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Editor's weekly: Visual and performing arts are essentials, not frills

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 28, 2012 - Dear Beaconites, Margie Freivogel is out of the office for a few days on grandmother duty, and her absence gives the green light to me to write to you. The subject today is art – particularly the Beacon’s approach to coverage of it. I have good illustrations of our philosophy to offer you.

Four weeks ago, (Sept. 1) I took off to follow the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra on its luminous concert tour of four great festival halls in four fascinating cities in four very busy days, and to report back about the proceedings. Without being too pushy, I’d love for you to look them up and read them. (They are linked at right.) In the course of a lengthy career such as mine, one writes stories that are just OK, some that are particularly dreadful and of few of which one feels proud. The tour stories fit the latter bill.

After the tour ended in Paris, my partner and I spent time in Europe on vacation. Because so much of my life as a writer and editor has been spent reflecting on painting, sculpture, books and music, any vacation I take has something of a busman’s holiday cast. That is because anything I look at or hear or touch (and I hope I can express this without sounding terminally la-de-da-ical about it) becomes part of my big, eclectic edifice of experience.

Coincidentally, this week, my first back at the Beacon, has been a bonanza for anyone interested in art. Tuesday night, our cherished friend and colleague, Sally Bixby Defty, was at the podium at Left Bank Books discussing a new book she wrote about her grandfather, the mighty capitalist and aesthete, William Keeney Bixby. Bixby’s wealth and vision enriched and enlightened late 19th and early 20th century St. Louis. His interests, while truly encyclopedic, were focused on books and works of art and on building institutions to accommodate them.

In Defty’s book, “Passionate Pursuits,” you’re given a window into the mind and the psyche of a man who understood noblesse oblige intuitively and directed the qualities of it -- namely power, taste and wealth -- toward his adopted city.

Beacon reporter Mary Delach Leonard evidently had a fine time with Defty discussing Grandpa Bixby: her account of the book and its author is a delight to read.

Wednesday night I went to the Racquet Club in Ladue to talk to a bright, inquisitive audience about the Beacon and the Symphony tour, and used the tour as a means of discussing our ideas about covering the arts. I noted that nowadays, many news organizations, if they cover the fine arts at all, treat music, painting, sculpture, printmaking, photography and architecture either as exotics, which have little or nothing to do with daily life, or as entertainment, which art very much is not. The folks there are enthusiasts and agreed with me that Art with a capital A – the performing arts and the visual arts – are subjects that matter. They deserve treatment as serious and thorough as the coverage we provide politics, education, science and medicine, entrepreneurship and so on.

The third arts-drenched event of the week was the debut of a new biography of Joseph Pulitzer Jr., the third of five men to bear that name. Besides being a consummate newsman, the third Joseph was a formidable collector of great works of art, and he understood intuitively art’s special powers. As editor and publisher, a position he inherited in 1955, he instituted the books, music and arts pages of the paper, proclaiming that “his” Post-Dispatch would be concerned with what he called the world of ideas.

For a while, I was editor of the music and arts page, and regard that service as a high moment in a rather varied and occasionally checkered career. I learned many things in that job, one being the importance of covering the arts seriously, not as a frill, and providing the space and competent personnel to report, analyze and interpret these most noble manifestations of human industry.

Joe Pulitzer is a sustaining presence in my life. Even though it’s been almost 20 years since his death, I think of him every day. His presence is even more vivid this week because of the arrival of the new book about him, parts of which I was allowed to read as it was written. It was presented to the public and discussed last night at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts. Its author, the extraordinarily talented, droll and amazingly erudite Marjorie Cohn presented her book; and she and Pulitzer’s widow, Emily Rauh Pulitzer, herself a collector, curator and commentator, discussed it.

(Both are contributors to the Beacon, and we are beneficiaries not only of their financial donations but also of their wisdom.)

The Beacon’s arts reporter Nancy Fowler talked with Jerry Cohn about "Classic Modern: The Art Worlds of Joseph Pulitzer Jr.”

The lead of this interview gives us to understand there is much to learn about Pulitzer in this book, some of it only tangentially related to art. Readers will come to appreciate his complexity, and when done reading should possess a portrait of Pulitzer as illuminating and as psychologically perceptive as any painted or sculptured portrait of him could be. There is that, plus the essential power owned by a biography of depth and significance, the power to transfuse regenerative breath into its subject, and in its way to bring that subject to life again.

Joseph Pulitzer Jr. helped me to understand art better than I could possibly ever imagine, and so I joined his crusade to use his paper’s pages as a bully pulpit for demystifying art, particularly the art of our time, in the hope of bringing a wider audience to it to sample its riches and its beauty and transcendent strengths.

Pulitzer understood that the arts deserve places of prominence in news publications, and that place is at their centers, in their hearts, intellects and souls.

An understanding of the dynamism of art is part of the varied Pulitzer legacy here at the Beacon. We are fortunate and proud to be heirs to it, and fortunate too to be able to share it with you.

With every good wish,


Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.