Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Criticism: it’s not what you know

It’s frequently said, with varying degrees of regret, that there’s no need for full-time critics any more. Do potential punters really need to know what someone from The Guardian or New Yorker said about a specific book or restaurant or movie or conceptual installation, we’re asked, when anyone can see that it got four and a bit stars on Amazon or TripAdvisor?

I’m a little torn on this. I see exactly why TripAdvisor exists, and I’m glad that it does, but it does require a healthy dose of scepticism on the part of the reader; not just when it comes to disguised conflicts of interests (giving a crap review to a rival, for example) but also straightforward ignorance from the reviewer. I was talking to a hugely skilled and experienced chef yesterday, the sort of guy who can take all sorts of criticism on the chin, but he was deeply irritated that someone had said that his ravioles were all wrong. Not bad, note – wrong. “I make them how they’re meant to be made,” he sighed. “If someone doesn’t like that, fair enough. But I really don’t know what this guy’s comparing them with.”

I sympathise with the chef, so you’d expect me to be singing hosannas to Ted Gioia, who in a Daily Beast piece last week railed against music critics who don’t have any grounding in musical theory. Well, no. Apart from the fact that I used to scrabble around on the fringes of the music crit biz and I couldn’t tell a diminuendo from a diminished fifth, this does suggest that technical ability should be the most important consideration when it comes to judging music, which would ultimately mean that Emerson, Lake and Palmer or Level 42 are somehow empirically better than Bo Diddley or the Ramones, a prospect I simply refuse to countenance. And moreover, modern popular music – even more than any other art form – has been about rather more than the music for several decades. How could one possibly contemplate, say, a Public Enemy album in purely musicological terms? (Further responses to Gioia’s piece from Ian Rogers at The Vine, Jody Rosen at Vulture and Mike Powell at Pitchfork.)

So who are the authority figures supposed to be? What are the criteria? Who judges the judges? As the BBC announces plans for an updated version of its legendary art history series Civilisation, heads are being scratched as to who would be the best frontperson. Kenneth Clark, the original civiliser-in-chief, certainly knew his stuff, but would a similar level of patrician assurance suit Civ 2.0? No, but at the same time we wouldn’t fancy Ant and/or Dec in the role either. Or, for that matter, someone randomly plucked from TripAdvisor. We need an expert whose expertise is implied, not woven into his bespoke suit.

At least art and music benefit from functioning criticial communities, both professional and amateur, informed and otherwise. I’ve long wondered how the fashion industry would function if there were a solid mass of critics who felt sufficiently empowered not simply to report on the latest Versace show but to offer a qualitative analysis, to say that a whole collection is good or bad or mixed, just as their counterparts in other fields would be able to say about a new Beyoncé album or Martin Amis novel or Tracey Emin retrospective. Indeed, what are the chances of there being a successful fashion journalist who argues that Versace’s clothes look as if they’ve been designed by a committee of colour-blind drag queens? Sure there are catty fashion blogs, such as the still-funny-sometimes Go Fug Yourself, but they do seem to reserve their vitriol for the people wearing the clothes rather than the people who make and sell them. If such a daft concept as normcore had come along in any other field, the critics’ knives would have been out, but Vogue journalists seem to have their bullshit detectors disabled when they get their first paycheck: all they can offer is a very gently furrowed brow. Surely it’s better to risk the occasional interruption from someone who doesn’t know who Donatello or Donatella are than to jettison all critical intelligence entirely?


emmat said...

I write about gardening for a living, and I have quite a few friends who argue the same about garden writing: there's no tradition of criticism, as there would be for other art forms. And, that until there is, it's not 'serious'. It's quite interesting to see them trying to engage the mumsy world of garden writing.... in which i include myself....

Unknown said...

My late father used to tell me that it's not what you know, or who you know; it's what you know ABOUT who you know.

Tim F said...

But surely people have opinions and preferences, Emma? Even if it's about rhododendrons vs hollyhocks. Are there no blogs that try to kick divots in the perfectly manicured lawn?

It's how much who you know is prepared to pay to keep you quiet about what you know, M&A.