Ways and Means: Conflict of, like, a billion interests

Ways and Means: A five-part meditation on writing about the arts

Conflict of, like, a billion interests

People’s first concern about my writing as a critic will probably be a gut instinct presupposing that my activities as a composer and performer present an inherent conflict of interest.

One only has to point out two of the most esteemed critics of the modern era, George Bernard Shaw (British theater and music critic who went on to have an illustrious career as a playwright) and Virgil Thompson (American composer and the preeminent musical critic in his day) to counter that argument. Even Alex Ross, arguably the most influential American voice in contemporary music today, particularly after the huge success of his first book, The Rest Is Noise, has said that he was an aspiring composer and that he gave up on the enterprise after not being able ever to complete a composition.

To take this one step further, Ross has recently curated a concert—along with Kyle Gann (composer/former critic for the Village Voice)—of music the critic presumably endorses. It’s possible this last step is maybe one too many; other kinds of flags go off when imagining a critic becoming an impresario, a creator of opportunity, rather than just a giver of opinion. But, giving Ross the benefit of the doubt, all critics, one way or the other, draw their reactions from those things that they are passionate about. I assume Ross will program music the same way he chooses which music he writes about: By following his passions.

It should also be taken into account that, particularly in the world of music compositions, composers have established a long tradition of building up a canon of literature around their work, which often though not always, criticizes the methods of artists they find their own work in opposition with. Composers tend to take their aesthetics very personally, and since music itself is non-textual, texts must be created to illuminate the forces behind the sounds.

Yet even with the major examples of successful critics who have been actively involved as artists in the mediums they criticize, the point remains moot, or at least, a philosophical enigma that will always exist. As Alastair Macaulay pointed out in his discussion at Barnard last fall, the minute one person argues that dance critics shouldn’t be dancers, another person will come along and claim that no dance critic could possibly be legitimate unless they have had extensive dance training. It’s a quandary with no solution.

We can only place one or two prerequisites on the job description of a critic before it becomes a virtual impossibility for anyone to be qualified to write criticism. The fact of the matter is this: The proof of a critic’s worth, fairness, and prerogative lies solely in their writing. And I hope that is how people judge my criticism.

And why should any one of the activities I have previously mentioned (in the Introduction) preclude my involvement with any of the others? It may be mildly more unorthodox for me to be a performer and a critic; I admit, that particular combination will be hard to find a precedent for. But I happen to be a person of diverse and proliferating interests, and I think it is a duty to myself to pursue them all as I feel necessary, and as long as by so practicing them, they bring joy to my life.

Yet early on, I felt the need to invent a smoke screen: I was anonymous for about the first three months of writing on this site. I was hoping to attract a handful of other voices to write for the site, but that never fully materialized. That is the reason for the not-always-consistent use of the first person plural on this site (the royal “We), which may be on the wane, even though it’s so much fun to use.

But I started out anonymously mainly out of fear that writing about the communities I was involved in might attract unfavorable attention from both colleagues and presenters; colleagues might get all like, “Who the fuck do you think you are to review my work?”; and presenters might be all, “Who the fuck do you think you are applying to perform here when you just totally trashed our last show, asshole?”.

There may be some logic to these trepidations. But what I have discovered, so far, is that writing about the arts has actually drawn me into a deeper, more positive relationship with the community of the arts; from performers to the presenters; from the bloggers to the critics. People read what I write, and people care about what I write. And sometimes people even look forward to what I will write, or feel let down when I don’t write about certain things they wanted me to write about.

I can’t say exactly why this has surprised me. I’m still always a little puzzled when readers take personal offense to my negative criticisms, not about them or their work, but about artists and performances they liked. But that is something I must learn to accept about criticism. It has the power to unearth divisions that were not previously visible. And that isn’t always a cause for comfort.

This endeavor is still on its maiden voyage. Counter Critic has not even celebrated a first birthday. And to make matters more interesting, not only have I been writing on this site (after previously contributing to the sites culturebot.org and culturevulture.net), but I have also been writing non-evaluative essays for Chez Bushwick (as I have mentioned, and will be the subject of the final installment of this essay), and now am in discussions with The Brooklyn Rail to begin writing dance criticism for them. (This last event raises a host of exciting problems; for instance, can I be “The Counter Critic” and write mainstream criticism? Which is not to say that The Brooklyn Rail is necessarily “mainstream,” but it is quite possibly a move in that direction.)

Which brings us to the reason I decided to write this essay in the first place: To expound on the different ways of writing about the arts, or more specifically, the different ways I practice writing about the arts. In the following sections, I will zoom in and take a look at the three kinds of critical writing in which I currently engage: critiquing the critics, original reviews, and then the trixie one, non-evaluative, or, descriptive essays for Chez Bushwick.



  1. hi, just wanted to say that i am really enjoying this series so far.

    thank you.

  2. Thanks, Matthew. I really appreciate that. I’m going for transparency here, as much as possible. Hoping also to touch on some ideas that people might sense but haven’t quite found the forum for discussion.


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