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FROM: Philip L. Kennicott, Music Critic, Washington Post


I enjoyed your analysis of current arts criticism. I'd like to add a few comments. Although the issue of access is not so important for a classical music critic (composers and performers are so desperate for coverage that they rarely refuse to talk) there are other pressures that can be brought to bear against the critic.

Most significant is the pressure that prominent musicians can exert directly on one's employer. Second, it seems to me that in the 1980s (when I was first getting started) the difficulty that non-profit arts organizations faced created unhealthy if informal alliances between music critics and artists.

The role of the critic was to support the local institution, which was always perceived to be troubled. There was no small amount of self-interest in this role as unofficial institutional booster; if there are no arts to cover, there is little need for arts criticism.

I think it's essential for arts critics to get past this perceived need to be arts supporters. If, for instance, classical music is dying, then someone has to report objectively on what that death looks and feels like.

That role as objective reporter doesn't, however, preclude what you term "setting an aesthetic agenda" (in the role of critical provacateur). I've tried to do both, and have consciously set several priorities (resisting the relapse into tonalism, insisting on the revival of serial works banished two decades, reinstating the possibility that there may be a distinction between high and low art).

That agenda has been mostly abandoned by orchestras, which is why it needs defense from an activist critical community.



FROM: Les Gutman, Associate Editor, CurtainUp.com


Your very good piece missed Walter Kirn's interesting take on the subject (from the perspective of a book reviewer/author), "Remember When Books Mattered". NYT Book Review (2/4/01).

Let me make an additional point or two, as one who reviews theater in New York City for a smaller publication. Leonard Slatkin is upset with The Washington Post not because Philip Kennicott doesn't like him, but rather because The Post is essentially the only game in town.

A healthy critical environment depends on an audience that reads competing opinions. What's really upsetting is that there is not such an audience in most cities. The question open to discussion, then, is whether, knowing this, the 800 pound gorilla has an obligation to report fairly (inform readers what audiences think, etc.) rather than calling things as it sees them. A reasonable question.

In New York, there is a fairly broad discourse on theater in the print media. While it is an overstatement to say the Times can kill a show, it's equally wrong to say it can't. Well-funded Broadway (and some off-Broadway) shows can spend enough on advertising to be critic-proof, but the lion's share of theater does indeed depend on reviews, and on the Times in particular.

There is now also significant internet-based coverage. This further expands the available criticism, as well as making it more accessible, and it also lends itself well to the sort of discussion between creators and critics your article finds generally lacking. It's a hopeful sign.


Biting Back at Toothless Critics: Why the thumbs up/down review has damaged critics' power to set agendas. By Jack Miles & Douglas McLennan

Our Art of the Critic archives