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.
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.