You Think You’re So Smart: Critical Condition
Spring is here, and a young man’s fancy turns to thoughts of love. I am not a young man, nor lovable neither, so my fancy once again turns to all that is fraudulent, disinformed, and cozened in the world of criticism. We’ve spoken of this before, and I suppose nothing has really changed other than there are more critics, more things to criticize (or, rather, more things being criticized), and more ways for those criticisms to become maldicted, magniloquent and misconceived. So here again, I provide a list of general rules for better criticism — and here I am careful not to say ‘more successful criticism’, or ‘more salable criticism’ — in hopes that I won’t have to keep reading the same old bullshit until I’m dead. (One rule — “do not turn in a review of a book that has not yet been published” — may be taken as read, since it now unfortunately defines my entire career. Moving on.)
1. Intelligent criticism is difficult enough under the best of circumstances, but music criticism — being an attempt to convey in language the qualities of an often wordless art form whose impact is almost entirely emotional — is the most difficult of all. It is imperative, then, that one not listen too closely to the sniping of people who don’t find it to be a very worthwhile approach to begin with. If you have any qualms about the language you use in describing music, find another occupation; language is all we have, and as a music critic, it is your job to employ language to convey something that largely escapes language. It’s a daunting task and not for everyone. Pay little attention, too, to those who attack poetic language; while it is quite possible to go too far with such things, any reasonable reader should be familiar with the concepts of metaphor and referent, and one wonders if they read Shakespeare clucking that fortune does not actually consist of slings and arrows, or believing that Marcus Antonius was actually taking up an ear collection.
2. Similarly, the oft-voiced complaint that a critic has failed if he is unable to tell you what an album or a performer or a piece of music sounds like strikes me as especially bewildering. If you have ears, you can hear it for yourself. The role of a critic is not to describe a work of art, whatever the medium; the job of a critic is to tell you whether or not it is worth seeking out for one’s self. A critic may describe the way music made her feel, or where the music took her, or what she was put in mind of by the music, but unless she is purely a consumer advocate, which is to say not really a critic at all but more of a commercial specialist, a mercenary public servant, it is of minimal importance that she tells me what the music sounds like. It should probably be attempted, but it needs no more than a few lines at the outset, same as describing the plot of a movie or the premise of a novel. Telling people what music sounds like is the job of a publicist, not a critic.
3. It is hard to warn against this particular behavior, since it has been done spectacularly well by a handful of critics. But here we must select as our word of emphasis “handful” rather than “well”. If it is your intention to tell a story about yourself, then you are a diarist. And that is a fine thing to be. But it does not make you a critic, and you shouldn’t pretend to be one. Of course, a critic is, in a sense, always telling a story about himself: he is telling the story of his experience with a particular work of art. But that is generally where the biography should end; it should be confined in the telling to that portion of his life that began when the art form under discussion was encountered and end when it was left alone. There is value — sometimes great value — in the sort of impressionistic narratives that use art and culture as the characters in a biographical sketch of one’s own very fascinating life. But let’s not pretend that one thing is another.
4. Not everything deserves equal consideration. Even in the Information Age, vita continues to be brevis and ars remains frustratingly longa. Our mania for collection and completism has left us thinking that everything must be recorded, that everything requires our attention; and while I will always believe that the battle to erase the boundaries between high and low culture has been one worth fighting, it has had the unfortunate side effect of making us think that, just because an art film has no more inherent value than a genre film, that we must give the same importance, if not critical respect, to each. This, despairingly, is exactly how those who produce mass culture in a cynical way and view it only as a means of making lots of money, prefer it. A film does not deserve a lot of attention just because someone spent a lot of money advertising it. And there will always be a hundred, a thousand people who will act as if it does; you needn’t be one of them. There is nothing wrong with organizing experiences in a hierarchical fashion; that is what culture is. But the chart will never be entirely filled out; the collection will never be complete. And that’s fine. It is death to criticism — death, even, to intelligence — when one begins to accumulate information simply to have it, rather than to enjoy it.
5. In the philosophy of Sartre, existence precedes essence. In the metaphysics of the Murdered Sheikh, Shahab ad-Din Suhrawardi, the opposite is true, and so too it is with culture. What is essential is more important than what exists, and the facts of a cultural object’s existence — the personnel of a band, the stars of a film, the plot of a novel — must never take precedent over its meaning, its essence. In any critical analysis, that is where to begin and end. Ask yourself: what is it about this work of art that is essential? What about it, if removed, would make it a different, a lesser work of art, or obviate its entire existence? Isolate that element and write about it — or, if no such element exists, say so, and you’ll be doing your readers the most valuable of services. If you can do this, you will be a better critic than most.