Thursday, November 17, 2016

Dispensable Music Critics

I got a very interesting comment on a recent post that I thought deserved its own post. The post was The Thin Edge of a Critical Wedge which you should read first. Here is the relevant paragraph:
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.
And here is the Anonymous comment:
“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 I tend to agree with this post arguing that criticism is superseded now that audiences have access to more information than the venerated critics of old ever did.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.
 There are a whole lot of comments at the link, pro, con and otherwise. I think that this is an interesting variation on a critique of criticism that might be summarized as "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" which is interpreted to mean that anyone's aesthetic perception is as good as anyone else's, or, aesthetics is relative. The interesting new element is the access pretty well everyone has (at least in modern, first world nations) to virtually every piece of music there is. This was not true a hundred and more years ago when it took critics like Robert Schumann to introduce audiences to newcomers like Chopin. What remains the same, however, is the dispute over the objectivity of aesthetics and the utility of criticism.

Yes, you can "just download it all" though if the "all" means all classical music that is going to take a while. You don't even have to download it though, you can just listen to it on YouTube or stream it on a number of commercial services. But while this may cost you very little or nothing in terms of money, there are very significant costs in terms of time!

I yield place to no-one in my distrust of so-called "experts". I have often commented that some of the supposed friends and supporters of classical music are really our worst enemies. And we have just seem a mammoth demonstration of just how far wrong the assembled hoards of intellectuals, media personalities, newspapers of record, journalists, celebrities and pundits can be. But despite all this, the thoughts of those who really are experienced, educated and possessing of finely-tuned sensibilities are as valuable as ever. Perhaps more so.

Don't even call it "criticism" if the word offends you. Just call it "writing about music". This is a difficult task, but one I find very fulfilling and so apparently do rather a large number of readers and commentators on this blog.

What criticism really offers, when it is well done, is a process and means of selection. Frankly, no-one has time to listen to everything. If a critic or writer I trust points me to a particular composer or performer that is worth my time, I am grateful. There is an astounding amount of music that is probably best avoided, so counsel as to which is also valuable. Not to deny the importance of everyone's individual judgment. But I think that there is nothing wrong with learning from people who really have something to say and penetrating observations to share.

One phenomenon that is probably not marked enough is the decline in culture generally which we can see if we compare Donald Francis Tovey's essays on musical analysis, originally written as program notes, with recent books on music by people like David Hurwitz. Perhaps the last gasp of really serious writing on music for the general public was Richard Taruskin's monumental Oxford History of Western Music and we are not likely to see something like it anytime soon.

Music recordings and information about music are more available than ever before. Real knowledge and wisdom about music is perhaps rarer than ever.

Let's have some Chopin for an envoi. This is Grigory Sokolov playing the Preludes, op. 28 in a concert in Salzburg in 2008:

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