Pandering at the AJC 

Thoughtful criticism of the arts? Who needs it?

In the 1980s I spent about seven years as editor of Creative Loafing. This was in two stints interspersed by two years of working as editor of a glitzy monthly magazine in Houston.

In Houston, people were into architecture in a big way, and the magazine ran a lot of articles and criticism about public buildings as well as private ones. I became fascinated with what a city's architecture reveals about the collective life of its residents.

As it happens, about the time I returned to Atlanta, two architectural developments had a powerful impact on our city. The IBM Tower, designed by Philip Johnson, literally changed our skyline. All eyes drifted from John Portman's Peachtree Center downtown, with its futuristic blue spaceship atop the Hyatt Regency, to the pink granite and Gothic lines of the new skyscraper in Midtown. Subsequent skyscrapers would echo elements of the IBM Tower (now One Atlantic Center).

Meanwhile, Rio Shopping Center, a design of the often comically postmodern Arquitectonica of Miami, opened at Piedmont and North avenues. Although it was in part funded by the city, as I recall, it never took off. I think that's partly because the more outrageous design elements were never built. Ultimately, Rio was plowed under for the Publix that is on the site now.

Nobody was writing anything of depth about the city's changing architecture when I returned from Houston, so I made it a goal to find an architecture critic for CL. I had no trouble finding interested and capable writers – most of them architects or teachers. I gave everyone the same initial assignment as a test: an essay titled "What's wrong with John Portman."

Not a single person would write the essay, and it wasn't because they thought Peachtree Center was perfect. They were all afraid of career repercussions if they openly criticized the most powerful architect in town. I gave up looking for a critic.

However, one of our staffers of the time, Rodger Brown, wrote a critical review of Rio. We were immediately threatened with a lawsuit by the developer and I had to suffer through a long meeting, explaining how compromise of Arquitectonica's design degraded its aesthetics. That's right. We were going to be sued because we dared to criticize the design of a public-use building.

Why am I telling you this story?

In part to demonstrate how unexamined our public architecture was – and, I'd argue, still is. But there's a "what if?" implied by the story. What if the print media in town had been publishing serious architectural criticism for some time, instead of mainly reporting and cheerleading development? Might our city, which has destroyed countless landmarks, not look very different?

How bad has it been? It seems outlandish now, but in the '70s, the Fox Theatre was slated for destruction to make room for a parking lot. It was a group of picketing high-school students who attracted the media's attention to the plan. Ultimately the building, one of the city's best-known landmarks, was saved, but it was not until the late '80s that the city adopted an ordinance to protect historic buildings and districts, according to an essay by Tommy Jones, an architectural historian with the National Parks Service.

Now, as Scott Henry has been reporting in CL's pages, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution is reducing its arts criticism, including that of Catherine Fox, the art critic who has also (lightly) reviewed architecture. AJC Editor Julia Wallace has attempted to quell the tidal wave of anger by claiming the paper's reorganization will merely consolidate some jobs – as if one person can do the work of two without any sacrifice of quality.

Wallace also claims that coverage of the arts will likely increase. I doubt it – or I'm guessing she means by way of Internet reporting. But what seems pretty clear is that whatever happens with reporting, arts criticism will be cut back, and authoritative voices will disappear. The intellectual and artistic life of the city won't be held to much of a consistent standard by its main newspaper.

The AJC has never been very strong on arts reporting or criticism. Filling that gap is one reason why papers such as Creative Loafing came into existence. Indeed, the original "underground" tabloids of the '60s and '70s, such as Atlanta's Great Speckled Bird, took that as their mission, often debating – Mao-like – whether a transformation of American life would be more readily brought about by cultural or political means.

That debate was long ago abandoned, along with the utopic idealism of the '60s. But it is amazing, 40 years later, to watch Atlanta's daily newspaper forsake thoughtfulness for pandering, while its editor insists there will be no negative consequences.

Cliff Bostock holds a Ph.D. in depth psychology. For information on his private practice, go to

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