Infallible judgement: Dave Hickey, classical music and the critical state
TWO old ladies were overheard in the lift going down to the car park of Sydney City Recital Hall following a performance of Hartmann’s Concerto Funèbre by violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja and the Australian Chamber Orchestra. One said to the other, “I enjoyed that. I think it was good…but let’s wait and see what the critics say tomorrow.”
The American culture critic Dave Hickey quit the art world this week. He told The Observer that art editors and critics had become a courtier class, hostage to rich collectors “who have no respect for what they are doing”. Mr Hickey said that more collectors are employing arts consultants to tell them what is great art, instead of relying on their own opinion.
“What can I tell you? It’s nasty and it’s stupid. I’m an intellectual and I don’t care if I’m not invited to the party. I quit,” he said.
Mr Hickey’s particular reasons for quitting, and his opinions on the “calcified”‘ state of modern art have been well documented (see the full article here). What I am concerned with is the role of the critic, and what it is that we might be losing in such a figure as Mr Hickey.
I am going to list a few questions playing on my mind.
Critics…Who are they? Do we rely on them? Should we? What are their motives?
What is Mr Hickey’s motive in being an art critic? What does he want to achieve with his write-ups? Occupying that hallowed junction where expertise meets taste, does he want to be an arbiter? Is it his place?
A critic cannot be a blind initiate; this can lead to mere hagiography or advertorial. Even when it is severely negative, the scathing review is itself a kind of passion for the art-form which the reviewer feels has been marred by the work in question. But Mr Hickey has gone a step further in his throwing in of the towel. It is not a dislike of an artist or a work, but a wholesale rejection of the entire art world. It’s a pretty serious state of affairs for the doyen of US critics to say, and I re-quote: “I’m an intellectual and I don’t care if I’m not invited to the party. I quit.” He says that collectors have consultants tell them what is great art, instead of relying on their own opinions…or should it be his?
What has been lost? The art is still going to be there, isn’t it? So we’ve lost a point of view, an erudite and deep one, but one person’s opinion nonetheless…Will art suffer? Will our appreciation or even our ability to appreciate it suffer? Will his quitting affect the creation of art and its future trajectory?
There have been a lot of question marks in this introduction, mostly rhetorical, and I hope they’ll make your synapses buzz as much as mine have been.
With art and the case of Hickey, what I admire is that the very genre is being questioned, even repudiated. In the classical music sphere, there is no such similarity. When is the last time a music critic stood up in such a way? Unquestionable, the genre is king…Can this be termed the “calcification” of music?
Musical criticism has moved towards a differentiation between general music criticism and performance criticism. Historically, reviews often concentrate on judging (mostly new) compositions. Here is Ernest Newman’s take on the Proms in 1931:
“Programmes are mostly given up to works of the most familiar kind. There has been during the past week a Wagner night, a Beethoven night, a Brahms night and a Tchaikovski (sic) night; and as none of these composers have written much lately, there have been no new works for the critic to exercise his infallible judgement upon.”
The goalposts certainly have changed. Today, the decline in the performance of contemporary music has led critics to concentrate on performing artists; earlier, music was heard fresh from the composing desk, often performed by the composer themselves. Thus critics would concentrate on the work, not its execution. Then, it was OK to say what you liked about music already accepted into the canon, but now that works are performed canonically, critics aren’t expected to praise Schubert or excoriate Tchaikovsky (like when Hanslick said that Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto gave “for the first time the hideous notion that there can be music that stinks to the ear”) but to focus on the performer.
As the canon of classics calcified, thanks in part to music critics, repeat performances highlighted the extent to which each performer contributed uniquely to the experience of the music. Nowadays, critics with axes to grind or with personal theories about the music itself aren’t taken seriously. The performer and the performance are the things to be scrutinised, not the work. It is accepted, and correct, that the performer adds his or her thoughts and personality to a work, and all are worthy in their own way; the concept of the canon is unequivocal, and is here to stay. Just like art’s deification of certain individuals – Hirst, Emin, et al – music, driven with critics and the media, creates it own pantheon; where, in certain circles, a rich, high-demand “star” might not be the most talented, the most profound, but seems to keep people’s attention.
Is this calcification of the canon good or bad for music? Of course, visual art and music are not the same, but music, canonically, is no longer questioned. This perpetuates absolutes, and this then squeezes interpretations, viewpoints, perhaps even the creation of new works into a fixed space, perhaps precluding the opportunity of breaking these bonds and discovering new vistas. Therefore, Mr Hickey, I applaud you.
It is certainly a time of change for specialist critics these days. The New York Times recently removed Allan Kozinn from his position as music critic and reassigned him as general cultural reporter; over the past few years, critics’ jobs have been eliminated, downgraded or redefined at papers across the world.
The role of social media, which thrives on argument, not consensus, has certainly impacted the critic. A twitter feed of professionals and non-professionals who freely trade opinions with rapier-speed and passion moves away from the burden of traditionally proscribed cultural consumption. The critic of old did not enter into dialogue, and we no longer accept the authority of critics unless they engage with us. No longer can thousands of words be lavished on a concert review, but 140 characters still can…Can you image George Bernard Shaw being re-tweeted?
Criticism involves having a reaction to a work of art, and then trying to understand and account for that reaction. There’s something hauntingly sensual about this performance – what is it? This piece gives me a feeling of the eternal – why?
Directly engaging with others, whether through the review or the tweet, will help us find maybe not consensus, but more questions and thus an expansion of our ability to listen, analyse and appreciate.