies of each issue.

I asked Cocks if she might not be giving Europe more attention than the US. She feels it's simply a matter of where you are. If she lived and worked in New York, she has no doubt that her perspective would be different.

``I find that what's going on at the moment in Central Europe - in Germany - so extraordinarily interesting,'' she says, ``that if there's a choice between recording another perfectly meritorious but not exceptional ... tour of an exhibition in the US and recording the cultural changes in Germany, then I'd rather do that.''

Perhaps the fact that her paper has a European ``parent'' - Il Giornale dell'Arte, published in Torino, Italy - also has some bearing. Indeed, The Art Newspaper is dubbed Il Giornale's ``International Edition,'' though it has a considerable degree of independence. Unfortunately for Cocks, this independence does not yet extend to its being printed in Britain. For a week each month she has to go to Turin to actually set up the paper.

``Il Giornale dell'Arte,'' she says, has been ``extraordinarily successful in Italy because, unlike 99 percent of writing on art in Italy, it's extremely succinct. The man who founded it was at one stage an advertising copy writer. He understands about brevity.''

Succinctness, and simply the provision of information - the ``who, what, when, why, where'' procedure - is also Cocks's ideal. ``Demystification'' is definitely one of the axes she wants to grind - ``whether it's in the approach to contemporary art, or in people's approach to their `heritage.''' She describes countries around the Mediterranean ``which have very tough laws'' with regard to their ``archaeological wealth'' and have ``a dog-in-the-manger attitude to what they do dig up - with the result tha t there's a shortage of things available for the rest of the world.'' This ``contributes to a black market, which contributes to the accelerating destruction of their archaeological heritage, because every illegal dig is a bit of history that goes `puff!'''

Cocks lambasts Italy, Turkey, and Greece for their ``pious statements about the Northern countries having ridiculously over-liberal laws'' while they have ``laws that are so clear and so precise ... that nobody pays any attention to them! It's exactly like Prohibition.''

Another concern is when an archaeological find is removed from a country in ``such a way that you never really know from which country it did come. The Sevso Treasure - which is that wonderful, wonderful Roman silver treasure that is at the moment in the hands of a New York court'' is a frustrating example. Sotheby's wants to auction it, but the question is whether it was ``illegally excavated.'' She thinks it will possibly always have a question mark hanging over it.

One major section of The Art Newspaper is devoted to the art market. Detailed analysis of successes and failures at auction, lists of commercial gallery shows, commentaries, and news all comprise this informative section. It is useful to people involved in the commercial side of art, which unavoidably includes most of the art world: artists, dealers, auction houses, and collectors.

As with everything else, The Art Newspaper takes a practical, no-nonsense approach to this side of the scene. Some pieces in the paper so far have tended to assume a fair degree of prior knowledge of the subject. Cocks protests that ``You don't have to be learned to read it. You just have to be in the game a bit.''

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