Thursday, May 24, 2012

Institutional Censorship

One of the inevitable results of continuing to have the New York Times delivered every day--as I've done for the past 30+ years we've lived in D.C.--is getting cranked about happenings in New York. Two current incidents involve major cultural institutions there as to which I remain most interested: the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Public Library.  Both are behaving like the large institutions they are and have sought to control their public image by stamping out any opinions differing from those propounded by management.

In the case of the Met, they tried to stop the quasi-in-house publication, Opera News, from reviewing Met productions because the magazine dared to criticize some of them. The Library has made departing employees who took buyouts sign nondisparagement agreements to keep them from expressing opinions questioning or criticizing the half-baked plan management has put out to move a circulating library into the great 42nd Street building and consequently needing to move half the stacks of the research library, or more, to Southern New Jersey, where it will take at least a day or more to retrieve them for users.

This is the way corporations and government agencies behave. They naturally gravitate toward censorship. They want to control everything said about them. They employ high-priced PR types (known, much to their dislike, in the trade as "flacks") to sweet-talk reporters into buying their line or even better, ignoring the institution entirely.

It ill behooves the New York Public Library, often out there as a fighter against censorship, especially of library holdings, to restrict its former employees. A woman from an anti-censorship group was quoted in the Times as asking what the Library was afraid of. I can tell her. They don't want knowledgeable people, such as high-level former employees, to show how unhelpful the proposed renovation will be to those who use the library for serious research as opposed to those who will spend money in the various cafes that will be added.

I did read a reasonable defense of the plan by the librarian of Harvard in the New York Review of Books. He did pose some decent arguments about the need for the new scheme but in the end, he didn't convince me that you save the circulating library by essentially reducing the useability of the research library. There are so few resources available to the public of the quality of the New York Public Library. That is the ultimate reason for protecting rather than destroying the ability to conduct serious research.

The Met has retreated and now Opera News, which I decided to subscribe to this year for the first time in ages, partly because of the good coverage it now gives to opera houses worldwide, will continue to review Met operas, and can even say  critical things about them.   I was bothered by this current issue, not at all by the negative reviews of productions like the new Lepage Goetterdaemerung, which I liked (at least seeing it in the movie theater) and the Opera News critic didn't, because the managing editor wrote a treacly column reminiscing about the movie, The Sound of Music, which I resisted seeing for years because it is so schmaltzy. I can accept including operetta in the magazine's coverage but sappy Broadway musicals? (I probably wouldn't have objected to something about West Side Story or My Fair Lady, or Rent, for that matter, which borrowed its plot from La Boheme, to name three classic musicals.)

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