Ways and Means: The O.C. (Original Critic)

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

The O.C. (Original Critic)

As I have mentioned, I wrote (mostly) classical music criticism (there’s one review I wrote of the late Ray Charles) for The Orange County Register, the second largest newspaper in Southern California. So it is not as if…suddenly last summer…I decided to be a critic.

I will hypothesize that there is something about my personality that predisposes me to criticism. Maybe all critics live with the same condition. But, basically, and whatever the reason, I have strong reactions to aesthetic experience. But not only that: I get the uncanny impulse to communicate these reactions through writing; or, to write. So I do.

A hallmark of my writing on Counter Critic is that I take on nearly every genre of art or performance (I lean toward dance and classical music/opera, but I’m not afraid to expound upon the latest Hollywood blockbuster or some new off-Broadway play). I don’t think there is anything I can’t write about, which is not to say that I am an expert in everything, but rather that, given whatever skills I have as a writer, and having whatever training/education I have as an artist, I know I should be able both to articulate my experience and to give my opinion, with knowledgeable authority of the work at hand.

But I also think that anyone can tell their experiences about the art they experience. It is elitist to assume that only some of us can relate our experiences with art. Even if a person has not learned the academic jargon in which most criticism is written, that person should still be able to say, even simply, how they reacted to a piece of music, a movie, a pop song, a modern dance. They can describe it. That is, if we encouraged each other to say more than whether we did or did not “like” something.

Real experience with the arts are critical experiences that travel far beyond the territory of like and dislike. The essential mode of experiencing art, before opinionating, is reaction. But as a culture, we tend to give less critical thought to our experience of art than we do to our opinions of famous people’s shopping habits, so what are you going to do? Keep your short list of “likes” and “dislikes” for your Monday morning confab around the water cooler.

If we can get beyond this idea that what we like and dislike supremely defines our value as people, we can then get to more grown-up matters of appreciation and criticism. It is possible to appreciate something one does not like; i.e. I appreciate the contribution Philip Glass has made to contemporary music, but I don’t like listening to his work. I don’t feel we’re taught to have confidence in our reactions to things, which is why we can be so defensive about our likes. We get so many preemptive messages that tell us how we should react, not just to art but to life; messages that undermine our confidence in our real reactions, which can often be devastatingly against the status quo that we freak the fuck out and cover them up as fast as we can, which usually consists of defaulting to the nearest social mores we can locate. If we felt truly comfortable speaking freely about our reactions to the world, my prediction is that we would feel far less lonely as people, and may even develop stronger bonds as human beings.

Don’t be fooled, however. There’s just as much suppression of discourse within the worlds of the arts as there is anywhere else, although, this may be largely for practical reasons. Artists’ perspectives may generally be broader, more informed that the average joe, but artists usually don’t go around critiquing each other, unless, as happens, their aesthetic agenda is in active opposition to a contemporary, or to history, in which case a defense of their work will naturally critique the work of their colleagues or predecessors. But this practice seems to be on the wane in an age when we want to feel that, at least on a superficial level, all artists should be valued equally. No one wants to draw first blood. But this seems to be leading to an environment that suppresses critical thought, and creates a false bubble of acceptance. I would say, even in Alex Ross’ open-arms attitude to new composers, there is definitely an underlying discrimination against the avant garde; which seems merely to be replacing the dogma of serialsm with the dogma of minimalism-derivative eclecticism.

The important thing, and this came up in a comment by Tim Rutherford-Johnson on the previous installment, is to be genuinely critical in order to foster a healthy artistic culture. It’s like pruning certain bushes. If we don’t tend to them with care, they will stop growing.

But who should do the pruning? To be a critic presumes a level of distance between the critic and the artist, not just between the critic and the work. Walking around, assuming the authority to criticize the work of your colleagues makes you somewhat of an other, even if people generally appreciate your point of view and your efforts to further dialogue within the arts.

But this too is mythological. I would imagine that critics have always been close to at least a small circle of artists within the fields they critique. Developing closer ties to critics by way of engaging in more open discourse with them about their processes and ideas, might well, as suggested by a friend of mine, benefit the arts and criticism more than one might instinctively anticipate.

But even I, as The Counter Critic, with little real pressure to heed any conventionally accepted journalistic ethics–although by no means do I believe that the blogging community is wholly exempt from committing to an ethical practice–even I do not review work by close friends of mine. The nearest I have come to reviewing work by those I would consider friends are my reviews of Jeremy Wade and Miguel Gutierrez, both of whom I met—and have been social with—through my affiliation with Chez Bushwick. I happen to have reacted favorably to both of their recent efforts in New York, and have written thusly. But my sudden role as a critical voice, particularly in the field of dance and performance, has definitely placed a new, complicating twist on my already “emerging” status as a voice in the arts. Now I am both creator and critic.

I have also invented a series on this site called “Contra Critique,” in which I write about things without designating critical value. I have written in this series about a performance at Dixon Place given by Elke Rindfleisch, who is a dear friend and collaborator. The style of writing was dubbed “non-evaluative criticsm” by another friend and colleague, Jonah Bokaer, with whom I have parterned both to create art and discourse.

If you find the term confusing or contradictory, think of it as Jowitt-style descriptive writing. It’s a way of appreciating something without getting to the like and dislike. You write about what you see, ruminate on possible evocations or associations, but without placing the work in a valuating context; i.e. such and such isn’t as good as such and such; or vice-a-versa. This kind of writing is necessarily positive.

In the next and final installment, I will elaborate on the values of this kind of writing.

(And if you should still need some empirical evidence as to what qualifies me to be a critic, I scored 92% on this quiz…)


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