When Bad Music Happens To Good Critics

In an article entitled “The Composer As Critic” composer Andrew Ford conflates two points, first that one should be able to divorce your own taste from one’s criticism of a piece, and second, one should refrain from reviewing bad works in general. In making his case, Ford cites Auden: “Attacking bad books is […] a waste of time [and] bad for the character.”

There are certainly many different metrics by which to judge a piece, but for discussion, let’s explore the following: “Do I like it?” (the subjective metric), “Would anyone like it?” (the collective metric), and “Should anyone like it?” (the objective metric). The first questions is purely subjective, it’s the taste that Ford believes should be removed from one’s criticism. The second question is where the critic imagines a hypothetical audience and, divorced from his or her own taste, looks for what that audience member might enjoy. Then there’s that hairy third question, with that prescriptive “should”. It presumes some universal standard of merit, a yardstick by which all pieces should be measured, and that the critic has the ability to discern where a work belongs on that scale.

It’s rare these days for a critic to claim to speak authoritatively for that third metric. Maybe critical hubris has become an endangered species in a world where everyone can publish their thoughts with the press of a “comment” button. (If opinions are like assholes, the internet is a tapestry of sphincters.) But I rather like the idea of a critic with the conviction that their taste is the RIGHT taste, that what they like is what SHOULD be liked. That there is indeed some universal metric for quality that we all strive for as creators and a critical body that makes that distinction. As a consumer of content, I feel enough strength in my sensibilities and convictions that I won’t be unduly swayed by an assertive critic whose tastes don’t align with my own and as a creator of content, receiving a well considered response to my work is a gift.

When faced with a bad work, what should the critic do? Auden says that it’s impossible to criticize a bad work without showing off, without engaging one’s facilities merely to find new and entertaining ways to savage a piece. (I’m reminded of the invective I hurled at Mark Narins’s opera Theresa Kren). But that seems a cop out. Wouldn’t a better critic engage their facilities to examine and articulate exactly WHY the piece doesn’t work? Wouldn’t such an insight be useful to an artist and audience, regardless of taste? And why would criticizing a good piece be any different? In the absence of such an analysis, without spending time to figure out the “why” of the good, wouldn’t the critic merely be showing off by finding new and entertaining ways to PRAISE a piece?

So go ahead critics, show some taste. Let’s get some flavor in there. Let’s hear about what you like, what you hate, and most importantly, why.  Will we learn more about you than we learn about the piece, as Ford asserts? Maybe, but if done properly, we will learn both about you AND the piece. And that will help orient us as you review future pieces. And we’ll all go on creating and critiquing and failing and succeeding and the remains of our meager attempts to improve on the past will define the standards for the audiences of tomorrow.