Everybody’s a Critic


You don’t have to live in New York City, as I do, to have the Occupy Wall Street movement on your mind. And you don’t have to be a member of the Media-Political Industrial Complex to know what it’s all about. In fact, not being honored with that dubious distinction is what allows you to see the ideas, values and goals the movement.

Because it’s about the separation between that club, and the greater conglomeration known variously known as The Establishment, The Elite and, of course, Conventional Wisdom that is the subject of objection for Occupy Wall Street. What is possible inside the Establishment is impossible outside it, and what matters outside seems not to register inside. As unemployment holds at an unthinkable 9% for an unthinkably long time, The Establishment seriously debates, not the merits of economic austerity, but how to best go about it. As the Federal government of the United States subsidizes pensions at eminently profitable and stable defense contractors, Alan Simpson complains about how the 99% — including those unemployed — have too great a sense of entitlement because they seek to hold onto future benefits that they spend their working lives paying for. Meanwhile, as Daniel Handler related, The Establishment feels entitled to its own personal lane at the local swimming pool. That’s what Occupy Wall Street is all about.

You’d think that the arts, especially music, would be free from most of this, a relief from the burdens that all of us, the 100%, experience. Catch a Busby Berkeley picture, and you see both mind-boggling production numbers and an explicit, specific sense of economic desperation behind the scenes; the movies are escapist fantasies for all that still point out the grim reality that the 99% were leaving outside the theater doors. Or in the closing number of 42nd Street, you got it all. Protest songs are protest songs, but everybody sings those, and I imagine even David Brooks, in his private moments, digs a little Bob Dylan.

But the arts aren’t free from this, and the responsibility for sullying them usually falls onto the 1%. Most of it is minor and forgivable, like pampering big donors who ensure the survival of organizations. Call that the cost of doing business, and pay it no mind. Such donors, when given power, can harm organizations though, as they’ve seriously harmed New York City Opera, the proverbial and true “People’s Opera.” While the future there is uncertain, things may still work out for the best in the long-term, as the opera goes out to the people.

What’s worse, and in some ways immoral, is the type of attitude that Michael Kaiser expresses at The Huffington Post. As the President of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, he should know better. But as a member of The Establishment (Arts Division), he clearly doesn’t. Kaiser finds the movement of arts criticism from print to digital media “a scary trend.” The enemy is the 99%, the bloggers, of course. The enemy is me! In Kaiser’s Establishment opinion, since you are reading me on the web I have not been properly “vetted” for knowledge and skill, and because I publish a blog I do not have expert judgement.

The real problem is I don’t belong to his club. However, you’ll hopefully forgive the self-promotion when I state that I am a critic. I have particular expertise, but that’s not essential. Criticism is set of values and morals put into action, expressed in language. Criticism examines the specific merits of each work and performance, discerns the values they proclaim and judges whether they succeed at their own criteria and goals. A critic can say that something works while having the personal opinion (taste) that they didn’t “like” it.

Without criticism, everything is an opinion, everything works (because nothing fails), and the lowest common denominator drowns out everything. Criticism allows avant-garde work to continue while general opinion catches up to it. Real, valuable criticism is professional by nature, because it informs, explains and leaves the audience to make up their own minds. And anyone can be a critic like this, it takes a fundamental amount of attention and thinking, of being sensitive to nuance, able to hold things in memory, and a level of confidence to think for oneself. Kaiser’s complaints are not criticism in any way, they are just opinion, opinion that disdains the temerity of those not admitted to The Establishment expressing their thoughts. I know that much of that expression is itself opinion, but there’s plenty of valuable, accomplished criticism on the web, and it’s there because the web is vetted by nothing other than quality. As Kaiser writes, “it is difficult to distinguish the professional critic from the amateur as one reads on-line reviews and critiques.” Yes, it is, and that’s a good thing.