I think we’re talking about different things with the word “rules.” I meant that for each individual, critic or otherwise, there should be no rigid, exclusionary standards that determine our positions about most anything. With conflicts of interest and objectivity, I meant by no rules that to take an extreme position may be fun to write and fun to read, but does not correspond to the way things really are. Life is a common-sense compromise, a solid nourishment to which the wilder passions and polemical positions lend necessary spice.
You seem to be thinking of newspaper conflict-of-interest policies by the word rules. I agree they are often silly and prissy and pompous and contradictory. Though when I was interim classical music and dance critic for the Oakland Tribune in the first half of 1969 (Paul Hertelendy was on a six-month academic fellowship art Stanford), one of my first Sunday pieces argued that the Tribune should pay for critics’ tickets, books and LP’s. The mad purism of youth. The Tribune killed the column.
But I won’t go so far as you do at the end of your most recent post, and argue that “there’s no such thing as conflict.” Entanglements, unknown or even known, do affect the critic and they do affect the reader. But hey, no rules: everyone has to work out a comfortable place along that continuum for himself. Or herself.
So Doug, I have two questions for you; answer both or one or neither.
The first is born of our shared involvement with the newly reborn National Arts Jounalism Program. Aside from writing criticism or assembling compilations of criticism, how would you best advocate for the imperiled cause of serious arts journalism? And not just the criticism of the higher arts, but serious criticism of all the arts, high and low, Western and world. Would you stress the ideal virtues of Art and the intelligent discussion thereof; or the economic impact of an arts community, including critics, on a city; or education? And to whom? To editors and publishers, in print or the Internet, to bloggers and the public, to North America or the world? What would you do? What should we do? Have a master plan or work piecemeal with funders? Start a journal? Make speeches (to whom?). Write a book? Deluge the Internet with pleas (to whom?).
My second question circles back to my book. In a recent conversation with an upper-level editor at The Times, he said his ideal critic was one who could perambulate around the Culture Dept. or even the paper, writing brightly for the (dreaded, by me) General Reader about classical music or rock or dance or film or sports or widgets, for all I know. Even though this echoes my own career — I think he was tyring to flatter me — it made me nervous.
You cited your experience as a musician and a pianist as defining your critical sensibility, nicely making the distinction between that and being a better critic. Of course, knowing the piano and its repertory doesn’t help you much with clarinet repertory or the singing voice or the polemics about operatic stage production. To what extent do you think deep, lifelong expertise in one art, or one facet of one art, is the proper goal for the young critic? Or can one jump from art to art, as I have done, counting on one’s native intelligence or accrued knowledge to substantiate your competence and hoping that your range of interests will enrich your attention to any one of them? Or do you think there are no rules (like I do!) and that there can be excellent specialist critics and excellent more broadly based critics? As long as the former know how to speak beyond their coterie and the latter know enough to be plausible, even stimulating, to specialist readers?