Friday, May 19, 2006

The Hubris of Critics

This is from an online discussion. The other person's comments are in italics. Mine are in regular type. This discussion has come up before on my blog, so it seemed relevant to share it again, even though it comes from another source. It's the ongoing Hubris of Critics thread.

And Scott S., you were obviously on my mind when I wrote some of this.

Maybe this is where I get lost with many critics and awards deals -- that they see it as understood they are limiting their critique to the value of the art to connect to others, and not speaking to the value of the art between the artist and God and the artist and those few who do connect with it.

But critics are in no position to speak about the value of the art between the artist and God. It's unknown and unknowable. For the artist (or at least the Christian artist; there are plenty of artists who don't think in these terms at all) it's supremely important. But at some point artists finish their work, they glean whatever they can from the creative process and ideally grow closer to God because of the experience, and then put it out there for their audience to appreciate (or not). And at that point the idea of connection enters the discussion.

As far as "those few who do connect with it," there's no accounting for taste. Critics often do make absolute statements. But that's only because "in my opinion" is assumed to be prepended to every sentence in a review, and all the "in my opinions," if spelled out, would severely cut in to a reviewer's precious word counts. I have a good friend who loves Christian heavy metal. This is one of the great mysteries of the universe to me, up there with the nature of the Trinity and the ongoing popularity of Britney Spears. First, it's heavy metal, a cartoonish musical genre given over to bellowing and chest thumping and other Neanderthal activities. Second, it's Christian heavy metal, which means that the Neanderthals bellow Hallmark Card cliches usually found on posters with puppies and kitties. Why would anyone even bother with this? I don't know. But my friend, an otherwise sane, intelligent, compassionate, non-Neanderal, loves the stuff.

There's no accounting for taste. So I make it a point not to review heavy metal albums when I review music. It would be a disservice to the music, because there are obviously people out there who connect with it in ways that I don't. Ideally a reviewer and his or her audience are in sync. And if a reviewer knows his or her audience, and can assume a degree of knowledge and familiarity when he or she makes comparisons to similar works of art in a review, then the task is relatively easy.

I have a hard time seeing these qualifications when the language used seems to speak absolutely. I may create a work that expresses my joy of realizing some of the depth of my salvation, and have it be a very un-novel expression that doesn't connect much with anyone because it's bland and cliche and out of tune; something easily critiqued as "bad art". Something as crummy as the crayon drawings by my children over the computer monitor. But I love those, and they hold much value. I realize there's a desire (in my mind as well) to draw a big line between the crayon sketches and Michelangelo -- of course we'd never call the crayon sketches 'bad' - that's between you and your child, and besides, no one's even considering it as art ... but where on the continuum do we draw the line? Does it benefit us to try and draw the line? I've no issue with a critic who simply shares his experiences with certain works, so that if I find I'm of a similar heart than a certain critic, I can have access to additional works that speak to me that I may miss, or learn of new depths in the works I thought I knew. Going that extra step into "bad" and "good" and "best", "you win" "you lose" -- I think I always want it qualified.

A reviewer who simply used words like "bad" and "good" wouldn't be a very good reviewer, and such terms would be almost meaningless. But I don't know any reviewers who write that way.

Reviews typically involve comparisons. The reviewer identifies one or more (ideally more) works similar to the one being reviewed, and places the current work on a continuum ranging between "worst similar work" and "best similar work." Is there a subjective component to this? Sure. But it provides the readers of the review with some context. The readers, of course, are free to agree or disagree with the comparisons. If, for example, an album reviewer states "This album sounds a lot like Radiohead, and Radiohead is great," and you as the reader happen to dislike Radiohead, then you've now received enough clues to help you determine that you probably don't want to buy this album. But that doesn't make it a bad review. It just means that you disagree with the reviewer. In fact, the reviewer has provided the kind of information you need to make an informed decision about the album in question.

I just wrote a review of an album by a French band called Syd Matters. Syd Matters makes mopey folktronica -- acoustic fingerpicking and morose songwriting interspersed with ersatz strings from the synthesizer and spaceship blips and beeps. I listened to the album. I asked myself, "Do I know other musicians/bands who make music similar to this?" Sure enough, I do. Beth Orton. Beck on Mutations and Sea Change. Some early Radiohead songs. So I compared certain songs on the Syd Matters album to certain songs on those albums. Some of them compared favorably, and I said that. Some of them involved watching fairies dance in gardens, and I groaned at the unbearable tweeness of it all, so I said that. The end result, as you might expect, was a mixed review. Three stars out of five, to state it in shorthand. But that's the process I went through. It's not the absolute, categorical last word on Syd Matters. It's just my take on the album. But I'd like to think that there's value in that for those who have heard of the band, and are considering whether to buy the album.

Don't get hung up on the "absolutes" of reviews. Reviewers are paid to state opinions, and opinions often come off as dogmatic. It's up to you, as the reader, to determine whether you think the opinions are informed or not. I've been reading reviews in general, and music reviews in particular, for decades now. There are certain reviewers I've grown to trust over time. They've rarely steered me wrong, and thus I'm inclined to believe them when they state that a particular album is good or bad. Other reviewers (and, indeed, entire publications) strike me as fundamentally misguided, and I tend to ignore them. I'd just encourage you to create art, enjoy the creative process, draw closer to God through it, and seek out other works of art from people you respect and trust. It's really not any more complicated than that.


Anonymous said...

Andy, is there some point where you draw a line between professional/serious amateur work and everything else in what you review?

I've found that in photography there are two entirely different contexts for photographers and the images. I normally cringe when someone is exceptionally excited to show me their vacation snapshots or random silly pictures. My responses aren't even critique, but more "what was happening in the story/event".

Professional work receives more responses based on the artistic quailty of the image, in someways because the storytelling part is told by the photograph. The professional work is worthy of being given a decent critique, but the amateurish vacation photos aren't worth the time to comment on focus selection, composition, use of color, etc. Not to mention the feedback would likely be lost on the audience.

Andy Whitman said...

Bryan, at least with Paste, the process is made fairly easy for me. I receive a spreadsheet a couple months before a particular issue goes to print, listing 100 or so albums that are up for review in that particular issue. I get to pick the four or five I want to review. Usually. Sometimes an editor pushes back and says, "Nope, you've already written one Richard Thompson feature article and one Richard Thompson album review, so somebody else gets to do it this time." And that's fine. But it's a pretty great arrangement, and I'm truly thankful that a) I can do it at all, and b) I have pretty much free reign over what I want to write about. That's a rare thing, and I don't take that for granted.

So the professional/amateur issues don't really figure in there. They do figure in in other ways. I have music publicists calling me and sending me email all the time, asking me to listen to the GREATEST ALBUM EVER!!!! I have friends and friends of friends pestering me to listen to the album they just recorded in their bedroom studio, and review it in Paste. And I can't do it all. I try not to be rude about it, but I only have so much bandwidth. So I don't return phone calls. I don't answer emails. It's nothing personal. But if I did that, it would be my full-time job. No kidding.

I received 11 CDs in the mail on Monday. That's a little extreme, but not that much. There's no way I can keep up with it all. So I tend to focus on those things I know I have to review, and get around to other new music if I can. And sometimes I can't, and sometimes I don't even want to, because sometimes I just want to listen to an old album I know well and have loved for years vs. yet another unknown artist/band looking for the big break.

Paste is very selective about whom they review. Every issue features 100+ album reviews, but believe it or not, that's a heavily distilled version of the 1,000 or so albums that are delivered to the Paste offices between each issue. I once heard Josh Jackson, Paste's editor, refer to the magazine as a "crap filter." The poor folks who actually work at the Paste offices in Atlanta actually have to sort through that mess. By the time it gets to me, I only have 100 or so pretty-good-to-great albums from which to choose. It's a great gig, and for the most part it allows me to stay out of the professional/amateur wars that you're describing.

Anonymous said...


that's really interesting/insightful as to how the Paste operation/music reviews in general happen. I can see that you do a great deal of selective filtering too.