Something urgently needs to be done with The New York Times’s arts section, both the daily and the Sunday Arts and Leisure editions, print and online: an entire remake of its makeup. The prole-pandering cheapening of that section has gone on for some years now; a prole-pandering cheapening that got its first real impetus in the Sunday Arts and Leisure section in the years 1998-2002 under the editorship of John Rockwell, a man who should have known better than to take the wrongheaded position that there’s no meaningful distinction between pop and high culture nor should there be. That perverse thinking has today reached reductio ad absurdum proportions in both the daily and Sunday arts sections under the overall directorship of Culture Editor Sam Sifton whose credentials for the job are that he’s
...been deputy culture editor at The Times since 2004. He joined The Times in 2001 as deputy Dining editor, and became Dining editor later that year. Previously he was a founding editor of Talk magazine where he worked until 1998. Before joining Talk he held a number of positions at the New York Press from 1990 to 1998, including managing editor, media critic, senior editor, contributing editor and restaurant critic. Before joining the New York Press he taught social studies in New York City public schools from 1990 to 1994. Before that, he was an assistant editor at American Heritage from 1988 to 1990. Mr. Sifton graduated magna cum laude from Harvard College with a B.A. degree in history and literature in 1988. He is author of A Field Guide to the Yettie.
What first needs to be done here is to find a culture editor properly fitted for the job; one who understands fully just how perversely loony is the notion that there's no meaningful distinction between pop and high culture nor should there be. Next, there needs to be a total separation of coverage of pop and high culture, the latter under the banners of Arts and Sunday Arts, and the former given its own section under the banner of, say, Popular Culture or Entertainment for the daily, and Sunday Popular Culture or Sunday Entertainment for the Sunday section. In the Arts and Sunday Arts sections under their own headings should be coverage of classical music (which should always be referred to simply as “music”), opera, jazz, theater (but, N.B., not Broadway musical theater which properly belongs in the Popular Culture or Entertainment section), dance, art (i.e., painting, sculpture, and design), books, and architecture. In the Popular Culture or Entertainment and the Sunday Popular Culture or Sunday Entertainment sections under their own headings should be coverage of all music other than classical, opera, and jazz, each genre identified by its proper label, Broadway musicals, movies, and television.
Once the makeup of those two sections is set up (i.e., the Arts and the Popular Culture or Entertainment sections, both daily and Sunday), what next needs to be done is to find editors for those two sections who are fully qualified in their respective domains and really know their stuff — intimately. Next, the writers for those sections — all of whom, it should be but often isn’t needless to say, must also be fully qualified in their respective domains and really know their stuff — must be given enough column inches to do their jobs properly. And how many column inches would that be? Enough to contain up to 1000 words for each piece; 1500-2000 for stories or features of major importance.
What’s that we hear you muttering? It’s a bloody pipe dream; a pipe dream that flies recklessly in the face of broadening and grievous economic and circulation problems, and a young generation that hardly ever reads newspapers and knows little and cares less about matters of high culture than perhaps any generation in history?
Tough shit. Keep in mind, please, we’re here talking about our National Newspaper Of Record, as it’s been called, not some small-town rag or ordinary metropolitan daily. A way must be found by the Times to implement this, for it’s nothing less than its journalistic and ethical obligation to itself, its history, and to the nation for it to do so.
It’s the right thing to do.