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andee's world: On Criticism

andee's world

Hello and welcome to my blog. This space will be devoted to opinions, observations, lists, articles and whatever else I feel like posting. Subjects will include music, human nature, politics, life in NYC, etc. If I paste someone else's writing up here, it is because the author said something way better than I ever could. By the way, I don't claim to be a particularly smart guy; I'm just a musician with some opinions. If you disagree with me, that's cool -- but then, you're probably wrong.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

On Criticism

more from David Eggers, from the same interview that spawned the "keeping shit real" rant...

"I think criticism, more often than not, completely misses the point, yes. The critical impulse, demonstrated by the tone of many of your own questions, is to suspect, doubt, tear at, and to take something apart to see how it works. Which of course is completely the wrong thing to do to art. I used to tear books apart, and tear art exhibits apart - I was an art and book critic for a few years in San Francisco - but my urge to do that was born of bitterness and confusion and anger, not out of any real need to help or edify.

When we pick at and tear into artistic output of whatever kind, we really have to examine our motives for doing so. What is it about art that can make us so angry? Is it healthy to rip to shreds something created by an artist? I would posit, if I may, that that's not really a healthy impulse. Now, as far as I know, out of maybe 100 or so reviews that I've been made aware of, my own book has received only one negative example. That's pretty lucky, especially when you consider that Wallace, for example, has gotten pretty abused by some people, people who for the most part don't have the patience his work requires.

But criticism, for the most part, comes from the opposite place that book-enjoying should come from. To enjoy art one needs time, patience, and a generous heart, and criticism is done, by and large, by impatient people who have axes to grind. The worst sort of critics are (analogy coming) butterfly collectors - they chase something, ostensibly out of their search for beauty, then, once they get close, they catch that beautiful something, they kill it, they stick a pin through its abdomen, dissect it and label it. The whole process, I find, is not a happy or healthy one.

Someone with his or her own shit figured out, without any emotional problems or bitterness or envy, instead of killing that which he loves, will simply let the goddamn butterfly fly, and instead of capturing and killing it and sticking it in a box, will simply point to it - "Hey everyone, look at that beautiful thing" - hoping everyone else will see the beautiful thing he has seen.

Just as no one wants to grow up to be an IRS agent, no one should want to grow up to maliciously dissect books. Are there fair and helpful book critics? Yes, of course. But by and large, the only book reviews that should be trusted are by those who have themselves written books. And the more successful and honored the writer, the less likely that writer is to demolish another writer. Which is further proof that criticism comes from a dark and dank place. What kind of person seeks to bring down another? Doesn't a normal person, with his own life and goals and work to do, simply let others live? Yes. We all know that to be true."


Blogger David R. Adler said...

Eggers is right to call out arrogant and ill-intentioned critics, but he doesn't really take into account criticism as a fine analytical tradition. To analyze art isn't necessarily to pick apart and kill it - sometimes it's exactly the opposite. Ben Ratliff's recent book on Coltrane gets into microscopic detail and, in my opinion, enhances our appreciation of the artist. It tells us not just about Coltrane, but the world in which he created, and the baggage we bring when we hear him today.

What troubles me about Eggers' argument is this: Ratliff never made a jazz album, yet he's fully capable of grasping and conveying what it is to make a jazz album. The dictum that only movie makers are qualified to critique movies is wrong, in my view, and it flies in the face of everyone's lived experience. Does the average person leave a movie and say, 'well, I've never made a movie so who am I to judge?' No, the average person has no problem deciding that the movie sucked, or was ok, or was really good, or was life-changing. Critics, at their best, can dig under the surface and explore why we have those reactions and what they mean.

10:58 AM  
Blogger andeee* said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

11:50 AM  
Blogger andeee* said...

Well he does qualify his statement by saying, "are there fair and helpful critics? Yes, of course." And as far as I'm concerned, that allows for people like Ratliff.

I agree that there are fair, helpful and insightful critics out there -- but they are the exception.

In general, critics are coming from a place of ignorance -- and yet their opinions have a disproportionate influence over public tastes. Of course the average person can have a valid opinion on any piece of art, and is free to express it.

But critics are supposed to be experts, not "average people". Shouldn't they be held to a higher standard? Shouldn't their expertise include actual experience in the field they are discussing? It's easy enough to judge something from afar; anyone can do that.

Once in a while a music writer can really get inside the music and even enhance the whole experience of listening. I love the way Steven Davis describes Led Zeppelin's music, for instance.

But look at Robert Christgau, the so-called "dean of American rock criticism" -- his self-satisfied, pretentious blatherings have influenced an entire generation of spiteful writers who relish the power that comes with deciding for the culture what "matters" or "doesn't matter".

A quick sample:


DR. DRE: The Chronic (Interscope) "The crucial innovation of this benchmark album isn't its conscienceless naturalization of casual violence. It's Dre's escape from sampling. Other rappers, as they are called, have promised to create their own musical environments, usually without revealing how much art and how much publishing fuels their creative resolve. But Dre is the first to make the fantasy pay out big-time. The world he hears in his head isn't the up-to-date P-Funk fools say they hear--that would be too hard. Instead he lays bassline readymades under simulations of Bernie Worrell's high keyb sustain, a basically irritating sound that in context always signified fantasy, not reality--stoned self-loss or, at a best Dre never approaches, grandiose jive. This is bell-bottoms-and-Afros music, its spiritual source the blaxploitation soundtrack, and what it promises above all is boom times for third-rate flautists--sociopathic easy-listening. Even if it's 'just pop music,' as some rationalize, it's bad pop music." C PLUS


That stuff just makes my head hurt, and it sucks all the fun out of listening to the record (not to mention that he's dead wrong). Critics make you feel stupid for liking something -- what good does that do?

I think that the thrust of Eggers' rant is that the impulse to criticize, for most, comes not from a desire to know and understand the subject, but to put it in a jar and slap a name on it. Once something has a tag and fits into a box, it becomes less interesting. For me, the best art is the kind I don't necessarily understand -- and don't necessarily want to.

2:10 PM  
Blogger David R. Adler said...

I once heard Rob Tanenbaum (yep, a critic) say on a panel that the average opera critic has studied opera for years, while the average rock critic hasn't studied shit. Very candid moment. Different fields come with different standards attached; the bar is set at varying levels. It'd be hard to make the argument that most classical critics are coming from a place of ignorance.

I hear what you're saying, but it seems to me Eggers doesn't just call out bad critics, he invalidates the whole enterprise itself, talking about his own time as a critic as if he were confessing to a crime. Maybe he was a sucky critic and genuinely needs to atone, I don't know.

7:42 PM  
Blogger andeee* said...

No doubt about it -- rock critics are rock bottom.

Awhile ago I was teaching this girl who wrote music reviews for Entertainment Weekly.

Not only did she know absolutely nothing about music itself (ie, rhythm, melody, how to sing or play an instrument), she didn't even know her Rock History 101; once, when I played a snippet of David Bowie's classic "Ziggy Stardust" riff, she said, "oh yeah, that old song -- who sings that?")

1:59 PM  

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