Whither Criticism, Part I



I want to sound off in a somewhat definitive way, for me, about Arts Criticism.
Much of it has been said before, but maybe not in quite this way.
I'm a passionate fan of Music and Movies and TV and Books, and I become enraged when an artist whom I admire is denigrated in a dismissive, usually under-informed or mis-informed way.

There is definitely a place for Arts Criticism in the World.  Now, more than ever, we have access to more Art than ever before, via the internet, via more TV channels than ever, via self-publishing.  Certainly criticism can be helpful to help direct us to what Art would most interest us.  We also now have more critics than ever before, albeit not usually writing for magazines and newspapers as much anymore, more often for their own blogs and newsletters.  In a way, though, because many of these writers have their own blogs, and their own audience of regular readers, sometimes their advocacy can be even more effective.  Now even more niches of Art interest can be explored in specific ways.  I don't have any statistics in front of me, but I can imagine that the rate of advocacy to purchase (or exploration) is pretty high among blog or podcast devotees.  I know if my favorite comedian/interviewer Marc Maron has an artist on his show, or talks about an author or musician or comedian I should check out, I will do it, nine times out of ten, because I identify with him and trust his opinion, or at least I respect the way he thinks about things, so even if I don't ultimately like the Art that he is recommending, I can at least see how he came to his conclusions about it.

And, I know that Art is not only consumed by Artists.  There is a level that a trained musician ("academy"-trained or self-trained, I'm not making any distinctions between those two valid disciplines.  I'm fond of saying that the Beatles are as "trained" as Mozart was, in their own way) can appreciate a piece of music that a non-trained musician cannot.  Musicians can appreciate the detail of a harmonic progression or the interval content and motivic development of a piece more easily than most non-musicians.  A great teacher of mine once told me "My music comes into my ears with solfege attached," meaning that he had studied solfege so much and the rules of analysis, that they had become second nature to him, so when he heard a melody he could analyze it as it went by, and I don't doubt this, knowing the level of scholarship that my mentor displayed.   


That is not to say that a "non-trained" musician cannot appreciate music, but that appreciation comes without the added layer of formal understanding.  I often think about my own lack-of-understanding of Visual Art.  "I don't know much about Art, but I know what I like," said John Cleese's Pope to Eric Idle's Michelangelo in the famous Monty Python sketch, and that is how I feel in a museum.  I love being there, and I take the audio tours with headphones to give myself a historical perspective, but I know that if I painted or sculpted or had paid attention in Art History class, I would have an extra set of tools by which to explore Art.  I just saw a recent interview with George W. Bush where he talked about mixing colors in his head to accurately match the color of his interviewer's tie, and I thought three things:  1) Maybe this guy missed his calling.  The interviewer is grilling him about regretting Iraq and he's mixing colors in his head.  2) This guy who seems to have a tentative grasp on the English Language and the subtleties of World Affairs can appreciate visual art on a level I cannot. 3) I can remember another world leader who would probably rather have been a painter, in Germany in the early 30's.
OK that was a cheap joke, but non-artists can appreciate art, it's just in a purely emotional or visceral (dancing) way, or an associative way, the way someone remembers the song they were dancing to at their prom, and they remember the most significant time they were rejected by a girl, I mean, remember one of the most significant times in their lives, so they attach an importance or resonance to that music that it perhaps doesn't contain intrinsically, but hey, if that's why you dig it, knock yourself out... I still love, against my better judgement, lots of the music I got into at ages 8-12 (the band Styx comes to mind), when I was really developing my Music Jones, as well as lots of the music I loved in my teen years that didn't make its way into my work of today (Van Halen was a guilty pleasure).  I used to think that this was a major problem.  I play in several venues for a more "Traditional Jazz" audience, and some of them are on a nostalgia trip when they're listening to the music, letting it take them back in time, and that used to bug me ("I'M HERE PLAYING FOR YOU RIGHT NOW!!! LISTEN TO ME!") but, again, I'll take the audience where I can get it.   If you're there paying your money for this music and you're listening to it so that you don't interfere with me playing it or disturbing your fellow patrons (this is the more egregious part of "requesting" and heckling that audiences don't often realize), it shouldn't really matter to me WHY you're digging it.   I do think that you'd get MORE out of it if you checked out some more records (or went on Pandora or Youtube to investigate some artists you don't know) or checked out a book (or, again, went online to wikipedia or something) to learn about the history of some of these artists, or checked out a book on music theory, or learned the basics of how to play an instrument (again, you can get started for FREE online these days).


The subject of these last few paragraphs is discussed more lucidly and completely in the "bostonjazzblog" link above, in a blog/questionnaire posed by Roanna Forman, where she wrote an open letter to Jazz Critics and Artists about whether they thought a Critic should BE a musician in order to accurately critique music.  The responses run the gamut from Yes to No, with all kinds of qualifying information, but the thing that is surprising and amazing is that artists of the caliber of Joe Lovano and Dave Leibman took a stab at the question.  I tend to agree with their assessments, as you'll see in part 2.


Also, this topic has come up for me several times in my life, at a Joe Lovano or Bill Frisell show where some of my pals just "didn't get it;" after reading a review of a CD that I loved and looked up to as one of the greatest works of its kind (Wayne Shorter's "High Life" or Joni Mitchell's "Travelogue," links above); when I read the criticism that people like David Chase or Matt Weiner received about the directions their shows "The Sopranos" or "Mad Men" take; and now, most recently, with the hailstorm of criticism that the internet has thrown at "Arrested Development," Mitch Hurwitz's groundbreaking cult-hit comedy that just had its return via 15 simultaneously released episodes on Netflix.

I'm going to revisit this topic and actually draw some conclusions from this ranting (and rant some more!) in PART II of "Whither Criticism," but I have to get back to 1) Writing some more arrangements for Les Harris's and my Beatles project, called "The Meta-Beat," which will be playing at the Press Room in Portsmouth, NH (for Les's and my BIRTHDAY) on Sunday, June 16 (our birthday is the 18th but we don't have a gig then), and also at Chianti in Beverly, MA on Wednesday June 19th.  Of course, these gigs will draw criticism that they aren't jazzy enough for jazz fans and not rockin' enough for pure Beatles fans, but you'll have to come out and hear us to make up your own mind.  2) Revising some vocal arrangements, as I just found out I was hired to teach at the Vocal Summit, Berklee's 4-day program of intense instruction (they have them for other instruments too, in the summer), June 24-27.  

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