Getting Beyond Criticizing the Critics

There’s a lot being made on Sequenza21 right now about the first-ever Classical Music Critics Survey released by the National Arts Journalism Program at Columbia University on May 16. The hefty 54-page PDF certainly contains its share of thistles for contemporary American music aficionados: e.g. the average critic devotes only 20% of his or her time—well, 74% his—to the music of our time; not a single American composer made the list of top 20 favorite historical composers; more American critics think the center of the scene is in Europe rather than America; less than half those surveyed were familiar with the music of Henry Brant, etc; I could go on all afternoon.

Yet in all the fervor of dissecting the minutiae of this survey, no one criticizing the critics has remarked how timely such a survey is at this juncture in our field and in our society at large.

Later this week, the Omni Los Angeles Hotel will be the host of the first-ever National Arts Critics Conference. Angelinos might want to start getting their picket signs ready! Although, seriously, this first-ever coming together of journalists who cover the visual arts, drama, dance, and music (classical as well as jazz) beats promises to be a major event in the world of arts coverage and something we should all be excited about.

I’ve long been one the first ones to criticize the critics. My antipathy with the word “critic” and in fact the very essence of criticism I’ve already addressed ad nauseam. Yet I’ve continued to be involved with the Music Critics Association of North America. After serving on their Board of Directors for 2 years, I’m actually still a card-carrying member of the organization. (They actually issue cards.) Despite our seeming irreconcilabilities (isn’t opinion what criticism is about anyway), the ability for people with differing opinions to talk to each other is extremely valuable and something we are losing sight of more and more in our society overall. In an era when a major TV news program and a major national magazine both recant stories they’ve run that are supposed to be journalism, is there even a place for editorial writing anymore?

All the more reason for journalists to rally together, especially those of us who cover frequently marginalized realms such as the arts. The opportunity to share widely divergent opinions should be even richer through the addition of perspectives from other artistic disciplines. In our age of over-specialization, niche marketing, and web surfing only on topics of predetermined personal significance, there is a dangerous tendency to become too insular and to overlook solutions we haven’t already figured out. That’s one of the many reasons I’m heading to L.A. this week even further charged as a result of the NAJP survey and my reactions to it.

3 thoughts on “Getting Beyond Criticizing the Critics

  1. william

    Thank you for the interesting commentary. The NAJP has done a lot of good work. Due to a lack of funding the NAJP program at Columbia was eliminated about two days ago. You can read about it at this address. Scroll down to the article:

    http://www.artsjournal.com/herman/

    This is a significant loss for the arts. (Sorry for the lack of formatting. I am short on time.)

    William Osborne

    Reply
  2. Garth Trinkl

    Francis Goelet, who died in 1998, was a true believer in the development of new music. Goelet was a longtime friend and supporter of [the American Composers Orchestra], as well as other leading music organizations including the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Philharmonic and New World Records. Over the years, Goelet underwrote the commissioning and production of more new American orchestral music and opera than any other individual.

    Among the composers he helped champion are many of this century’s most respected: Aaron Copland, Elliott Carter, Roger Sessions, Toru Takemitsu, Luciano Berio, George Rochberg, Jacob Druckman, William Schuman, Ellen Zwilich, David Diamond, Steve Reich, John Zorn and Richard Danielpour to name a few.

    Frank (and Molly, Randy, and Lisa), I hope that you don’t mind my placing this comment here. I wanted to thank you all for the very interesting recordings that you have been featuring on a daily basis the past month; and especially for the

    link

    that Frank placed in his short introduction to today’s featured work: Roger Sessions’s Symphony #8.

    I can see that the NewMusicBox Version 2.0 is, indeed, now carrying on the musically ecumenical spirit of Francis Goelet, who supported the creation of works by such American composers, in addition to those listed above, as:

    Milton Babbitt,
    Shulamit Ran,
    Aaron Jay Kernis,
    Anthony Davis,
    Tania León,
    Robert Hall Lewis,
    Michael Torke,
    Wayne Peterson,
    Daniel Asia,
    Arthur Kreiger,
    Richard Wernick,
    Roger Reynolds,

    Sheila Silver,

    Gan-ru Ge,

    David Felder,

    Ingram Marshall,

    Sebastian Currier,

    Robert Ashley,

    Augusta Read Thomas, and

    Muhal Richard Abrams.

    Garth Trinkl

    Washington, D.C., Berkeley, CA, and Lviv, Ukraine

    Reply
  3. beachbum

    Having a yearly assembly of music writers (or critics if you prefer) in one place is a great idea. Where else can so many thoughtful and hopefully introspective writers speak their mind about music and the arts without having to answer questions from readers and publicists.

    I have met many writers over the years at conventions and have forged not only professional friendships but also friendships that have continued into personal life. Music writers however are of a different nature than say business or political writers. Business and politics are shaped by outside sources far beyond the reach of opinion. Music writers often choose who they will engage with and write about within a closed system.

    I think music writers need to engage with their brethren to discover how much they have in common rather than how much they do not.

    Often when writers are in artistic disagreement, they can be unforgiving to their fellow writers. Sometimes they dismiss the others view or miss the point of the other writer’s intentions completely.

    But what if these music writers had formed friendships with the other writers that were beyond professional contact. Perhaps they wouldn’t judge them so harshly or be quick to dismiss them over small disagreements.

    A convention of critics is a fine way to create–dare I say–harmony, among all these creative people.

    Reply

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