According to our docile mainstream media, Boston enjoys a perpetual Renaissance—the merchandise in the cultural window is always worth buying. And that predictability makes for very boring journalism.
By Bill Marx
Launched earlier this month, Fuse News is a feature that the magazine’s writers and readers have demanded for a long time. Of course, The Arts Fuse’s dedication to long form journalism will remain, stronger than ever. Fuse News invites our over 60 writers to react quickly to a variety of topics via informative short pieces. The possibilities include news reportage, pithy commentaries, trenchant reviews, reactions to cultural controversies, responses to debates about the arts elsewhere on the web, and perspectives on the death of major artists. Our writers are given one elemental marching order: that they steer clear of the blandness that deadens so much of the mainstream arts coverage at the Boston Globe, WGBH, and WBUR. Fuse scribes are passionately encouraged to be wrong-headed, hysterical, opinionated, stubborn, ecstatic, and pretentious, but never, ever uncompromisingly insipid.
“American culture,” observed Village Voice critic Richard Goldstein, “is a store window that has to be periodically spruced up and redressed.” Too much local arts coverage is dedicated to reporting—pleasantly and unquestioningly—that the exhibits in the window have been rotated and that the latest products on display are (always) the finest. You will rummage long and hard on WGBH and WBUR (broadcast or online) to find a critical word amid the depressing line-up of puffy interviews, rewritten publicity releases, and earnest proclamations of “stunning seasons.” According to our docile mainstream media, Boston enjoys a perpetual Renaissance—the merchandise in the cultural window is always worth buying. And that predictability makes for very boring journalism.
It also flies in the face of reality. Marketing was invented to shape perception rather than report uncomfortable facts. The reality, the bottom line, the bedrock that many in the arts will admit, though not publicly, is this: that at any time in history, the majority of what’s put in the window, no matter how shiny and chic, is mediocre. Creative excellence is rare—critical public discourse about arts and culture is even rarer. Infotainment is much easier and cheaper to produce for local big media because no expertise or investigation is required: it is only a matter of repackaging P.R. that “supports” the arts by challenging no one.
The original journalistic sin is that arts coverage has rarely been held to the same exacting editorial standards as news reporting. No one would tolerate such myopic coverage of politics, but when it comes to arts coverage the line between reporting and advertising is continually being erased, rubbing out critical honesty and independence. Some of this dumbing-down has to do with good old American anti-intellectualism, the media’s banishing of the arts into the “lifestyle” cubicle, the disengagement of the arts from schools and the mass media, and ignorance of the crucial differences between publicity and cultural coverage. Because the arts are not taken seriously enough by editors to be treated as news, coverage is limited to boosterism.
The bean counting suits at WGBH, WBUR, and The Boston Globe demand the kind of sweetened arts coverage that brings in advertising dollars. Insecure journalists, fearful for their jobs, give their bosses what they ask. The dwindling number of arts writers and critics who receive a paycheck (even micro, online freelance fees) don an editorial straitjacket—be optimistic and safe or be replaced by someone who is even more innocuous. They simply cannot be trusted. In contrast, Arts Fuse writers contribute to the magazine for the love of the arts and their craft. We pay them what we can, but we are not beholden to the advertising dollars that come in from arts organizations. Our critics make a living elsewhere, but this set up might well be the future of quality arts journalism, where a small army of passionate writers ply their trade because they want to articulate the value of the arts in our lives, not because it will pay their mortgage.
At the moment, the ghettoization of mainstream arts coverage comes with what appears to be the self-destructive complicity of arts organizations, particularly the big ones, who are elated to have the clout that ensures the sun will always shine on their windows. But we also believe that arts organizations are smart enough to realize that encouraging trustworthy editorial coverage in Boston is of vital importance as well. At some point, nonstop puffery loses plausibility. Selling tickets is a priority for our arts organizations, but don’t they also want what they produce for the public to provoke thought, conversation, agitation, empathy, revolution, etc? Isn’t that why they got into the arts in the first place?
Before I am accused of wanting to deep-six the competition, I am not saying that you should stop from clicking through Boston.com or sending donations to WGBH and WBUR for their arts sites. When it comes to professional writing about the arts, the more the merrier; it may be sub-par now, but there is always the chance that improvement may come through the addition of editorial vision and integrity. The resources big media puts into covering the arts (minimum expenditure for maximum profit) are tiny in proportion to the swag that goes to news and talk. Critics and reporters need public support for the substantial investment that will help improve the quality of their coverage. (I would strongly suggest that when you send your donations to our competing NPR stations, you should demand they provide more substantial arts coverage. Let’s whip the combatants into a culture-covering frenzy.)
People who produce bland cultural coverage have to eat, the summer homes of the mega-highly paid executives at WGBH become costlier to maintain all the time, and it takes lots of money for WBUR to plaster posters on subway cars informing passengers that the radio station makes listeners think. (The cost of The Fuse’s proposed cab-top campaign has driven that economic point home.) Many readers and listeners are perfectly content that news and views about the arts are posted on an ever-smiling bulletin board. Artists and arts organizations are ecstatic that the the latest wares in their windows are advertised by a credible source. No one along this slick assembly line of genteel airbrushing seems to care that over the long run the yea-saying process only trivializes the artistic imagination.
So are we doomed to the sugar high of the status quo? For those who believe that arts and culture deserves trustworthy and thoughtful criticism and reporting, there is an alternative—The Arts Fuse. Please contribute to our first-ever advertising campaign, via the tops of Boston cabs, to support our mission by getting the word out about our reviews and coverage. Technology offers enormous opportunities to provide intelligent public dialogue about the arts. The Fuse and other magazines around the country are asking for assistance from those want to build places where public discussion of the arts rises above the level of treacle.
Established more than five years ago, The Arts Fuse is an online resource that features expert writing—critical, informative, engaging—on the arts in Boston and the rest of New England. More than 1700 articles—all currently online—have been published. With Fuse News, we are taking another significant step toward our goal of creating an online space where readers will find stimulating news and views about arts and culture. Please support a magazine that does its best to provoke rather than placate. Here is where you can make your donation.
The Fuse’s response to Geoff Edgers tweets about the issues raised in this column.
The Fuse’s Jonathan Blumhofer addresses bland arts coverage here.
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.