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On critical bias

The ongoing debate about Don Rosenberg (both here and here) has led me to think over the last few days about the question of bias. It seems to be widely accepted that the ideal for a critic is to approach each work like a blank slate, with an almost child-like sense of openness to everything. Oh, no, readers will hasten to say: we want the knowledge, we want the experience, we want the informed point of view. We just don’t want bias. Well: what does that all describe but a collection of biases?
(read more after the jump)

Art deepens, like most things, on acquaintance: that’s precisely why it’s worth revisiting. The great works of art have new things to say on every hearing, every viewing. This happens precisely because we retain some of the things we got from it at our last encounter. I have certain biases about the Beethoven “Eroica,” or Verdi’s “Don Carlo”: I have ideas about how I think they sound, or what I want them to sound like, or what kinds of interpretations work best in them. And I have ideas about what I think of certain artists, based on my past experiences of hearing them. What are these if not biases?

A great artist can overturn those biases. Part of the thrill of live performance is to hear someone (Maurizio Pollini, perhaps) play in a way that’s not at all what you expect or even think you like, but does so in such a convincing manner that you have to admit the validity of the argument. (It should go without saying that there’s more than one “right” way -- except that many people seem to act as if there were only one true path, and all else is blasphemy.) Equally thrilling is to have a musician you once heard give an awful performance turn around and deliver something phenomenal at your next encounter; there is no greater pleasure than to have your expectations thwarted in that particular way.

My biases shape my relationship to art; they shape me as a critic. A person without bias is passively receptive, or equivocal: if you’re equally open to all things, you risk evaluating them as if they were all equally nice. Yet our public relationship to art over the years -- particularly classical music, which feels itself increasingly marginalized in the larger society, even though it’s offering many more concerts and recordings than at any other time in human history -- has developed in such a way that strong opinions are seen as not nice, as rocking the boat, as attacking the art form, rather than, as I believe they do, defending and sustaining it.

The common imagination clings to the myth of the purity of critical thought, and associates the idea of bias is associated with personal vendetta, personal attack. Elliott Forrest, on WNYC the other day, asked me if Don Rosenberg had something personal against Franz Welser-Möst. Well: define “personal.” Is Don out to get Welser-Möst? No. Does Don think Welser-Möst is a bad person? No. Would a political writer who criticized a senator be asked the same question? Probably not. Of course, a conductor who’s attacked in a review often takes the attack personally, which is natural, but unfortunate.

Emotions do, certainly, play a part in the critic's job. I can think of reviews that I might have written better had I had more time to cool down after the concert. I remember an editor years ago questioning a particularly harsh review of a performance of the Beethoven violin concerto. “You sounded like you were angry,” he said. “I WAS angry!” I said. I have strong biases about the Beethoven violin concerto, and I hated what the player did to it at this performance. I’ve thought about that exchange a lot since, though, because my anger may have been too personal a response; sometimes words are more effective if not produced in the heat of passion. Is this an example of bias affecting a critic’s work? And will confessing to this bias here, in a public forum, affect my ability to review the Beethoven violin concerto in future? Maybe I should mention the conflict of interest to my editor.

This whole discussion is predicated on an assumption that’s very flattering for critics, but that I feel is not strictly accurate: the idea of a music critic's power. I think a music critic's reviews are able to be a powerful irritant to the artists and the administration and the board of an orchestra, and that negative reviews are often cited as having terrible impact. (Think of Peter Dobrin at the Philadelphia Inquirer, who some hold responsible for the shortness of Christoph Eschenbach's tenure -- in spite of the fact that the Inquirer has two regular classical music critics, and David Patrick Stearns was more pro-Eschenbach than con.) Beyond that, though, I'm not sure critics actually wield the kind of power that is commonly ascribed to them in discussions like this one. This debate, incidentally, includes many opinions from people who have not regularly read Don Rosenberg's reviews. As a result, a lot of it is supported solely on bias.

By Anne Midgette  |  August 13, 2010; 12:08 PM ET
Categories:  random musings  
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Next: A light "Midsummer Night"


I did read Rosenberg's Cleveland Orchestra columns, for years, and I enjoyed them very much, and I greatly enjoyed his book on the Cleveland Orchestra. Which is why I was dismayed at the increasingly strident tones of his criticisms of Welser Moest - to the point where it really did seem he had a personal grudge. When the paper reassigned him I was sad for him, but relieved - it did make for tiresome reading after a while(was there nothing the conductor could do right?!) So when I heard Rosenberg initiated a lawsuit, I was convinced that it had become a personal thing with him. It made me sad - I couldn't understand why he could allow himself to get so worked up over the work of one conductor(while I've never heard Welser-Moest's performances in person, I have heard many of his recordings and I like them just fine.) And I never really felt comfortable with the freedom-of-the-press argument in this case. That's fine, but like any freedom it comes with a responsibility: to report fairly; to recognize that some people may not agree with you, and may not like what you write; and that it is also your editor's right to reassign or relieve you if they feel it's in the best interests of the paper and the readers. Since it seemed obvious to me that Rosenberg could no longer review Welser-Moest's performances with any kind of fairness, the outcome was inevitable. I wish it wasn't. I wished he'd admitted to himself, and to his editors and readers, that he simply did not care for Welser-Moest's interpretations and on that basis decided to recuse himself from any further reviews of his performances. I would have respected that. And he might have avoided all this unpleasantness.

Posted by: wmbukowski | August 13, 2010 2:09 PM | Report abuse

I posted this comment in response to a previous exchange, but I think it may be relevant here, so I am reposting it.

Listening to the WNYC interview I was sorry to hear Anne sound as if she had a cold -- hope you're feeling better!

Otherwise it was a pleasure as always to hear her discuss a subject in civil, urbane, and intelligent terms, with none of the usual media defensiveness, no soundbites and no self-promotion. It also was interesting to listen to the excerpt from Beethoven's Ninth, now become musical candy, played for her comment (and to note that she did not comment). My own version is conducted by Furtwangler. I am no music critic but, believe me, Franz Welser-Möst is no Furtwangler.

I am curious about her (and the other commenters') view on what the job of a critic really is. There seems to be a general assumption that a critic is a mixture of Grand Inquisitor and Consumer Reports, adjudicating sins after their commission and recommending best buys. I doubt that we really need anyone to write about the salvation of a musician's musical soul. We'd much rather they just got on with the music and let us listen.

My own, reader's, view is somewhat more utilitarian. I view criticism as part of my continuing education (even if I may appreciate the opportunity to exercise snobbery pro or con). The fundamental shortcoming I see in criticism is that it is after the fact. I can't revisit a concert once reviewed and, if I need to read the critique to decide whether I enjoyed it or not, I probably should not have gone anyhow.

Where the critique is helpful is in telling me what to listen for; how to assign priorities, within my limited resources, among the vast number of musical offerings; and, how to fill out and, perhaps, expand my musical horizons and their cultural context.

As for biases, Anne rightfully comments that biases are not necessarily an impediment. I would say that they add spice to a review. Perhaps a conscientious critic, finding herself at odds with a particular ensemble or performer more frequently than not, might deal with imputed unfairness by providing space for op-ed criticism from individuals whose judgment she respects, but who disagree.

BTW, this blog is a surprisingly civilized place, with considered
and often enlightening comments, serving as a sort of op-ed locale in the sense I suggest above, and none of the savagery present elsewhere. Have we been tamed by music? To the extent that this is influenced by Anne Midgette, thanks! Maybe it would be useful to print excerpts in your column from time to time?

Posted by: gauthier310 | August 13, 2010 4:04 PM | Report abuse

What bothered me most about the Cleveland Plain-Dealer's actions regarding Don Rosenberg was what they did, as well as why they did it. Why, I have always wondered, didn't the paper have more than one critic review the Cleveland Orchestra instead of having Rosenberg be the sole critic to review? Obviously the paper had another classical music critic, since they "promoted" him to the beat when it reassigned Rosenberg. I think the Philadelphia Inquirer's dual-critic mode is a perfect analogy and I'm sorry for all concerned that the paper didn't follow the example.

Posted by: BobTatFORE | August 13, 2010 7:09 PM | Report abuse

The Plain Dealer did have two classical reviewers of the Cleveland Orchestra. Wilma Salisbury reviewed them for years as did Rosenberg. I assume the newspaper eliminated her job for the cost savings.

Posted by: ward29800 | August 14, 2010 9:40 AM | Report abuse

I think it's fine for critics to have biases, you're human after all. But I think it's important for the critic not to write emotionally because of the biases. The critic is paid for rational evalution and explanation. You said you'd write better if you weren't angry. I'd say a critic's opinion has more validity when it's backed by rational explantion, not charged words expressing the critic's emotion (though if they're witty enough, the critic may get a pass from time to time). Those of us who don't get paid to write for a nationally prominent newspaper can afford to just be angry. I think the best critics understand what about the performance caused the emotion, and convey that in the review, so the reader understands, accounts for, and accepts the bias.

Posted by: c-clef | August 16, 2010 9:59 AM | Report abuse

Anne's analysis of the critic's role is thoughtful and deeply intelligent. But she implicitly makes the point that all criticism is relative: what a critic at a particular point in her development thinks may differ from earlier opinions and later ones. And of course, that must be equally true of critics differing among themselves. But if that's so (and I believe it incontrovertibly is), then Don Rosenberg represented only one possible opinion and his insistence on his own opinion to the exclusion of every other consideration undermined his position. Clearly it is better for everyone in Cleveland to hear a fresh voice at The Plain Dealer.

Posted by: BobG5 | August 16, 2010 10:22 PM | Report abuse

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