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Sunday, October 17, 2010

Critics

Earlier this month Julia Keller wrote an article for the Chicago Tribune titled "Critics: Who needs 'em?" In the article she talked about the roles of a critic, from helping audiences decide what to see and read to acting as a link or portal between artists and audiences. I do use reviews to help me decide what movies I might like to see and what books I would read if only I had time. In fact, I read Julia Keller's literary column every week. But, as a musician and audience member for classical concerts, I disagree with her assessment of critics as the link between artists and audiences. I think if you asked most artists, you'd get a much different explanation of the relationship between critic and artist.

In explaining what she means by link or portal, Ms. Keller makes it clear that she is not saying that critics are here to promote or provide publicity, but that while critics love the arts, they will make sure "you'll get the truth, delivered quickly and fearlessly." The truth?

I have worked in the arts (not just in music) and I know that there is a whole lot going on that impacts a performance that critics have no idea about. For example, an acquaintance who is a theater directer explained to me that actors have quite a bit on input on many aspects of a performance. If an actor makes a suggestion about how the actors should stand and move in a particular scene, that would be part of blocking. When the play is reviewed, the director will get credit for the blocking if the critic mentions it. Similarly, a conductor may ask for a passage to be played in a certain way and the player may take the credit or blame.

People, whether critics or audience members, have their own perceptions and opinions. I have been to concerts and later read the review, wondering if the critic had been to the same concert as I. I trust my ears, and I did not hear what the critic heard.  The "truth" that critics deliver is really opinion, based on what they see, hear, and their prior knowledge. Music critics have extensive prior knowledge. A critic I know personally studied not only journalism, but musicology in graduate school. An experienced critic has also listened to hundreds of concerts.

However, sometimes opinion runs the show. I regularly read the music reviews in Chicago, and it has sometimes been very clear to me and my husband that a critic dislikes a particular conductor of the Chicago Symphony. When we read such a review we take into account that the reviewer is never going to give that conductor a good review and so we discount at least part of the review.

As a link between the audience and the artists, though, is it fair to give the audience a message based on such personal prejudices that the review may keep them away from a concert? We all know that classical music organizations are in trouble, with aging audiences and declining donations. A critic can't become a flack for an organization, but neither should critics want to criticize an organization to the point of damaging it. The New York Times reported a story about a critic in Cleveland who was so constantly critical of Cleveland Orchestra music director Franz Welser-Most that his paper reassigned him. The reassignment followed complaints to the newspaper from the orchestra. The editor stated that she had reassigned the critic after deciding he had a closed mind about Mr. Welser-Most. The critic argued in his lawsuit against the paper and the orchestra that the paper had discriminated against him (because of his age) and that the orchestra in complaining had defamed him. The orchestra argued for its first amendment rights to free speech. The jury found for the newspaper and orchestra. This incident got attention because of the lawsuit, but it is certainly not the only time a critic has singled out a musician for continued criticism.

Personally, I think critics would be a stronger link between artists and audiences if they spent more time talking to the artists. Perhaps critics believe that they need distance from the musicians to objectively review a concert, but it means there is a wall between critic and musician, obstructing the portal. Many orchestras are trying for more outreach to their audiences, including opportunities to meet artists. Maybe critics should also reach across the divide.

2 comments:

Lisa said...

Each "reader" of a work, whether it be a concert, film, novel, etc is a critic in that she inevitably interprets what she has experienced. For me the equation is not artist ~ critic ~ audience it is more a relationship between a piece of work and its readers, each of whom is a critic. Since I subcribe to the "death of the author," I feel the artist is removed from the equation once she puts his work out there.

beckymusician said...

Hey Lisa! I think I understand what you're saying, though I have not heard of the "death of the author" idea. I agree that there is a direct relationship between the work or performance and the audience. I think, though, that sometimes the critic is interjected into that relationship. If you read a review before you go to a performance or read a book, the critic's ideas may influence the way you approach the work of art.

I also think it's harder to leave out the artist when you're seeing any kind of performance art. The artists are right there! You can pick up personality, intelligence and other aspects of the person.