Tuesday, November 1, 2016

The Thin Edge of a Critical Wedge

The theatre critic at The Guardian, Michael Billington, has a piece up about the oddly vague dangers of subsidizing arts criticism: A subsidised critic is the thin end of a dangerous wedge. The piece takes its departure from a New York Times story about a consortium of non-profit groups who are going to help pay the salary of an arts critic. Let's quote from that item:
As media coverage of classical music continues a decades-long diminuendo across the United States, The Boston Globe is trying something new: On Monday it announced a pilot program in which a consortium of nonprofit groups would help it pay for a critic.
The groups — the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation — will help The Globe pay for Zoë Madonna to be a music critic at the newspaper for 10 months, beginning on Monday. The consortium said that the Globe would retain complete editorial control over her assignments and her work.
The arrangement, which could expand to other papers if it is successful, is seen as a potential way to halt the erosion of classical music criticism in America, where many magazines and newspapers no longer employ classical critics and, increasingly, no longer review classical music. The situation has been something of a vicious cycle: If the trend began because general interest in classical music was shrinking, many arts groups now fear that the disappearance of media coverage is hastening that decline.
Well that's clear enough, plus extra points for the musical metaphor in paragraph one. So what is Mr. Billington's objection? It is rather an odd one, actually:
...the dangers of extending the idea of altruistic giving to critics are obvious. In the specific case of Boston, the San Francisco Conservatory has a roster of distinguished alumni and the Getty Foundation supports many musical institutions. It is perfectly possible that Ms Madonna may find herself reviewing work by the products of both organisations. I know nothing of Ms Madonna but I am perfectly sure she will jealously guard her integrity. The danger, in such a situation, is not that the critic will give a soft ride to her fellow beneficiaries, it is more likely that she will be unduly rigorous in order to display her independence. 
I say odd because all the recent examples I can recall are ones where a music critic was actually fired for doing his job after complaints from the arts organizations that his critiques were too critical, not supportive enough. In the most blatant recent example, the editors sided with the arts groups and happily spiked the review.

It seems to me that the editorial control is as much a problem as arts groups that expect nothing but puff-pieces and boosterism. I probably have more trust that a consortium of non-profit groups would actually let the critic do his job than I do that the newspaper editors would. Every day we see examples of the most horrendous bias and propaganda emanating from all the mass media.

Unfortunately most of the cultural trends these days exclude the notion of objective criticism of the arts entirely, so the first task might well be to explain to everyone just how and why arts criticism is important and necessary.

Let's have a listen to some music for inspiration. This is the late Schubert Quintet in C major. This is a cello quintet, meaning that it for a string quartet with an extra cello. The other kind of string quintet is the kind Mozart wrote for, with an extra viola. I have two very different performances for you. The first is an all-star lineup from Prades in 1952 with Isaac Stern, violin-Alexander Schneider, violin-Milton Katims, viola-Pablo Casals, cello and Paul Tortelier, cello:

The other performance is by the young Canadian Afiara Quartet joined by Joel Krosnick on cello. There is an introduction and the performance starts at the 8:20 mark:


Jives said...

a worthy envoi! There is so much in that first gesture and the two groups do it so differently. Amazing.

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh yes!

Anonymous said...

“so the first task might well be to explain to everyone just how and why arts criticism is important and necessary.”

This has been discussed recently at Amazon’s classical forums. I tend to agree with this post arguing that criticism is superseded now that audiences have access to more information than the venerated critics of old ever did. To whit:

“Criticism was, in its heyday of the postwar 1950s, an elite class of followers explaining, perhaps arbitrating, culture to the rest of us. Today, few need it. 21st century people have the same access to just about everything as critics. Anyone with the Internet and a computer or tablet can locate as much culture as any critic and learn to make judgments themselves.”

I count a couple of professional classical music critics among my friends, and one thing that’s always struck me is that my record collection is much larger than theirs, thanks in part to most classical recordings now being readily available at no cost through internet filesharing. Back when music cost money, a critic might have helped one choose what to spend one’s limited funds on, but now that it’s all free, I can just download it all.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks for this very interesting comment, Anonymous. I decided to devote a whole post to my response.