Covering the cultural beat

The arts and culture section of a publication, whether print, broadcast or online, may seem to reflect the lighter side of things. But as the panelists, all young bloggers, in “Writing to the Beat: Specialized Reporting for Arts and Culture” at the Philippine Readers and Writers Festival held at The Raffles Hotel in Makati showed, the cultural is also political and invested with a nation’s soul, including resistance versus the Establishment.

Panelists Chuck Smith, who covers entertainment, Ian Urrutia, who does music reviews, Katrina Stuart Santiago, who writes visual arts, theater and film critiques, Anna Bueno, who follows cultural heritage, specifically the textile and weaving traditions, and food blogger Michelle Ayuyao agree that there is a death of cultural writers. They’ve noticed that rare is the editor who solicits reviews or approves story pitches anymore.

From top left clockwise: Katrina Stuart Santiago, Anna Bueno, Michelle Ayuyao, Ian Urrutia, Chuck Smith.

For better or worse, social media, specifically Facebook and Instagram (IG), have taken over people’s lives. This means lesser gains for critics. So-called “influencers” just have to exclaim “I love it!” and not flesh out what they mean for a subject to trend.

Urrutia bewailed that “in the small scene of music, parang lahat (almost all) is press releases. There are few writers in this area.”

Smith said that, on the other hand, there are more and more younger writers who want to write about entertainment. What he noticed though is that print media has lost its power and exclusivity because posts are uploaded on YouTube in real time.

Ayuyao, who described herself as eating better “than I can cook,” said readers also want to know what’s new or if something is good. But often this is drowned out by articles on what’s the next hot restaurant.

Stuart Santiago, columnist of The Manila Times, observed that “there is no space for new writers of criticism.” She said it’s important to “write about issues, not just personalities.” Her practice is to go to the theater or the galleries incognito so “there is no conflict of interest and I am freer to write.”

When a theater director once recognized and waylaid her, saying he wanted to get to know her better, she told him that she wouldn’t be able to cover his plays anymore. She stuck by this rule, but they’ve remained friends.

Urrutia said he liked to “explore the fringes, the underground culture that is not given mileage,” especially those in the provinces and regions, or explore “things that are different from most people’s taste.”

Bueno, a CNN Philippines editor, has discovered through her coverage of indigenous people’s (IP) communities that one must not “treat subjects bara-bara (irresponsibly).” She said, “Usually, people talk about patterns and designs but not about the people who made them.”

She told the audience to be aware of the power dynamics between the producers and users of IP products. She has learned to “appeal to the conscience of readers when writing.”

Ayuyao lamented that food media doesn’t “shine a light on the Banaue heirloom rice varieties. They’re down from three hundred to thirty because there are no more consumers or people don’t know about them. Listen to the people. Go out and see, then write about them.” Her own curiosity has led her to a talked-about tapuy that tastes more like sherry than tapuy.

Stuart Santiago said there must be more to talking about the artists and how they live. “They may sell in the millions (of pesos), but they get so little from that system. There is a disconnect between the producers of work, those who labor culturally, and we as consumers.” She reminded the audience that the “lifeblood is the cultural worker, not the product.”

She credited her editors who always cautioned her not to sound too academic. She taught herself to use Instagram—“the shorter the better.” When she’s on IG, she thinks of all the hashtags possible.

She said cultural reporting has political meaning since it cannot be divorced from what is happening in the country. Even if she’s reviewing a romantic comedy, she is aware that this genre is “but a distraction.” She said her type of criticism can exist without “being pedagogical or raising a fist.”

She added that the resistance against the government’s normalization of violence is strong and vocal, but this is going on “under the radar and not being covered.” She said there are many brave elements in the visual arts, but they are not government targets. The targets are the high-profile ones in entertainment and music.

Smith said entertainment writers must not condescend to their subjects. “I take seriously celebrities with strong and open political views.”

Ayuyao said food writing also has political aspects like when one deals with the rice shortage.

Urrutia said there are many brave individuals in the music scene, particularly in the hiphop genre who are willing to resist and criticize. All this brings hope.#

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