Okay – we’re back online. Power has been restored here in Seattle (I understand as many as 1 million people had electrical outages). The tree that met the acquaintance with the back of our house was the most impressive tree in our neighborhood. It was more than 100 years old and the trunk is wide enough to require two people linking hands to circle the base (if you were inclined to do such a thing). It is a crazy puzzle tree, with massive trunks going in all directions. It was always an unlikely bit of geometry, but it was magnificent. The arborist told me that it had been topped incorrectly about 70 years ago and that caused it to sprout dozens of new limbs and embark on its eccentric paths. The house looks to be mostly alright, amazingly.
John: I did see your note in the introduction the about inside relationships between critics and artists. And I particularly enjoyed the Linda Ronstadt piece in which you struggled with the idea. You’re a fan of hers, didn’t understand why many other critics didn’t/don’t share your enormous admiration, and were torn between your role as a critic and the fact that you had gotten to know her personally. You confessed in the essay your friendly relationship with her, wrote one last ringing argument as to why she’s great, and then never wrote about her again in the Times.
I think this issue is a good example of a major weakness in American journalism. The ideal is supposed to be objectivity, and newspapers jump through all sorts of hoops to try to suggest they are. Nonsense. The idea of objectivity is a thoroughly discredited notion at this point, and American journalism’s defense of it is ridiculous. Everyone has biases. Every institution is built on biases. Instead of pretending they’re not, they should declare them and move on. Make clear your observation point, make the argument and your reporting is stronger, not weaker.
Instead, what we have in American journalism is a false construct in which we have to wedge every issue into a “both sides” continuum, even when it’s clear sometimes that one side of an argument isn’t credible. This elevates a kind of false debate and I think damages the way in which we’re able to discuss serious issues in this country.
This faux objectivity is even more ridiculous when it comes to critics (though with much less serious consequences). Joe Horowitz argues that an interesting opinion is an interesting opinion and ought to be heard. But American journalism is paranoid about the appearance of conflict of interest, and so the range of opinions is narrowed considerably.
Still – I know critics who are friends with many of the artists they cover. And I know critics who studiously avoid any personal relationships with artists. I probably walk some middle ground. I have a conductor friend who claims that as soon as he started to get to know me, my reviews of his orchestra became more critical. I hope that’s not true, because I did try to be honest in my reaction. But as soon as we really became friends I stopped reviewing his orchestra.
I think the current policy on this at most American newspapers is the worst of all worlds. Name me a critic and if I read them for more than a couple of weeks I can come up with a list of their biases. This isn’t a bad thing. Look at Frank Rich’s theatre reviews and it’s unmistakable where his passions lie. That doesn’t mean that the musicals he didn’t like were awful, it just meant they didn’t speak to him. If you were a New York producer while he was the Times critic putting on the kind of show you knew he wouldn’t like, you knew he was going to attack.
An analogy in classical music might be the early music movement. The thousand-strings Baroque sound is dreadful to someone who likes the pared-down aesthetic. I can make arguments about the merits of both sounds, but I enjoy an impassioned argument for one side over another. Apply this to orchestras – if you don’t like the sound of the New York Philharmonic because you just don’t like the way it sounds relative to the Philadelphia Orchestra, then everything you have to say about the New York Phil is going to be colored by that.
Take it a step further and if you’re not a Maazel fan, then probably nothing Maazel does is going to please you. If you’re a Tilson-Thomas fan, then everything the man does will be processed through this bias. None of this is bad; a critic’s experiences and taste and resulting prejudices are what make him interesting. Or not.
Okay, last step (and I know you already know I’m going there). Your friendship with Linda or Ann(a) gives you the possibility of having a perspective on their work that most critics don’t have. Some will discount your assessments because of it, but I think if the relationships are declared, the potential benefits far outweigh the negatives. When applicants apply for a job or students for a school they get recommendations from people they know, people who can supply insight. Prospective employers/schools obviously find this valuable, even knowing the pre-existing relationship. Having sat on a few search committees, and can say that the perspective of someone you knows a candidate well is sometimes fae more valuable than an assessment by an “objective” source who doesn’t really know the person well.
Readers are sophisticated enough to account for personal relationships if hey know about them. It’s when they’re unrevealed (as the current system promotes as a convention) that it’s a problem. I wonder – did you find it difficult not to write about Linda afterwards (or other friends)? More broadly, did you find it diffiult to slip back into the journalism side after running the Lincoln Center Festival and forming different kinds of relationships on the other side of the curtain? Also, I’m interested in whether you found people talked to you differently while you were an administrator than they had when you were a critic.