Music and Art Criticism

Like everyone else in my field I use the good quotes when they come in and I ignore the bad ones. The good ones look nice on my website and it feels good to be keeping up with the Jones, but as time goes on it’s harder and harder for me to believe that music criticism is worth much. That goes for art, dance, and film too. (In this post I’ll use “art criticism” as a general term that encompasses music, art, dance, film, poetry, etc.)

This isn’t sour grapes. Like I’ve said, I’ve enjoyed a lot of good reviews from major news outlets. But since I’ve been on both ends of the critical spectrum my skepticism is informed. I used to write music criticism for American Record Guide. I poured over a dozen or so CDs a month and published a column titled “The Newest Music.” It was a good gig. I earned a few bucks and got an excellent survey of the field. I also honed my ability to discuss esoteric music with a lay audience. But after three years I threw in the towel. So many of the discs I was getting were from friends and colleagues that it became a conflict of interest. I couldn’t reasonably write anything objective.

Supposedly art criticism serves as an objective filter so that the public can make better decisions about where and how to spend their time and money. But most of the critics have their favorite styles and tend to stick with them, thus precluding any objective survey of what’s really going on in our incredibly diverse artistic world. Furthermore, many critics are friends with the artists they’re writing about. No matter how objective they may try to be, there’s no doubt that the line between criticism and PR becomes blurry at times.

Aside from those issues, the biggest problem I’ve found is that art criticism is often polemical and simple in a way that doesn’t reflect the complexity of an individual’s output. For example, here’s a passage from a recent New Yorker regarding the Royal Danish Ballet’s reception in recent years:

. . . . Partly, this was because the critics were then facing the full onslaught of Europe’s so-called ‘contemporary ballet’: rage, despair, panties. Such ballet, in the hands of Kenneth MacMillan, John Cranko, Maurice Bejart, Roland Petit, and others, stressed excitation above all: great whirlings and twirlings and pitchings of self and others onto the floor.

I’m not an expert on modern ballet, which is why this passage struck me. It’s not the content, but the form. Or, more precisely, it’s the lack of content. How is it that four accomplished choreographers’ life works can be summed up in one sentence as “great whirlings and twirlings and pitchings of self and others onto the floor?”

It’s no different in the musical world. For example, David Lang, Julia Wolfe, and Michael Gordon are often lumped together. That’s not entirely unfair as they’ve worked as a trio for over twenty years to build the Bang on a Can empire with the music marathon, record label, summer festival, etc, but in fact they write profoundly different music. Sure, there are some basic sonic similarities in Michael and Julia’s music, but when you get to the details that count they’re really entirely different composers. And David’s work is different in all respects.

I’ll also admit that I did the same thing when I wrote for ARG. “Isms” are convenient. Modernism, minimalism, post minimalism, whathaveyouism make writing criticism a snap. Lump, knead, write, and you’re all set. The writing part is the fun part. I suspect many art critics are frustrated poets who have found an outlet. They love to write and they love what they write. However, it’s doubtful whether any of that verbiage has anything to do with the complexity and nuance of art.

One thought on “Music and Art Criticism

  1. We’d be lucky if in art criticism there were indeed MORE frustrated poets who have found an outlet. Can’t you imagine the beauty and hilarity if Cage had moonlighted as a critic?! I’d love to see complexity and nuance reviewed with complexity and nuance.

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