Arts Commentary: More Cultural Coverage — But Less Culture?
By Bill Marx
The journalistic value of blathering out weekend tips to the ears of the comfortable in a social media world awash with likes is dubious.
It made for a tellingly ironic juxtaposition.
Last week, New Rep announced that “after 40 seasons, over 300 productions, and a smash 2023 season, New Repertory Theatre’s Board of Trustees has determined that it is not possible to sustain the company going forward.” Why not? The company is “subject to the same converging realities that have impacted so many theater companies throughout the country: post-pandemic economics, changes in the philanthropic landscape, challenges with the business model of theater, and other factors beyond its control, along with the ending of emergency Federal support for the performing arts.” Also trumpeted last week: GBH is launching The Culture Show, “a one-hour daily local radio program on 89.7 offering listeners a wide-ranging look at society through art, culture and entertainment.” The program will be led by “GBH Executive Arts Editor Jared Bowen, who will be joined by rotating co-hosts Callie Crossley, the host of Under the Radar with Callie Crossley; Edgar B. Herwick III, host of The Curiosity Desk; and James Bennett II, a GBH News arts and culture reporter and CRB Classical 99.5 contributor and a panel of cultural correspondents.”
What will The Culture Show cover? Will it dig deeply into the circumstances that put an end to New Rep? (Unmentioned in the theater’s statement was the slow poison of streaming. There are increasing opportunities for theatergoers to see star-filled theater productions from around the world at a reasonable subscription fee in the comfort of their own home. Can a neighborhood theater stand up to such competition? Watch Benedict Cumberbatch as Lear in your living room? Or schlep out to see a local thespian?) Will the GBH program offer serious cultural coverage, investigative as well as critical stories? Or will it be content to do the usual, pump out marketing fodder for diplomatically selected happenings in the arts, serving as a megaphone blaring out news of Boston’s unceasing Renaissance, at least if you believe the tweedledum and tweedledee blarney posted by reviewers at NPR and the Boston Globe. The comments in the GBH press release are not very encouraging. We read that the show will
drive conversations about how listeners experience culture across music, movies, fashion, TV, art, books, theater, dance, food and more, and help audiences make the most of their leisure time by guiding listeners to the best cultural experiences within a day’s drive from Boston. The show will amplify local creatives, profile the homegrown arts and culture landscape, check in with touring productions and tap into conversations about topics in the national cultural spotlight.
Let’s hope that the program is more than just a consumer guide dedicated to assisting listeners “make the most of their leisure time.” I continue to wonder why arts journalism isn’t more like professional news coverage: driven by the same hunger for the facts and serving up the same sharp-eyed analysis. Must the arts be consigned evermore to the triviality of “leisure time”? New England needs a place where serious discussions about how the systems that traditionally nurtured the arts (particularly the small, noncommercial, and independent variety) are breaking down. (Vaporizing is more like it.) The struggles of Boston’s theaters are symptomatic of a much, much larger national problem. In a recent commentary posted in Howlround, the fine writer/critic Todd London offered this sane advice for “the brave and scared” stage practitioners trying to move forward as the walls collapse around them:
… we’re each looking through different eyes. We need the revolutionaries and the incrementalists, institutionalists and individualists. We need all the ideas: the wild leap, the careful tread, the impatience, and the slow steady labor. Some things can be changed from within, some need to be torn down, some need to be born anew. We are all learning which is which.
Viewed from this perspective, it is an exciting but contentiously transitional time for the arts. The mainstream media (NPR, etc.) glom onto conventional success stories when they can find them, but the invigorating but ugly truth is what London suggests — painful changes are coming because some things need to be torn down and others started up. How much of which is up for debate. If the media really want to cover what’s roiling culture — and how these forces reflect our fissuring society — the old “happy talk” model is not going to cut it. The journalistic value of blathering out weekend tips to the ears of the comfortable in a social media world awash with likes is dubious.
Arts coverage is part of the culture, so it is up for transformation as well. One quick suggestion: the public should be brought into the “do or die” conversations among fearful artists. We should hear about their concerns for the future, their ideas for maintaining live theater companies as they are slowly strangled by economics and technology. Music, movies, fashion, TV, art, books, and dance are being ground down by the same venomous “business model,” their subject matter becoming increasingly homogenized, their practitioners impoverished, their potential leaders, according to London, “driven away by snark, vitriol, and privilege protectionism.” If The Culture Show fostered lively give-and-takes that tackled these issues, the program would be making a valuable contribution to community engagement as well as the health of the arts. Why just exist to puff up bottom lines, recycle PR, and fill up the dance cards of fat cat donors? Let listeners hear volatile debates sparked by the far-ranging ideas offered by “the revolutionaries and the incrementalists, institutionalists and individualists.” We don’t need more slick salesmanship.
Because I am nothing if not interested in the state of arts criticism, I can’t end without wondering if there will be any evaluators, aside from the inevitable bubbly enthusiasts, on The Culture Show. WBUR’s online arts magazine The ARTery is no more — it slid quietly into oblivion and there were no (apparent) mourners. Reviews and features on local events are now placed on the radio station’s web page along with national coverage. The Culture Show will offer a panel of “culture correspondents.” Will they have the freedom to correspond about the mediocre as well as the triumphant? Despite what you read, the subpar continues to thrive in the arts, as it always has. Mediocrity is the kudzu of culture and it needs to be vigorously identified by critics, among others. George Bernard Shaw spoke of the “ruinous privilege of exemption from vigilant and implacable criticism.” Time to end decades of that kind of “privilege protectionism” in Boston’s media and hear from some discarded revolutionaries — vigilant and implacable critics.
Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of the Arts Fuse. For four 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.