Thursday, August 10, 2006

Criticism: Caveat Lector

There's been quite a bit of discussion about criticism around online newmusicland of late. Two separate issues seem to have come to the forefront: what qualifications should a critic have? and can a reviewing journal demand some advertising in return for placing a review?

The first question is easily answered: Anyone with ears, an opinion, and an ability to make the case for that opinion can be a critic. A critic doesn't need a PhD or any other degree in music, and as much as it might help, doesn't need to be a performing musician. It's all the same if the judgement of the critic is good, bad, or indifferent, the important thing is to present some sign that the critic's gray matter jello is wiggling, if not actually alive and warm. It's nice, but not neccessary to encounter a critical voice with an apparent passion for one music or another. And caveat lector: readers have got to learn to follow descriptions and arguments closely enough to separate BS* from the plausibly factual, and to decide if the argument supports the conclusion well. In other words, in order to read a piece of criticism, you have to read critically.** Basta.

The second question should be answered with no. The decision to review a concert or a recording or not to review it is the first, and most critical, editorial decision (remember: good, bad, or indifferent, all publicity can be spun as good publicity and is better than none at all). Knowing what is now known about Fanfare's lack of a firewall between advertising and editorial departments, and despite the frequent high quality of the writing, it has to be discounted as a source of reliable information. As long as placing ads can guarantee a review, editorial judgement will have to be questioned. While I suspect that reviews of recordings will soon move to non-print media, printed reviews ought to be in journals that either refuse advertising for recordings, or any advertising at all (a model might be Cook's Illustrated, which has no advertising, in order to protect the integrity of their reviews of food products and cooking tools).
* Yes, Virginia, there are some critics who have not actually attended concerts or listened to recordings before writing a review, sometimes easily retrievable background information gets screwed up, and sometimes a reviewer is just in a nasty mood.
** In my limited experience with teaching American undergrads in a survey course, this was a difficult concept to get across. When asked to express their opinion about a concert, many didn't understand that I had no vital interest in their opinion, but rather in how well they expressed it, how they arrived at it, and how well they were able to assimilate the technical terms and ideas taught in the course.

No comments: