My thoughts on the role of critics and arts journalism have struck a chord with AC Douglas the proprietor of the blog Sounds & Fury. Douglas takes issues with my belief that critics should do more than tap out a few hundred words in a concert review and that the way forward for maintaining a critical dialogue about art and specifically classical music is to engage the audience. Douglas makes a number of startling pronouncements.
“For arts organizations to look to and take in earnest the opinions of the arts world equivalent of pop culture’s Joe Sixpack to assess how well they’re doing artistically is a perfect prescription for artistic suicide. Joe Sixpack may be entitled to an opinion, but it’s entirely worthless to anyone but himself and his kind. To say the thing less generously, Joe Sixpack is not entitled to an opinion beyond expressing that he liked or disliked whatever it is he heard and/or saw, and, given the source, we all know just how worthless that sort of judgment is except to the one declaring it.”
In this one paragraph, Douglas gives the middle finger to the thousands (millions?) of people who go to classical concerts each year. More precisely he gives the finger to everyone who willingly pays for a ticket to hear some of the greatest music in the world. Curiously enough, every time someone buys a ticket they are making a value judgment and expressing an opinion. Apparently the opinions of the audience extend only to the decision to buy a ticket. By contrast critics often get free tickets and willingly level their opinions often with sparse humility.
For many of these people just going to a concert is an act of bravery. The intelligentsia have fostered the notion that classical music can only be really enjoyed by the learned few. Last year at a concert I sat next to a woman who had never attended a classical music concert before. I talked to her at intermission after she sheepishly asked me about the “rules for clapping.” She confessed she was having a good time. We talked about the pieces on the program – an all Mozart concert. She didn’t like the “Solemn Vespers” but loved the Piano Concerto Nr. 22. In a non-judging manner I pressed her to explain why she liked one piece and not the other. At first she didn’t want to tell me. She claimed she “didn’t know.” After my encouragement, she stumbled through an explanation as best she could. She said she liked how the “piano and orchestra talked to each other.”
It wasn’t that the woman “didn’t know” why she liked one piece better than another. She felt like she didn’t have the right or even an obligation to know. She was Douglas’s ideal audience member. Someone who sits patiently through two hours of music, buys a glass of wine at intermission, claps when the concert is over, and at the end of the concert quickly and quietly excuses herself from the genius of Bach, Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart, and others. Maintaining an audience dynamic like this is suicide for arts organizations.
She had never been to a live classical concert before but she bought a ticket and she had an opinion about what she heard. I’ll admit her explanation needed work, but I was impressed by this first-timer’s thoughtfulness.
This woman and her unadorned opinion about Mozart will never replace the chattering critical class. But her opinion does matter and it should be the role of the critic (music writer? contributor? blogger?) to focus her curiosity, help her learn about the music she is hearing, and encourage her to constructively speak up. It isn’t always the case, but people who are interested enough in a concert to buy a ticket have the strongest opinions about what they are hearing – I know I do. These are opinions worth collecting, nurturing, and shaping.
I may reveal too much about myself, but when I first started listening to classical music, I had a CD of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony Nr. 6. One day, my best friend O came to my dorm room while I was listening to this CD and noticed the album was on shuffle. The movements of the symphony and the other compositions on the CD were being played out of order. I had probably been listening to classical music for about a week by this point. And was still getting used to the art form. He gently explained that the movements of a symphony are intended to be heard in order. I felt embarrassed but O reassured me that it is an easy mistake to make.
At that moment, if O had been sarcastic and insulted me because of my mistake, I probably would have thrown all of my classical CDs out of the window and given up.
Classical music and arts journalism doesn’t need any more cultural dictators. In the age of Infinite Diversions and Options, pronouncements that debase the examination of music and patronize the audience drive people away. Who wants to be told they are stupid? How does blind validation of the concert experience promote music? Critics who just critique will judge their way into obsolescence.
If the audience isn’t supposed to have an opinion about a concert and critics aren’t supposed to care what other people think about a concert then why should critics write anything? Would critics write for the edification of orchestra staff, music director, and musicians? I hope not.
Society reserves some of its harshest words for political partisanship. You are either too far right or too far left and we cast a wary eye on anyone who is too certain in their opinions. Politicians and the news media encourage the voting and opinion consuming public to quickly reach decisions with little to no introspection. Public political opinions are shaped from the top – by parties and personalities – without a genuine conversation between the providers, consumers and implementers of opinions.
This same staid, top down model is at work in classical music. As Douglas says, the audience should never go further than saying they either liked or disliked something. Forget about the why, that’s the province of better people. People who haven’t graduated with the right degree (what degree does one need to become a classical music commentator?), aren’t sharing their thoughts in the right forums (I heard second hand one local critic claim bloggers like me are not critics and we should keep our opinions to ourself), or form any opinion whatsoever lack worth. Douglas wants to preserve the classical music gated community and I want to bust it open.
The history of classical music is marked with moments of public outrage and riotous audiences. Classical music has shaped politics and politics have left an imprint on music. But now, as we drift further into the 21st Century, the intransigence among organizations, critics, media – the entire classical music industry – only encourages the audience to passively receive the world’s greatest music.
Milton Babbit once mused “who cares if you listen?” I do. I also care what people think, what they feel, and how critics, musicians, and the audience can learn from each other.