Sebastian Smee and a Pulitzer grin
Sebastian Smee, the chief visual art critic for The Boston Globe, was on a furlough day enjoying the beaches of Miami last Friday when executive editor Marty Baron called to say the writer had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for criticism. When Smee landed in the newsroom on Monday, he gave a speech that praised his editors for holding to "a belief that the arts matter, and that good writing about the arts is going to be an important part of newspapers as they evolve.'' When I called to congratulate him this week, Smee reiterated the passion he has for his work in New England, spoke of the importance of value judgments in reviews and explained why he believes arts coverage is necessary to the future of journalism.
In your 2008 article The Mind of the Critic, you mention three categories people tend to associate with criticism: to judge, to educate and to entertain. What is the role of criticism?
It may not be the most interesting part of a critic's job, but it is the most important: that he or she expresses an opinion. That's what people are expecting from a critic. There's a tendency out of politeness or good manners or fear for critics to sit on the fence sometimes. I understand that, and sometimes I succumb to it myself. But I do think you need to form and express an opinion about the merits of something. Of course, that opens onto a whole world of much more interesting questions, and you can delve into ambiguities and mixed feelings and a certain amount of education.
You're not talking about stating that something is good or bad. You're talking about expressing an opinion.
Yeah, but good or bad is part of that. That's a critic's job: to make a value judgment on what they see. It's not imposing that value judgment as the only possible judgment about the thing. I see it very much as starting a discussion, but the discussion is going to get off to a much less interesting start if the critic hasn't actually said whether he thinks the thing he's looking at is good or bad.
What do you think about Boston generating two Pultizers in the arts this year? We might expect such numbers from New York, but what does it say about Boston right now?
The scene here is incredibly rich and strong. The cultural scene generally -- not just art, but certainly art. I don't think people quite realize it here. That's something I hope we can all do something about. Everyone knows about the MFA, the ICA and Harvard. But there are so many other museums and galleries in Boston and in the whole region. A lot of them are college museums. There's MASS MoCA, the Clark, Smith College, Williams College, Portland, RISD, the Peabody Essex in Salem and the Davis Museum at Wellesley. It goes on and on and on. These places are not only putting on great exhibitions but they also have superb permanent collections. I hope that some of this recognition that we arts writers are lucky enough to be getting also translates to people realizing that what we're responding to in our writing is a really dynamic and exciting and energetic scene.
What were you thinking when you said in the newsroom the other day that the arts would be an important part of newspapers as they evolve?
Firstly and most importantly, huge numbers of people are very interested in the arts and are very engaged with them. Huge numbers. People forget that easily. Secondly, it's obviously a time of enormous change in the media, and newspapers are under particular pressure -- not because fewer people are reading them. That's not the case. More people are reading them. It's the difficulties of finding a viable financial model going into the future. One of the responses to this is to panic and to dumb down what's published. I think that's a terrible mistake. If newspapers are going to survive, it's going to be through setting themselves apart by the quality of what they print. The arts are about excellence, and writing about the arts can be about excellence, too. Hopefully newspapers can realize that's going to be important to them. The Globe definitely realizes that -- from the top down. There's a strong commitment to the arts.
What visual artist has influenced you as a writer?
There are so many. As a critic and as a journalist, you need to be a generalist. But the artist I was lucky enough to get to know the best and who probably had the strongest influence on me through sheer force of personality and richness in his response to art and to life is Lucian Freud.
After delighting in the news of your award, I'm sure many people worried: Oh, now he'll leave Boston.
Oh no. I feel really happy here in Boston and have no wish to leave. We moved here as a family and bought a house, and it was an enormous upheaval. We have no desire to go through that again, even if anyone were interested in offering me anything. I feel proud to be at the Globe and really enjoy being in Boston and having this whole area as my beat.
How do you think the award will affect you?
It's still sinking in. I have a deluge of emails. It's all been so pleasing. I can't deny that. I've got a grin on my face. But I've got deadlines this week, and I've got more of them next week. I'll just get on with it.
Photo: The Boston Globe