Monday, January 31, 2011

True crit

Something I posted in response to the reponses to Neal Gabler’s piece in yesterday’s Observer about whether the interwebs killed the critical star.
The democratisation of critical opinion has forced us all to make use of our own critical faculties, applying them not just to cultural product – books, movies, music, restaurants, etc – but to criticism itself. We might see 20 or 2,000 different opinions on the same work, so we have to ask ourselves who the most convincing, persuasive arguers are. Do they seem to have a modicum of knowledge about the subject? Do they understand the cultural/political context in which the work was created? Do they put together a coherent argument (why a poem or record or souffle is good or bad) or do they just say that they loved or hated it? Can they spell?

Critics employed by mainstream media are perfectly capable of competing in this bearpit, but they have to understand that they will be judged on their own merits. The vicarious self-branding that comes from being on the books of The New York Times, the BBC, The Observer etc no longer carries so much weight. You have to convince us how good you are, just as authors and film-makers and musicians and chefs have to convince you.
It didn’t get much of a response there, possibly because of the absence of come-hither pictures of Helen Mirren or Charlotte Rampling (or Anita Pallenberg or Princess Margaret or Yootha Joyce or whoever). Anyway, pretty soon after I’d posted it, I discovered a site called Poptimal, which in an apparent effort to distinguish itself from the cultural elite (which according to Gabler may no longer be an elite – do try to keep up at the back, there’ll be an exam later) claims to offer “Pop Culture Reviews From People Like You”. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but neither is it by definition an entirely good thing either. What do you think? (Respondents  must identify three distinct criteria in which they are People Like Me.)

And then I learned that the composer and mathematician Milton Babbitt had died over the weekend. It was Babbitt who wrote the notorious 1958 article “Who Cares If You Listen?” Although he claimed the provocative title was the work of an editor, it pretty much summed up his argument that if music was to progress, it would have to get difficult, demanding a level of commitment that not everyone might be able to muster. And with a few tweaks, the question applies to those who contribute to Poptimal, and those who chipped in to comment on Gabler’s article, and with a nod to the Tim Radford piece I mentioned in my previous post: Who Cares If You Write?


E. Studnicka said...

I am not a filmmaker. I don't know anyone famous (well, I did meet Joe Biden once. Not that I like being boastful or anything, but he did complement me on the hat I was wearing...) and I don't see anything in movies that isn't viable to normal people (not like me). Basically, my knowledge of film is completely spawned from Netflix and Wikipedia. I do, however, care about what I write and, though I prefer not to admit it, I do care if it is read.
This is why I have a blog and do not write for the New Yorker.

Criteria proving that I am a person like you:

1. If I were blind, I'd still prefer reading Joyce over Rand.

2. I always request a discount when I wear my stilettos to a bar.

3. I never read anything that doesn't include a picture of a fruity British woman.

Billy said...

I like Babbitt, but I'm always dubious of music when the critical theory is better than the music. It's supposed to be transcendental people.

Tim F said...

Thank you, MWB. But if you're that much like me, you'll just think the same thoughts as me, so if I listen it'll be a bit like spooky voices in my head, no?

But Billy, are you dubious of theory when the music is better than the theory?

Dick Headley said...

Criticism has such negative connotations. I think we should all be nice.