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.
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