School for Critics

A press release informs me that Syracuse University has opened the first master’s degree program in arts criticism offered by a journalism school. The program opens in July 2005.

I consider this good news. Many, many years ago, Peabody Conservatory had the only music criticism graduate program in the country, run by the late esteemed jazz critic Martin Williams. He invited other critics to come lecture, and brought me out; unfortunately, at the time there were only two students, and they of the most troglodytic musical tendencies. The program was discontinued after Williams passed away. My reflections at the time were that teaching music criticism was a poor idea. You could teach someone to know a lot about music, and you can teach writing, but trying to teach both together seemed pointless.

I later changed my mind, however. Writing about the arts is so extremely different from other journalism, and also not something anyone would learn in the average music school. (I remember once writing a piece for the Chicago Tribune and being informed by some hotshot editor fresh out of Northwestern journalism school that I wasn’t allowed to use the pronoun “I” in journalistic writing. I asked her how I was supposed to express my own opinion without it. A higher editor overruled her.) I’ve come to believe that the many aspects of what can be said about music – atmosphere, analysis, performance, context, history – can be analyzed out, their relationships studied, and the purposes of subjectivity and objectivity specified. And for the first time, I’m teaching a music criticism course this fall, with Virgil Thomson, Gary Giddins, and Lester Bangs as my main textbooks. (I know Greg Sandow already teaches such a course at Juilliard.)

Even more importantly, I’ve decided that by not teaching music criticism, we allow people to think it’s unimportant, that no training is required, and that the job comes with very little responsibility. I’m not saying that critics who studied music criticism in college would automatically be smarter and more open-minded than the ones we already have – I don’t have that kind of faith in academia. But I do think some concentrated attention to the genre might kick us out of some critical ruts, and create some prestige for the profession that would attract people who truly saw it as a calling, rather than just fell into it by default. As I did.

So all the best to Syracuse University.