Critical Commentary: Critical Injury at the “Boston Globe”

The Boston Globe tells us that we will be gaining compelling stories. What are we losing? Invitations to think seriously about artistic accomplishment and failure.

By Bill Marx

Boston Globe Arts Editor Rebecca Ostriker responded to Dan Kennedy’s Media Nation blog entry about reports (here and elsewhere) of cutbacks in the Globe‘s arts coverage. It is a revealing statement:

Some misunderstandings regarding the Boston Globe’s arts coverage have been spreading online—including in your recent post—and I would welcome an opportunity to clarify our plans.

The Globe is dedicated to bringing our readers the best possible arts coverage, every single day, both in print and online. With an outstanding Sunday Arts section and a Friday Weekend section packed with arts and entertainment coverage, we will continue to showcase the superb work of our staff critics in every area of the arts, including Pulitzer Prize winners Sebastian Smee and Mark Feeney, Ty Burr, Jeremy Eichler, Don Aucoin, Matthew Gilbert, and Steve Smith. With the help of powerhouse arts reporter Malcolm Gay, we will continue to vigorously report on broader issues relating to the arts, often on the Globe’s front page. Few newspapers in the country can boast such a sparkling roster of staff writers exploring the arts, or more commitment to covering the arts in every form, from theater to art, music, movies, television, and dance.

Meanwhile, as we weigh our priorities when it comes to freelance coverage, we are shifting our focus to emphasize reported feature stories (the Jon Garelick piece you cited was an example; see others below, along with a couple of recent freelance reviews). There will certainly be exceptions to this, but our overall goal is simple: We’re looking to tell the most compelling stories that will appeal to readers in every area of the arts. We are encouraging artists, performers, and arts organizations of all kinds to share their best ideas for feature stories with us. And we will be counting on all of our terrific freelance writers to help us tell those stories.

The Globe‘s staff critics (all male, according to Ostriker’s list) will do their jobs, though without any assistance from freelance reviewers they will be stretched impossibly thin. Why were satellite critics hired in the first place? To help cover — and support — events large, medium, and small in an expanding New England arts scene. And I fear that phasing out freelance arts reviewers may end up threatening the sparkling independence of the Globe‘s staff critics. Why? Smee and company will be very, very cautious about what they say about the companies and institutions they critique. Discouraging words, while honest, will not do much for job security. Will there be growing editorial pressure on staff critics to tell celebratory stories rather than evaluate? Ask not for whom the verdict tolls.

As for medium- to small-sized groups, fewer freelance critics will mean fewer reviews. The big fish high on the arts food chain will be fed regularly; those lower down the line will receive occasional scraps, unless they can hook a feature story.

Music critic Virgil Thomson -- Photo: Virgil Thomson Foundation.

Music critic Virgil Thomson — Reviews must “join battle with the music of its time.” Photo: Virgil Thomson Foundation.

Feature stories can be informative and enlightening (and often puffy). Criticism is another animal: judgment with reasoned analysis, writing that is about articulating verdicts on what works and what doesn’t in art. If you don’t believe me, here’s a definition from NY Times film critic A.O. Scott in his book Better Living Through Criticism: “To judge. That’s the bedrock of criticism. How do we know, or think we know, what’s good or bad, what’s worth attacking or defending or telling our friends about?”

The Globe is asking its freelancers to write feature articles rather than reviews. Why should we care about the change in focus? Traditionally, arts criticism in mainstream newspapers and magazines served as a public forum for questions about value, about what to attack and what to defend. Music critic Virgil Thomson believed that “criticism joins the history of its art only when it joins battle with the music of its time.” Arts reviews are news because they are evaluations from and on the cultural front lines. There is room for feisty appraisal in politics, sports, and business coverage — but for some reason (saving column inches? small companies have no economic power? criticism is elitist? everybody is a critic?) there will now be less of that kind of engagement in the Globe arts section regarding the activity of a sizable chunk of the local arts community.

This is another step in the move among strapped newspapers and magazines to push evaluation out of their shrinking arts pages, forcing editors to make do with less by limiting the scope of coverage and jettisoning judgment. What’s particularly galling is that Ostriker and other editors are asked to make the case that this is a good thing for the arts and readers. It is not. Freelance reviews were where fledgling critics learned their craft and generated discussion about artistic standards, where marginal groups received precious exposure. No more. Ostriker tells us that in the future readers will get “compelling” stories instead. The truth is, “compelling” stories can be found just about everywhere online; arts groups regularly post feature material on their websites. What are we losing? Something that is becoming increasingly rare in the world of professional journalism — invitations, via criticism, to think seriously and honestly about artistic accomplishment and failure. Let’s not pretend it is a fair trade.

Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.

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