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Do Critics Matter?

The fact that the classical music, dance, and art critics are not represented in today's critics' survey in the Washington Post may give those of us in those disciplines extra reason to worry that what we write doesn't actually matter.

But the whole idea that there should be some kind of correlation between reviews in the paper and ticket sales, or popularity, is fundamentally flawed to start with. It reveals a misunderstanding of what it is a critic does. Our role is not to be mere consumer advocates, telling you how to spend your hard-earned dollars. If that were the only point, newspapers might as well issue simple public-relations-style puff pieces and have done with it.

The role of a critic is to cover a field. This doesn't mean simply pandering to popular taste. It means doing one's best to convey a sense of what is going on in a given discipline by writing about every possible side of it. It means trying to convey a perspective that a reader who doesn't spend every night going to concerts/plays/films may not be able to gather himself; or offering a thoughtful take that might stimulate a reader who does go to everything to see something in a different light.

For part of our role is to foster dialogue and debate. That doesn't mean setting forth judgments of taste in order that readers might fall obediently into line behind us. Quite the contrary: it may mean putting out views that one knows may represent the minority. It means being interested in the thoughts of those who disagree. It means being delighted when someone is powerfully moved by something one didn't like oneself. It also means writing well enough that someone might want to read you -- a goal that's hard to reach if all you're doing is trying to push readers to buy tickets.

The disciplines collectively referred to as "the arts," commercial or not-for-profit, highbrow or low, offer a lot more than simply the possibility of passive consumption and a thumbs-up, thumbs-down reaction at the end of the exercise. Their very existence is a tacit reminder that there is a lot more out there than this passive consumption, and critics should be reminding people of this fact. To get diverted into yet another hand-wringing round of us-against-them, critics-are-dying-out, audiences-are-stupid plaints is pointless. Audiences aren't stupid, and if critics are feeling irrelevant, it's up to us to figure out how to become a more vital part of the debate. But if we measure "relevance" by how many tickets we sell or how many people agree with us, we've already abnegated our responsibility.

Edited to add updated links to the various critics' published statements.

By Anne Midgette  |  July 1, 2009; 12:36 PM ET
Categories:  random musings  
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I think critics are a vital part of the arts milieu but I do wonder how much longer we'll see critics outside of the major newspapers. It would be a glorious world where the NYT (or indeed yourself) had the luxury of length afforded to Alex Ross in the New Yorker for reviewing but this would have to be impossible in not only in an economic sense but also whether it would even be possible to do those 1500 word pieces more than, at most, fortnightly.

I disagree with his opinion on Mueck, but Jones' recent piece about art criticism not being a democracy may be of interest-

Posted by: ianw2 | July 1, 2009 2:54 PM | Report abuse

The Post Style Section has become a bore for anyone actually interested in the arts. It's always treated the arts as second-fiddle to celebraties and TV, but was redeemed by the frequent appearance of some genuinely interesting critics, such as yourself and Tim Page. Now it's nearly all fluff.

Posted by: petercapitolhill | July 1, 2009 5:55 PM | Report abuse

The Style Section as with other "Arts" sections in major newspapers has declined in quality to the point that it is often on the par with entertainment tabloids. Even if I sometimes disagree with your views, I am grateful for the fact that one can still seek out some semblance of intelligent writing several days a week during the concert season. I am not very optimistic about the future though. I expect in a few years your fashion writer (who now seems to get the most space in your newspaper), along with those mass entertainment critics will completely take over this section. Like the poor book critics who have been mostly replaced by paid ads from a bunch of self absorbed morons facebooking to the world on Sunday on how they met in some dingy bar and now are getting married in some fancy hotel. Serious music critics like yourself will find an increasingly reduced allotment of print space to write your columns. Although music and book criticism are taking the heaviest hits, anyone who has read newspapers for more than a decade knows how steep the decline has been in all aspects of journalism.

Posted by: commenter4 | July 1, 2009 9:59 PM | Report abuse

I think the ideals you set out in this post are not in fact how it works out in practice. Many people do in fact turn to critics' reviews as a kind of consumer report. You describe the role of critic as a kind of educator, but to a lot of audiences critics are simply elitists, and what they have to say isn't that important because there's no accounting for taste.

Posted by: robertcostic | July 1, 2009 11:19 PM | Report abuse

Anne, your point is well taken (and as usual written with clarity and poise). It seems that the death knell for the arts, and music in particular, has been sounded with alarm for decades. But, admittedly a "glass-half-full" person, I can't feel completely defeated as long as you, and others like you, still have a voice in the paper. We know the media landscape is changing faster than anyone can track, and there's no way to predict what form it will take for us. But the passion with which you write, the musicians play, and the students learn is inextinguishable, I think. It's that deep love and deep level of engagement in the message of music, within individuals, that will keep us alive. Even if it transforms into something quite different. Two recent experiences reinforce this for me: First, the size and enthusiasm of the audience at the Terrace Theatre, on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, packing the house to hear Messiaen last weekend. And the Castleton Festival, which starts tomorrow, presented a dress rehearsal last night. The vigor and devotion and passion for music is absolutely palpable among this international gathering of brilliant young musicians. These things give me hope. A bit off the subject, perhaps, but your long history of presenting music, which is what I believe you do, is an integral part of the good health of music in our culture. I continue to be hopeful.

Posted by: mcooley | July 2, 2009 7:01 AM | Report abuse

Robert, you seem to be contradicting yourself. On the one hand you say people tend to use reviews as a "consumer report," and on the other that people think critics are elitists and don't pay much attention to them. What am I missing?

For myself, I agree with Anne that a critic should be a generalist who can fill the rest of us in on what's happeninng in that critic's field. Reviews of live performances I read out of curiosity and not generally as a "what to see" guide since the concert has already concluded.

I do use CD reviews as a "screen" for what to buy when I'm looking for CDs. I use the "Classics Today" website which has understandable reviews of a lot of CDs and gives clear numerical ratings of the quality of the performance and of the sound. While I won't buy a CD simply because it's highly rated, I'll avoid ones with a low rating, unless there's a particular reason for getting the CD in question.

Generally I like Anne's reviews because she writes in comprehensible, nontechnical language. That's also the reason I've always enjoyed Warren Brown's auto reviews, because he gives the feeling of what it's like to drive a particular model without getting into all the technical mumbojumbo.

Bottom line, keep up the good work, Anne.


Posted by: shovetheplanet | July 2, 2009 8:33 AM | Report abuse

Of course critics matter, and Anne has set forth a number of valid reasons for their importance (not least of which is the quality of her writing): they provide information, occasionally enlightenment, and are a resource for all of us who believe that educating oneself is a lifetime endeavor for a civilized human being. What Anne (or the other comments) don’t mention, is that criticism, of any kind, is also a literary form. I read Anne’s criticism not only for information, but for the enjoyment I derive from her writing. As for the decline of newspapers, the dumbing down of the Arts section, etc., one needs to maintain some perspective. As Anne told us, there are about 48 million violin players in China, which is probably more than the entire number of people in Western Europe during, say, Vivaldi’s lifetime. The point is not that the Chinese will take over (or, perhaps more accurately, retake) civilization, but that civilization has always been the work of an exceedingly small number of people. The market share of classical music (or the arts or literature) is irrelevant, unless you start being worried about full employment for artists and musicians. The Style section of the Post (as well as the entire paper) is geared to the lowest common denominator because the purpose of the media is to sell advertising. However, there is something there for everybody, because the better educated, or more eager to become better educated, readers are the ones likely to make the larger purchases. But a Style section can never be more than an entryway, a starting point for anyone interested in any particular topic; it is not a replacement for reading a book or attending a concert. That Anne’s work is of consequence, I think is reflected in the blog here. It is one of the few places on the internet where a civilized tone reigns and where thoughtful people make thoughtful comments. This is very different from the angry mob scene of most other blog sites. It is also a logical supplement for what is missing in the newspaper – I have learned more from the comments here since I started reading Anne’s blog than I was able to learn in many years, and I’ve sought out music to hear that I would not have known about or listened to before. Ok, so I still don’t like some of it, but at least I know why. Keep up the good work, Anne.

Posted by: gauthier310 | July 2, 2009 9:49 AM | Report abuse

Hey Mitch, to respond to your point, I think many readers pay attention to reviews primarily because the critics have experienced the work first, not because they can provide novel insight or wisdom.

The "consumer reports" analogy is not an exact fit because there's obviously a difference between testing a product's quality (generally viewed as an objective scientific assessment) versus making aesthetic judgments (generally viewed as subjective opinions).

The analogy works in the sense that many audiences turn to consumer reports and critical reviews to get a sense of what the product or artistic work is like, but I don't think many audiences take seriously critics' ability to make aesthetic judgments better than they do.

To the extent that a critic fills us in on what's going on in the critic's field, that's not really criticism so much as just journalism. But I think Anne's point is that the aesthetic judgments of critics are informed by their extensive research and involvement in the field, and that hopefully their reviews help audiences understand works better. But I don't think that's how most audiences see it, for the reasons given above.

Posted by: robertcostic | July 2, 2009 10:47 AM | Report abuse

I agree with prior comments that Style is becoming more 'lowest common denominator', but I think that is just a reflection of the coarsening of our culture.
As to high art music being the work of (and consumed by) the few, history would seem to indicate otherwise, e.g. Paganini or Liszt being the rock stars of their day.
Finally, I also agree with poster who has found Anne's blog to be a great resource. I can only second that, and hope for a long life for it.

Posted by: kashe | July 2, 2009 12:47 PM | Report abuse

I think your points as to the role of a critic are exceptionally well taken. But, the role of the critic is, I believe, also to write in clear language so as to be understood by average readers. Too many reviews focus on the esoteric using language that send most Harvard grads (but not Yale, of course) running for the dictionary. Yes, no need to dumb down, and, yes, it's important to have a point of view that doesn't conform to the masses, but do so in a way that doesn't reaffirm the opinions of too many readers that the classical arts are elitest. The more readers are confused, the more they stay away. I fear too many critics are so enamored of their opinions and are so intent in showing the world just how much they know that they reaffirm the view that they are more elitest than the arts they cover. That's not a good thing for anyone.

Posted by: newcriticalcritic | July 2, 2009 1:34 PM | Report abuse

“The fact that the classical music, dance, and art critics are not represented in today's citics’ survey in the Washington Post may give those of us in those disciplines extra reason to worry that what we write doesn't actually matter.” (Anne Midgette)

I don’t understand. Did the Washington Post change the link? I clicked on the link and found the following three stories dealing with American art, dance, and classical music:

3. The ““Ramp It Up" exhibit traces Native American skateboarding with short films, images, graffiti -- and a half-pipe smack in the middle of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian.”

Doesn’t this qualify as beloved American performance art, which was championed and heavily funded by the National Endowment for the Arts in the 1980s and early 1990s?

2. A headline tribute to the passing of American pop icon Michael Jackson, who is certainly relevant to American modern dance (as well as to American pop music).

Although Michael Jackson is equally relevant to late 20th century American and global modern dance and American and global performance art, no?

1. “A new production of Britten's "The Turn of the Screw" makes a considerable effect for the launch of the Castleton Festival at a "home theater" that seats 140 people.”

Well, it is not the Washington National Opera commissioning a new American opera by Aretha Louise Franklin, but doesn’t this qualify as classical music? Or does the Washington Post consider classical music and opera (and literature) completely separate matters as did the National Endowment for the Arts in the 1980s and early 1990s?

And while I imagine that you, Philip Kennicott, Charles Downey, and the Washington National Opera publicist were all in attendance at the Castleton Festival (repeatedly covered by the Washington Post), those who could not make the longish night trip nor afford the paid-for ticket prices had to content themselves with fine African and Latino/a American and Welsh folk song on the National Mall, the free NSO/Broadway/Military Services
classical/pops cross-over concert for millions on July 4th which included Aretha Franklin and music of Aaron Copland, and the free month-long celebration (now ended) of one hundred and fifty years of American classical music on Classical WETA-FM.

Perhaps the Washington Post’s television and radio critic can see whether there are plans to broadcast productions of the Castleton Festival on WETA so that more than a few hundred people can experience each opera performed.

And perhaps I missed it, but did the Washington Post television and radio critic cover the month-long celebration of American classical music on Classical WETA-FM?

Posted by: snaketime1 | July 6, 2009 1:42 PM | Report abuse

The link Anne used is incorrect. It worked on Wednesday but does not now.

Posted by: Lindemann777 | July 6, 2009 3:47 PM | Report abuse

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