These days it seems as though I’m doing nothing but write, and not often enough for this blog.
But there was another piece I wanted to talk about in addition to The Atlantic article referenced in my last post. That piece is an article by David Hajdu in this month’s Columbia Journalism Review, and it’s headlined Condition Critical: Can arts critics survive the poison pill of consumerism?
I can’t find a free copy of this on the Web, but in essence, Hajdu takes the reader skillfully through the different challenges faced by today’s arts critics, among which are loss of venue, a cultural dumb-down that turns critcism into consumer advice rather than intellectual engagement, and the demise of the arts as a beat for critics even if you have a venue.
Hajdu is pretty objective in this piece, and quotes interested parties on all sides. But the main thrust of the article is basically that arts criticism is in trouble, and there’s no telling how much of a place it will hold in the future cultural landscape.
Some fascinating quotes in this piece, such as this one from Leon Wieseltier, who’s the literary editor of The New Republic. Hajdu quotes him saying this after Wieselteir says criticism has always been a mix of opinion and learned judgment:
But beginning with Amazon, which made anybody who could type into a book reviewer, and now as the Web sites and the blogs have proliferated, we have entered a nightmare of opinion-making. This culture of outbursts, and the weird and totally unwarranted authority that it has been granted, has been responsible for a collapse of the distinction between opinion and judgment. It’s one of the baleful consequences of the democratization of expression by the Web.
This is an illuminating, and confrontational, thing to say. There’s no question that there are all kinds of different opinions from an astounding number of sources out there any day on the Web. And to a certain extent, many more opinion-makers will be followed than at any time during the dominance of the older style of media, if only to very small segments of the population.
But as wild and woolly as it is out there, I think at most what will happen on the Web is that there will be a few more names than there otherwise might have been of pundits and writers that will have national and international reputations. The Web has democratized opinion making, yes, but it’s created a much smaller number of folks who reliably offer critiques on the Web. It takes time, no matter who you are, to write a decent piece of criticism, and when you sit down to do it you are more than conscious of the great hall of educated opinion you’re stepping into.
For everything I say in a critical piece, I am aware that some if not most of my readers know more, and in some cases, much more than I do about a specific piece of music that I’ve heard. What I can offer is not superiority of education or the ability to play pieces better than anyone I hear; what I can offer is the relative pleasure of knowing that someone who’s as interested as they are in the art has volunteered to take the time to go to the event, take notes, and write up what he thought.
I don’t take my criticism writing lightly, either. If I can (and it’s much easier now with the Net to find things) I study the scores of the pieces before the concerts, play through them if I have enough time, and listen to recordings, also if there’s time.
If it’s a book I’m reviewing, I almost always — and I’ve only failed to do this once or twice — read the book through twice and take notes. Serious nonfiction is very difficult to review because in many cases so much of the information is new or looked at in such a novel way that it sounds new. Fiction can be an easier read the first time through, but the second time is almost harder because you’re trying to see how the writer carries off his effects and makes the fiction work (if indeed it works).
So I don’t think there will be more seat-of-the-pants criticism that competes for our attention in the long run. A few voices, and there will be more than there would have been before the arrival of this technology, will rise above the others to shoulder the burden of received general critical opinion about the arts.
That will be true not because everyone is retrograde and afraid of different opinions. It will be because doing a decent job of writing criticism that people will respect and read is actual work. It’s brain work, not physical labor, so it’s not as demanding on the muscles as roadbuilding or something crucial to the way we live.
But it’s still work, and that fact will push most of the millions of occasional bloggers to the margins, which is the land of the hobby, and there’s not a thing wrong with that. It’s wonderful, actually.
What will remain for those who want to be professional critics is the question of the outlet, and that, too, will follow the same logic. The best blogs and news organizations will get the best critics, and they will be well-known names whom people enjoy reading and whom they respect, even when they disagree violently with them.
Speaking of criticism, I’ve been to four concerts in the past eight days: The Poulenc Trio at the Flagler Museum; the Boca Symphonia at St. Andrews; Itzhak Perlman at the Kravis; and the Dublin Philharmonic, also at the Kravis.