Critics Are on the What Now?


The Concept of Criticism, with Continual Reference to The Simpsons (and Oblique Reference to Obscure Kierkegaard Tracts)

Hm. A bit slow lately, but Anne Midgette over at "The" Post, or, at least, the online equivalent thereof wherein classical music coverage has been hidden, muses for us:

Do Critics Matter?

Which, obviously, is a topic near and dear to us here at The Review.

(There is also a follow-up column, which I will address as well. Soon. -Ish.)

Clearly we think critics matter, not least because they help frame [the?] debate about music. But let's not jump the gun. What's up, Ms. Midgette?

The fact that the classical music, dance, and art critics are not represented in today's critics' survey in the Washington Post may give those of us in those disciplines extra reason to worry that what we write doesn't actually matter.

That is indeed worrisome. However, I'd argue that the worry is more about not being employed by the papers to write criticism than the relevance of criticism per se.

Arts critics, and the arts in general (as noted here frequently) are recipients of some of the earliest ax-blows of newspapers' attempts to have less content in order to stay relevant. While this may seem counterintuitive, shortsighted and stupid, don't be fooled--it's counterintuitive, shortsighted, and stupid.*

Meanwhile, though, celebrity gossip, fashion, and even horoscopes continue to be subjects which the newspapers think are, presumably, both profitable and a public good.

Seriously, people. Horoscopes? Any paper that prints that shit should be used solely for bird cage liner. That's right--I'm talking to you, Nancy Reagan. Fuck you.

But the whole idea that there should be some kind of correlation between reviews in the paper and ticket sales, or popularity, is fundamentally flawed to start with.

I'm not sure where this objection originated, but: yes. That's called marketing, and it's different than criticism. It's sort of like how having sex for money is different than having sex not for money.

It reveals a misunderstanding of what it is a critic does.

What does a critic do?

Figure 1: Homer Simpson, Food Critic

Our role is not to be mere consumer advocates, telling you how to spend your hard-earned dollars.

The assumption here is that my dollars are hard-earned, which I resent. Also, money can be exchanged for goods and services!

If that were the only point, newspapers might as well issue simple public-relations-style puff pieces and have done with it.

See above. No...further above. That one.

The role of a critic is to cover a field.

I like it! That's not what I might have said, but it's a good start...

Figure 2: Jacoby Ellsbury, Center Field Critic, Boston Red Sox

This doesn't mean simply pandering to popular taste.

One would hope not. That's Entertainment Weekly's job.

It means doing one's best to convey a sense of what is going on in a given discipline by writing about every possible side of it.

Uh, hmm. Sort of, except the side that has any grounding in technical terms that might alienate the casual reader (sometimes known by scary words like "theory" that rob art of its ability to foster feelings of ownership). That "possible side" is usually neglected. Now, there are reasons for this, but clearly "every possible side" is not really the scope of most arts criticism.

It means trying to convey a perspective that a reader who doesn't spend every night going to concerts/plays/films may not be able to gather himself; or offering a thoughtful take that might stimulate a reader who does go to everything to see something in a different light.

These are all valid points. I am very glad that it does not include "telling the reader how the art in question made you feel."

For part of our role is to foster dialogue and debate.

That is most excellent. And important. And sometimes neglected. And potentially powerful, and therefore potentially dangerous.

That doesn't mean setting forth judgments of taste in order that readers might fall obediently into line behind us.

Unless you're Bernard Holland. Sorry, but there ya go.

Quite the contrary: it may mean putting out views that one knows may represent the minority.


It means being interested in the thoughts of those who disagree.

I think it means potentially being interested in those thoughts, but point taken.

This is good stuff.

It means being delighted when someone is powerfully moved by something one didn't like oneself.

Maybe. I am not delighted when people are "moved" by the Jonas Brothers, or a two week-long orgy of dead Zombie entertainer coverage. This is due to the effect it has on my own environment and quality of life. I don't begrudge them their, uh, crap. I just don't want to hear about it.**

I can't even go to the damn grocery store anymore. I'm not saying that all the magazines should have Mendelssohn's birthday issues--far from it. It seems to me that the potential good of having a plethora of Special Interest Magazines is that THEY DON'T ALL HAVE THE SAME FUCKING THING ON THE COVER.

Sorry. I don't usually e-yell like that. But all I wanted was some ice cream, and I got Zombie Rememberance Super Memorial Comemmorative Editions everywhere I looked.

It also means writing well enough that someone might want to read you -- a goal that's hard to reach if all you're doing is trying to push readers to buy tickets.

This is very true, and not a trivial point.

The disciplines collectively referred to as "the arts," commercial or not-for-profit, highbrow or low, offer a lot more than simply the possibility of passive consumption and a thumbs-up, thumbs-down reaction at the end of the exercise.

Oh, snap! Take that, Roger Ebert!***

Their very existence is a tacit reminder that there is a lot more out there than this passive consumption, and critics should be reminding people of this fact. To get diverted into yet another hand-wringing round of us-against-them, critics-are-dying-out, audiences-are-stupid plaints is pointless.

Aw, just one more round. Please?

Audiences aren't stupid, and if critics are feeling irrelevant, it's up to us to figure out how to become a more vital part of the debate. But if we measure "relevance" by how many tickets we sell or how many people agree with us, we've already abnegated our responsibility.


Two things.

One, go back and read the whole thing again, and imagine something like "composer" and "music" substituting for "critic" and "criticism."

Two, I am a bit light on Simpsons references considering my alternate title, so here is a corrective:

Figure 3: Ralph Wiggum, Cat-Food Breath Critic, Branches Out

I'll follow up Ms. Midgette's follow-up soon.

* I can't find the Groucho Marx quote to which I am referring. Rest assured, there is a clever reference being made here.

** I have my own crap, and don't want to be begrudged either.

*** Roger Ebert is actually a very fine writer, but this was an easy jab. So sue me.


Gustav said...

Ms. Midgette is wrong however that the audience isn't stupid. They are stupid. And the media is stupid, also. I think your point about the Dead Zombie, SA, is more than proof enough. North Korea could've dropped a nuclear bomb on china in the past three weeks and it would have been merely news ticker fodder while Magic Johnson told more hyperbolic stories of the awe of eating KFC with the King of Child Molesters on Skeletor Live. Only a stupid people could be as easily distracted as this.

However, I am glad to see Ms. Midgette make this public defense of the critic, which is to say, a public defense of intellectualism, the idea that we need experts out there as resources, as champions, and as vocal critics of fads and detractors. If only she would have defended the arts in general, as they've become nothing more than entertainment to most people (and media outlets), rather than the sometimes profound reflection of our socity, culture and times.

There are still plenty of us who respect and applaude apt criticism and the role it plays. But the demise of public forum critics, along with the fall of the newspaper, is more a reflection of a society becoming obsessed with trivialities and celebrity-culture than an evolution of the news media. The audience, or at least the culture, is getting stupidier.

Very funny stuff, SA.

Sator Arepo said...

Well, Gustav, it seems that everything is for sale, even that which we will leave behind to be remembered. And that sucks.

Perhaps, indeed, there is no remedy for anti-intellectualism so long as personal wealth stands as the be-all of our cultural values.

That said, I'm getting pretty sick of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, too.

Anonymous said...

Time Warner owns Turner Entertainment which bought MGM/UA which is run by Sony Corp and Providence Equity Partners.
MJ's music is on the Sony Music label.
Time Warner owns CNN.
CNN has been running a 24 infomercial for MJ.

The Obama administration bailed out GE 139 billion dollars (borrowed against US taxpayers).
GE owns a 80% stake in NBC.
Certainly pro-Obama coverage during the election was contingent on this bailout.

Americans are so stupid because of a government education system designed to take reasoning out of the classroom. This system pioneered by Marx, Heine, Hegel, Engals and other 18th century thinkers has successfully prepared several nations for totalitarian socialist governments, genocide and enslavement. If you went to public school and you disagree with this statement it's evidence that the system is working!

But ultimately the MJ 'coverage' has two clear functions. The first of which is clearly calculated the second of which is curious.
1. Sell Americans crappy music by creating hysteria.
2. Run cover for the President's dangerous foreign policy and our congress's attempt to strengthen and expand the serf class.

As for this article-- depends on the critic.

Sator Arepo said...

Oh, cereal. You know you've long been my favorite right-wing nutjob.

AnthonyS said...

This is an amazing comment thread, to be sure.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad you guys are knowledgeable and agree with me! 'Cause I'm certain if you had a little evidence to the contrary you would have presented it.

Sator Arepo said...

"Certainly pro-Obama coverage during the election was contingent on this bailout."

Linking three facts and then ascertaining a certainty from their proximity to one another is not sound reasoning, either. I guess you went to public school, too.


Obama is (half-) black
Obama wore a White Sox jacket to the All-Star "game", which was also black
"Black" or evil magic is attributed to Satan
Therefore Obama is certainly Satan, or at the very least a Satanist of some stripe (which is the same as a Muslim, right?)

However, if a living wage was enacted that allowed most families to do well with one wage earner, and the other parent received training, funds, and materials with which to educate their children, *perhaps* I could agree about public education. However, we'd likely be even further behind countries like India in education, who put a premium on such things (admittedly not for everyone), especially in technology, because everyone knows science is just another religion based on false "facts" and we wouldn't be required to teach it to our home-schooled children on the grounds of religious freedom.

Also, the world was clearly created by the Great Prumple Vreeble Snart, and if you had a little evidence to the contrary you would certainly present it (and "it's written in a book" doesn't count).

As for the MJ coverage, the networks are far more concerned about viewership which = advertising dollars more than any political agenda. Which is not, of course, an excuse. It still sucked.

Maybe Obama got elected because people, despite their public education and lack of reason, are tired of perpetual war? Or, barring that, idiots being in charge.

Meh, I've said too much. This ain't much of a political blog.

Sator Arepo said...

Hey, cereal, I had to delete your last comment (as you know, and requested)--please re-post it.

matt w said...

The quote you want is, "Chicolini here may talk like an idiot, and look like an idiot, but don't let that fool you: he really is an idiot."

Sator Arepo said...

Thanks matt w--that's the one. It's from "Duck Soup."

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