Critics Versus Corporate Institutions

Alan Licht, composer and critic, came to speak at Bard the other night. He gave as a lecture an article that he had written for the e-magazine Bumpidee, “Improvisation and the New American Century,” and which you can read either here or here. His anti-Bush-imperialist comments merely echo what I’ve long believed myself, but I was struck by parallels he draws between the acquiescence of Congress today and the acquiescence of critics who glorify whatever the industry releases. Here, from the middle of the article, are the relevant paragraphs:

“What strikes me about pop criticism of late – and this afflicts the broadsheets as well – is the tyranny of received opinion. I have yet to meet anyone, obsessive fan or otherwise, who thinks the last two Nick Cave albums come close to 1997’s The Boatman’s Call in terms of emotional depth and songwriting skill, but both releases were greeted with an across-the-board acclaim that bordered on instilled reverence, and an attendant lack of critical rigour. What gives here? Maybe writers are too hidebound by the notion of providing their readers with glorified consumer guides rather than informed criticism.” Sean O’Hagan, “Can”t I trust anyone these days to tell me if a record is any good?” the London Observer, March 30, 2003

Jonathan Rosenbaum launches a similar complaint against his fellow film critics in his excellent book Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Conspire to Limit What Films We See (Acapella Books, 2000). He exemplifies the problems with current film criticism with the now-retired NY Times critic Janet Maslin, who wrote based on audience expectations rather than her own opinions (and references a critique by Sarah Kerr in Slate titled “Janet Maslin: Why Can’t the New York Times Movie Critic Tell Us What She Thinks?” – compare with O’Hagan’s title). [You can read this original 1999 Slate article here.] I remember her review of The Cable Guy, which she panned because fans of the lovable Jim Carrey would be disappointed by his memorably dark characterization in the film. Nice market research there, Janet, but was it a good movie? She’s providing a glorified consumer guide/career advice rather than informed criticism. One of the more galling aspects of the slide into war was Congress’ silence as Bush steamrolled over the U.N. and into Iraq (save for Senators Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd–who’s also a violinist). Talk about a tyranny of received opinion! Congress abdicated its responsibilty for informed criticism of the President’s doings when it gave him a blank check to go to war after 9/11. That responsibility, in the form of legislation, is what we elect our representatives for, and they’re not doing their job.

It’s interesting to see this tendency on the part of critics put into a political framework. It’s as Noam Chomsky says, at greater length: the only chance for survival today is keeping the wealthy class happy, whether you’re a senator or a newspaper critic. I think it explains why I’ve hit a glass ceiling in my career as a critic. It has been hinted to me at times, ever so delicately, that it would be appreciated if I would write more about the goings-on at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center, since that’s where the advertising money comes from, and that’s the stuff larger audiences hear. And I’ve tried. I think my last attempt to take Carnegie Hall seriously, new-music-wise, was lukewarmly reviewing the Giovanni Sollima concert there in 2000: a rather nice postminimalist concert overwhelmed by its PR (“the Jimi Hendrix of the cello!”) and the cellist/composer’s patently stellar opinion of his own lackluster music. But those glorified spaces are not where the intellectual life of new music takes place, and these days the great new music never even seems to get there eventually. So, perhaps unwisely given free rein to define my own critical bailiwick, I’ve obstinately continued reviewing small spaces and tiny CD labels, and have integritized myself into commercial irrelevance. Luckily, I have tenure.

I don’t believe, however, that the classical critic makes a career by raving about every new effort that comes from the large corporations, as Licht claims that film critics and pop music critics do. It’s always seemed to me that classical music critics make their way into the presitigious posts by disparaging almost everything recent and seeming extreeeeeeemely hard to please. That’s another problem with me: contrary to a reputation that enigmatically clings to me outside Downtown new-music circles, the vast majority of my reviews have been enthusiastic. I rarely write about concerts I didn’t like unless they were institutionally high-profile, and I rarely attend institutionally high-profile concerts because they look so boring.

And then, with Licht’s words in my head, I went last night to see the Bill Murray movie Lost in Translation. I’d been primed and pumped by rave reviews at my favorite liberal news sources NPR and Salon, fed snippets of its sizzling dialogue, seduced by reports that director Sophia Coppola was possibly a greater director than her father, even to the point of giving her a cover spread on the Times Sunday magazine. Why didn’t anyone mention that the movie was relentlessly dull, deliberately unfulfilled, monochrome, inflated with pointless detail, and unfocused? If this is the kind of movie that can earn raves as a “thinking man’s comedy” these days, film critics’ standards have indeed become more debased than I’d realized.