Critical Condition

Today, criticism has taken a darker turn. Call it a dumbing-down of the at-large culture (which has also taken a dark turn) or a case of disproportionate power, but somewhere along the way the teacherly impulse, alongside the desire to promote the beautiful, has gotten irretrievably lost.

There are many available definitions of the word “critic” according to Merriam Webster, but the first two are rather telling. The first is: “one who expresses a reasoned opinion on any matter especially involving a judgment of its value, truth, righteousness, beauty, or technique; one who engages often professionally in the analysis, evaluation, or appreciation of works of art or artistic performances.”

The next is: “one given to harsh or captious judgment.”

An accepted cultural turn from definition one to definition two outlines the bulk of the problem; the “analysis, evaluation, or appreciation” has sadly given way to the “harsh or captious judgment.” Nastiness sells; idols are gleefully smashed; success breeds contempt. This works in film criticism—and by that I mean public reviewers, not theorists. When a major summer blockbuster comes along, aimed at raking in more money than the last (as opposed to a bold, artistic statement in need of critical insight to help facilitate reconciliation and explanation) the critics (pundits) often too-avidly dish against it. They “mix it up,” it sells papers, speaks to the nastiest, most hyper-vituperative side of our darkest nature. We want to hear terrible things about the rich and famous people, it validates our own insecurities and doubts—we love Steven Spielberg, pay to see his work, yet adore it when he is all-out slammed by the press. Why? Because we know it will have little effect, that this is about audience rather than reception, so the reviews simply become part of the action. And the personalities of these critics get more and more hostile, “taking on” the establishment, fighting for what they think is right—go ahead and try to knock Star Wars over, I dare you. It cannot be done, there will be a huge, cash-paying audience no matter what some critic says, even (in the worst example of this blatant shit-crit have seen) when the Village Voice reviewer tells you that you will be “desperate for a fuck” while watching the newest installment. That’s not criticism, it’s opinion mongering, trying to come up with the cleverest tag or the most extreme diss. And who are these people? Certainly nobody making their living in the film industry, save for his or her job as a sound-byte critic.

Classical music is high art, cut from a different cloth than the more blatantly mass-appealing film or television (or popular music) industries, and thus should take as its model the criticism of literature. There are the “codifyers,” who get the label “literary critic,” and there are the “judgers” who come in the form of book reviewers. In this world those who find trends and those who tell you what you are about to buy are very separate people. More often than not, especially in top publications, the reviewer is either another practicing author or has written a book on the subject at hand; in some way, he or she is probably an “expert” with serious qualifications. And in the cases where this is not the case, a book—aside from those books, which, in their own literary way, qualify as summer blockbusters—is often giving a thorough going over in the form of a long, careful essay.

But it doesn’t work that way in classical music. These so-called “objective” outlets brutally blast composers and performers, replete with clever buzz-phrases (read: ordinary critical shibboleths) and clever hooks. Like film or pop music critics, these are the people you not only love to hate, but that are themselves enamored of their own capacity to be snide. Is this an editorial policy, or is this some sort of new “everything sucks except the incomprehensible” type of criticism—or is it geared to sell papers? Again, people love the ruins of a smashed idol.

One of the most devastating blows is that no major daily or critical print outlet employs a practicing musician. Please read that last sentence again, it really says it all. Many of the major daily critics are indeed composers or performers manqué, fulfilling the sadly-true stereotype of the “critic as frustrated or failed artist.” And these are the people who are entitled to the lion’s share of public opinion.

Once upon a time composer Virgil Thomson was the critic to listen to, as harsh and unfriendly as he could be. Where is the Virgil of today? Why is there not the voice of a musician, an actual live-hands practitioner available to contrast these others? Not that every critic has to be active in the discipline (aside from their words) but why can’t some of them be? In a time where dwindling interest has reduced classical music to a sub-culture (and new music to an enclave within that small percentage), the question arises of responsibility. Whose fault is it? Here we need to be honest with ourselves, if this beautiful art stands a single chance of survival, and (perhaps uncomfortably) point a few fingers.

Today, anything that achieves any sort of popularity among audiences is considered anathema to the most visible critical establishments. All this loud criticism of music that might be labeled “beautiful” or “emotional,” coupled with high praise for the inaccessible (or academic), becomes white noise after a while—and potential audiences, feeling out of the loop, like they aren’t smart enough have “properly” enjoyed the music, take their business elsewhere. Of course there are exceptions, but the current regime has a lot of people running scared. In certain ways the artists themselves are partially responsible—but think: if Elliott Carter were not so heavily vaunted by the critical establishment, would that music have ever gone anywhere, let alone become a reigning dogma? To swallow a lot of atonal concert music—particularly of the “who cares if they listen?” school—is brought to us from on high, like eating spinach or taking vitamins: it is good for you, even if it isn’t pretty. Fine. It’s not necessarily an untruth, but without the support of critics who themselves worked from the vanity of appearing to have more cultivated, more enlightened taste, would there be a fear of new music like there is today? Audiences, despite what a lot may think, are not stupid, and they ought to be respected, even by critics.

If so-called “art music” is to be taken seriously, then the critics have a serious and potentially revitalizing responsibility. We are in something of a desperate period for what we do and love—audiences are slipping, money is not being made, and many are losing their way. The critics have an opportunity to be graceful teachers, to lead people into what we love, to elucidate and guide rather than “mix it up.”

Twenty-five years or so ago, inaccessible was in vogue so critics responded in kind, all but begging for some tunes or nice chords. Now the opposite is true—and here I speak mostly of The New York Times, the most powerful outlet in the most culturally active city in America. Avant-garde is praised, the more difficult the better (Babbitt, Carter, Lachenmann, Boulez, Xenakis) while offerings by composers who either never left tonality, or approach it with fresh ears—and by this I mean the likes of Tobias Picker, John Corigliano, Aaron Jay Kernis, Mark Adamo, and David Lang—are given, for the most part, short shrift. An audience responding well to something automatically calls it into suspicion; appreciation is likely to elicit the ever-popular “You LIKED that?” from the alleged musical literati, evincing the very true myth that classical music is for snobs (and the rich, who pay generously for music they don’t care for—or worse, who get criticized for refusing to pay). Beauty is demode, apparently, but we the readers are not allowed to sort this out on our own—clever critics show us the way. We have to be carefully taught.

Please don’t misread what I am saying—a typical artist’s sneer (as I am myself a composer), an obvious jab at an available target. In musical circles, it seems that the only sub-group that suffers more slings and arrows than critics are violists, but at least those barbs go out lovingly. Critics are hated, and rather than there being a dialogue between artists and thinkers, it seams to be adversarial—it is now a battle of creators (and executants) vs. destroyers, and the casualty will be classical music if steps are not taken. In this day and age where critics can both do damage and start a career or bring something unknown into the light—even canonize—the whole business must be approached with caution, and at every step of the way the audience must be taken into account. The best composers have always done this, and what’s good for the artist is good for the thinker.

The first step to a serious and too-long-in-coming change is a series of checks and balances.

I agree with just about everything superstar critic Martin Bernheimer has to say in an article he wrote for Andante called “Crr-rritic!” The title stems from the often-invoked opening scene of Samuel Beckett‘s Waiting for Godot—a volley of insults ends with this, the harshest insult of them all. He makes a point that in order to be a good music critic, one need not necessarily be a practicing musician—one need only to like music and be able to express opinions well. He also, very astutely, refutes the notion that there is such a thing as “objectivity.” It is impossible—there are no rights-and-wrongs in art. He is correct, a critic need not be a practitioner, but where is the rule that says that working at something all of your life, and making good with a career in it, somehow disqualifies you from weighing in for an influential outlet?

But it is this impossible-to-achieve “objectivity” that causes practicing musicians not to get these jobs (Kyle Gann at the Village Voice being a welcome exception to this unwritten decree). There are even some journalists who feel that hanging out with artists might be a foul influence, might taint their critical views, and they are right of course. But not hanging out with them is just as tainting—views, being personal and therefore subjective, are tainted from the get-go. Objectivity simply doesn’t exist.

In New York there used to be all matter of press space for opinions; people read any number of daily papers, and therefore contrasting views—some from each of my earlier-mentioned four critical categories—were available. With so many contributing to the discussion, the dialogue could continue; people were free to disagree with critics. Now it’s a one-paper town, not unlike Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Boston, or Chicago, with the New York Times being people’s principal daily source for “All the news that’s fit to print.” The question posed here: do people listen? Sadly, they are offered little choice, and so the critics at these papers have a pretty heavy responsibility—and absolute critical power. And we all know what happens to people with absolute power.

It is a complicated problem that has no easy answer. Critics, especially today, are vital contributors to a quickly dying art, and as such need to take not their careers seriously, but their jobs. To teach, to explain, and sometimes to enlighten, this is what you are there for—and you work for the artists, not the other way around. They are the ones with the real power to affect major social change, because when art works that is what it can really do.

From Critical Condition
By Daniel Felsenfeld
© 2002 NewMusicBox

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