Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Need for Criticism

A hat tip to Slipped Disc for sending me to this article about the need for criticism: The Reviewer’s Fallacy: When critics aren’t critical enough.
The Reviewer’s Fallacy is a different sort of phenomenon, less premeditated than baked into today’s critical enterprise. One of the root causes stems from Sturgeon’s law, named after its originator, science-fiction author Theodore Sturgeon, who once observed, “It can be argued that 90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. is crap.” The “It can be argued” part usually isn’t quoted, and the figure is very ballpark. But it’s inarguable that the majority of what comes down the pike, in any medium, is mediocre or worse. It would be tiresome for critics to constantly be counting the ways that the work under review is crap, nor would their editors and the owners of the publications they write for be happy with a consistently downbeat arts section. The result is an unconscious inclination to grade on a curve. That is, if something isn’t very good, but is better than two-thirds of other entries in the genre—superhero epics, quirky or sensitive indie films, detective novels, literary fiction, cable cringe comedies—give it a B or B-plus.
Which can be summed up as "mediocre works reviewed by mediocre critics lead to a universe of mediocrity!"

What is the situation in classical music? One thing that skews both criticism and audience reaction is the impact of popular music. Economically, classical music is dwarfed by the huge amount of money devoted to popular music. In the world of classical music itself, contemporary music is dwarfed by the (relatively) large amount of money devoted to the standard repertoire. I see the trend toward streaming as yet another kind of pressure on classical music and contemporary music in particular. In the past, and still the case in Europe, classical music was so deeply rooted in the culture that it retains a high visibility. concert halls and opera houses dominate the cultural landscape in major urban centers and there is a strong, healthy festival culture that attracts very large numbers of listeners.

The Glastonbury Festival in the UK, five days devoted to popular music, attracts a total audience of 135,000 (figures from the last two years available) while the nearly 100 year old Salzburg Festival in Austria attracted 261,000 last year. Mind you, this is over a six-week span.

Along with the deeply-rooted presence of both standard repertoire and contemporary repertoire in the leading European music institutions, goes a level of criticism that also participates in the traditional aesthetic values--I am speaking here largely of Europe. It is only in the occasional pocket in North America that one encounters much genuine music criticism. When I lived in Montreal, for example, it was only found in the French newspapers and among them only in the most intellectual, Le Devoir. (Real intellectualism seems to be almost restricted to the French press where we also find it in Le Monde and Le Monde diplomatique.) You might also expect it in, for example, the New York Times, the New Yorker and perhaps the Globe and Mail. But, in my view, this is not the case. I have mentioned on a number of occasions my reservations with the writing of Alex Ross at the New Yorker and, absent the occasional column in the past from Richard Taruskin, I don't find a lot of criticism at the New York Times. What is missing? Largely the critical spirit and the tools necessary to express it. Instead we find a slavish genuflection to the received wisdom of the progressive left.

It would take a great deal of courage, backed up with considerable knowledge and expertise, to go against any progressive shibboleth, of course. And I have only seen this exhibited with much finesse in the popular press by Richard Taruskin, who has both in abundance. And even he is very careful to only opine in areas where he has overwhelming expertise.

For a good read, go to the comments on the Slipped Disc post.

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