Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Critical Judgment

I'm coming to the end of my long, long read of Aesthetics by Monroe C. Beardsley. As I do I am pretty sure that I am just going to start reading it again from the beginning. Here is a very good paragraph on the deficiencies of psychological approaches to aesthetics:
The language of likes and dislikes is an important and useful language, but it is not the language of critical judgment. "Is it good?" cannot be reduced to "Do you like it?" (it is more like "What is your reflective judgement of it?") or even to "Will I like it?" (it is more like "Considering that it cost me money and effort to see it, or considering that I have already seen it and it would cost me time to study it further, will it worth my while to try and understand it?").
This seems so common-sense that it is puzzling how we have gotten so far away from it. But the heavy emphasis today on psychological approaches is a partial explanation, as are some political trends. We live in a deeply polarized society in which what everyone says is mistrusted because we nearly always suspect their motives for saying it. Objective truth is like one of those endangered species, clinging to existence by a fingernail!

Another odd thing is how people in the business, actual art and music critics, seem to have given up on the whole concept of objective aesthetic value. There are still a couple around, but most writers on art and music are either performing a promotional role or avoid aesthetic judgments entirely. I have run into one review recently that I would classify as untrammeled music criticism. It is by Arthur Kaptainis in the Montreal Gazette and is the second part of this article that begins by talking about Valentina Lisitsa. Here is a sample:
Become Ocean, the great bucket of bilge water that has won John Luther Adams a Grammy for Best Contemporary Classical Composition and a Pulitzer Prize for Music, was otherwise chugging redoubtably forward, getting louder, getting softer, sometimes hazarding a mild dissonance over the gurgling major triads, and doing, on the whole, Sweet Minim All.
It is my sad duty to report that this monumental exercise in nothingness for full orchestra goes on for 42 minutes in this fashion.
The acclaim that has greeted this silly exercise (as performed by the Seattle Symphony under Ludovic Morlot, not that this really matters) is a sad comment on the state of both American music and American music criticism.  
Now there is someone that is not afraid to speak his mind! And yes, it is a sad comment because it seems as if what really won over the judges was the environmental program notes about rising sea levels. Is there anything that the "climate change" fanatics haven't corrupted?

The last time I talked about Become Ocean there were no clips up on YouTube so I couldn't share it with you. There still aren't. But there are several promotional "trailers". I will spare you and instead put up as an envoi today a piece whose aesthetic value was very important to the composer. At the time he wrote his Symphony No. 5, Dmitri Shostakovich was being condemned as a "formalist" in Pravda. The next step for artists who failed to toe the socialist realist line was often a trip to a work camp in Siberia (from which few returned) or perhaps a quick firing squad in Lubyanka prison as was the fate of one of Shostakovich's in-laws. So, the premiere of his next piece, the Symphony No. 5, was critical to his very life, not to mention his career. He had to, somehow, both fulfill the strictures of socialist realism (or appear to) and at the same time appeal to the taste of the Russian public. He did so so successfully that there was a half-hour standing ovation at the premiere. And he was not arrested and even outlived Stalin. Here is a performance by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic:


Patrick said...


I can't tell if you think the citied and copied music review is an example of a critic who has "given up on the whole concept of objective aesthetic value" or one of those upholding said objective value.

If the later, what objective standards do you think are being employed to come to the judgements expresses?


Bryan Townsend said...

Oh darn, Patrick, a good question!

Actually, I think I was pretty clear that I think that Arthur Kaptainis is one of the old-fashioned kind of music critics that isn't afraid to make real critical remarks. So yes, upholding objective value in the sense of making critical judgments, not just "I like this".

To answer your question we need to look at the whole article where he says "There is nothing in Become Ocean to be disappointed by or impatient with. Nothing for 42 minutes. You have been warned." The problem for him with the piece is that it is directionless and basically empty of any significant content. These are objective criteria. You might counter with something about how the texture and orchestration are what it is all about, but I'm sure Kaptainis would counter that. The point is that, like any good critic, the review points out specific, concrete details about the music that are relevant to its aesthetic value.

Jives said...

I love this Kaptainis guy. this was the best nugget for me.

"You might upbraid me for my uncoolness and explain earnestly that for nothing to happen on a vast scale is the aesthetic point of this score and others like it. My response is that the point, if this is indeed the point, is pointless. I could make the same point in less time with fewer forces, or more time with more."

Now THAT'S an opinion, and even though I don't agree with the slam to Boccherini, I give him props for staking out his position in no uncertain terms. He doesn't give a damn what people think of him, he writes about the music itself, not the politics of it, not the sex of the conductor, etc, etc,...

The thing about really good critics is, you can get good information about the music from them regardless of how they feel about the piece. I've never heard Become Ocean, but I have a pretty good idea of what I'm in for if I seek it out. Even a middling or unflattering review, if it contains specifics about what the critic is reacting to, can be informative and spur me on to explore more. it's the exchange of ideas that is so refreshing.

Bryan Townsend said...

Jives, that is extremely well put! Yes, a good review of anything should start with an objective description of the work at hand. In journalism this step is often short-changed and all we get are the subjective reactions of the writer. But a good critic will always give us solid information about the piece.

I think that in writing about music there are three basic categories: basic uncontroversial information about the piece: "this symphony was written in 1937, is in four movements and the themes from the first movement return in the last..." Then there are the critical judgments: "unfortunately, there is so much melodic material that the listener is confused..." Then there might be some genuinely subjective comments: "yes, this is a fine piece by Wagner, but my personal tastes do not run to this kind of orchestration..."

David said...

Bryan, here is a bit of back story to the approach of Arthur Kaptanis to his profession as a music critic. Once you have read it (you may already be aware of this recent kerbuffle) you will underline your note in the comment just above about objective description and "no-holds barred" critiques.

In May of this year, Kaptanis authored an honest review of a production of the Canadian Opera Company. What followed was a discourse between the COC and the editor of the National Post in which the review was published (online). Here is a link to the full story:

I believe that Kaptanis has severed his relationship with the National Post and continues to write for the Montreal Gazette. I think he is in your camp when it comes to recognizing the importance of aesthetics in music (some really is better than the rest).

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, David. I did write about the Kaptainis/Canadian Opera Company dispute in this post:

These days, just doing your simple duty as a critic puts you in conflict with all the powerful institutions: media, opera companies, symphony orchestras and, oddly enough but above all, colleges and universities. And the sad thing is that a lot of people just don't get it.