Why you can’t trust a critic

"I'm With You" by the Red Hot Chili Peppers: When you can listen to an album before buying it, do you really need a critic?
Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.
“I’m With You” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers: When you can listen to an album before buying it, do you really need a critic?

It’s always a bit of a bummer for me to see critics who primarily view themselves as tastemakers or consumer guides, as I mentioned on Tuesday. I want to continue that discussion today. As I suggested, these are the sorts of jobs that I think critics are often spectacularly bad at, but, more than that, I think they make themselves redundant by taking these tasks on.

The truth is, it’s easy to get a sense of a critical consensus toward a piece of art nowadays, especially with popular arts, and you don’t have to turn to a critic for assistance. As an example, there is new album out just now by the band Red Hot Chili Peppers called “I’m With You.” It’s the band’s first album since 2006, and the first with a new guitarist, Josh Klinghoffer; both of these facts make this album significant. If you’re thinking about buying the album, you could track down a single critic who seems to know what he or she is  talking about, such as Jon Caramanica of the New York Times, who calls lead singer Anthony Kiedis’ voice “thin” and says that Klinghoffer makes only “a few faint marks.” The album, as a whole, he calls “overly polite.” If your tastes happen to perfectly dovetail with Caramanica’s, this might be enough for you.

Once upon a time, that would have had to suffice. Perhaps, if you were really dedicated, you’d also check out the review in Rolling Stone, or Spin, or your daily paper. But the number of critics were limited. Nowadays, it’s quite the opposite. You could, for instance, go to Apple’s iTunes Store, where a lot of us buy our music as a digital download. There are already 2,075 ratings of this new album, and, among iTunes listeners, it enjoys a four and a half star rating. You’ll also see a large range of opinions from respondents, including those who think the loss of former guitarist John Frusciante has changed the band’s sound too much. Others think this is the band’s best album.

If you don’t buy from the iTunes store, almost every online store likewise offers audience responses. On Amazon.com, as an example, the album has been reviewed 96 times, and enjoys a four-star rating. And, if you don’t trust the rabble, there are thousands of music blogs written by dedicated amateurs willing to offer their opinions. And, if you don’t trust them, you can listen to samples from the album online, and the band streamed the entire album continuously in advance of its release. The web has thoroughly taken responsibility for being a consumer guide, and does it with a larger sampling and variety of opinions than any one critic could hope to offer. As critics, we make ourselves redundant when we think our primary task is to tell people how to spend their money.

But, more than that, I think a case can be made that critics are inherently untrustworthy in their tastes. The way a critic experiences art and the way mainstream audiences experience art are just too divergent for a critic to be a good consumer guide. First, critics make especially poor consumer guides because they generally don’t spend their own money on whatever they are reviewing. There are exceptions — as an example, I generally pay for my own movies and my own cocktails, which are two subjects I write about. Sometimes I get either or both gratis, but I drink cocktails and see movies on my own schedule and find it easier to just pony up the money than to try to find screenings or set up drinking sessions with bartenders. But I also review plays and dance, and typically don’t have to pay for either. I have a press pass to the Walker Art Center. I get passed into other museums. I sit in on final rehearsals at the opera, and my name gets put on a list at the door of other music events. People mail me books. I pay for none of it. I often don’t know how much things cost, and it’s probably better that I don’t, as, were I to have to pay for every single event, I couldn’t attend most.

Mind you, some newspapers have policies in place that their critics may not get comped tickets. Nonetheless, those newspapers reimburse their critics for their arts expenses, and so the critic, once again, is left off the financial hook. This fact alone is guaranteed to make a critic unusually bad at being a consumer guide, because, when I am shopping for things that I plan to buy, one of my first questions is “how much does it cost?” A proper consumer guide would be certain to list coupons, or half-price days, or the fact that seniors and children pay less for tickets. I can’t recall the last time I saw a critic mention such a thing.

No, critics tend to approach art from a purely aesthetic viewpoint, presuming the shopper has unlimited funds and therefore will decide what they buy or don’t buy based exclusively on aesthetics. But here’s the second problem: Besides the fact that it’s free for them, critics experience art in a way that is dramatically different from the hoi polloi. With the exception of a few really dedicated hobbyists, nobody sees as much art as a critic — this includes other artists, who are generally too busy making art to see any of it. There is almost nobody in the local theater scene, for example, who regularly sees two or three plays a week, every single week, every single year. Nobody except critics. I did it, for three years, when I was with City Pages. And that sort of thing certainly assists a writer in reporting on theater, as I quickly got to know this town’s actors, directors, stage managers, playwrights and other movers and shakers. But it also starts to turn perfectly ordinary theatrical moments into clichés.

Let me give an example. Every so often, in a musical, there will be a moment when the music stops and the cast begins to sway and clap their hands, taking a song’s melody and revisiting it in soaring, gospel-inspired harmonies. Whenever I see this, I want to walk out of the theater. I have seen it too often, and it has become an exhausting cliché to me. I find it especially irritating, because it often happens in musicals that have had no gospel influence before this moment, and will have none after. It strikes me as a gimmick to charge up audience excitement, and nowadays I see it as manipulative, rather than genuine.

I’ve seen several dozen musicals in the past year. How many has the average audience member seen? Probably not as many, and not so many that this moment sees clichéd. And maybe I’m right — maybe it is a cheap gimmick. But, holy cow, it works. If this is your first musical in five years, a moment like that can be a shot of pure adrenaline, and at these instances there is an entire audience feeling the urge to leap to their feet, applaud, and clap along to the music. An entire audience, that is, minus one. Me. Whose experience of this musical is more valid — mine, or that of everybody else in the audience? 

"Hesher": Max found it to be one of the best films of the year; nobody else did.
Photo courtesy of Newmarket Films
“Hesher”: Max found it to be one of the best films of the year; nobody else did.

And this doesn’t even begin to address the fact that I have idiosyncratic tastes. We all do. I found “Hesher” to be one of the best films I have seen this year, and feel perfectly alone in that opinion — even other critics who allowed that the film had its moments gave what can only be described as qualified recommendations. Whenever somebody asks me point blank whether they should see something, I balk. “I think you should,” I am tempted to answer, “but, then, I’m a weirdo.” I like art that isn’t immediately likable, that presents itself with a snarl, that people will be tempted to dismiss as a hoax. Most people do not share this taste.

I do not see myself as a consumer guide. My first question, when writing about art, is not “Should people spend money on it?” or even “Is it good or bad,” but, instead, “what does it mean?” I like questions like “Why would an artist do this?” or “what are they trying to communicate?” or “how did they make this?” When I see what looks like a flaw in a piece of art, I ask myself if it’s possible that this flaw is deliberate, and, if so, why the artist might have chosen to include such a flaw. This is a surprisingly useful question, and prevents me from easily dismissing work because it is challenging, and I unthinkingly interpret that challenge as an error or as amateurism. 

I find it useful to ask if there is an intended audience for a piece of art, and if I am among that intended audience, and how I may be experiencing the art if I am not. Art is rarely made for a general audience, but, as I mentioned yesterday, critics have a habit of taking a work that is meant for a particular audience and writing about it for a general readership. This does both art and audience a disservice, but you’re going to tend to write this way when you’re writing as a consumer guide.

This is not to say I leave out my opinions when I write about art. If I like or dislike a piece, I make it a habit to say so, clearly and forthrightly. I used to not do this, and discovered readers find it annoying. I suppose I figure as long as I am not saying “I dislike this, so you should dislike it too,” there’s no harm in including my own tastes, idiosyncratic though they may be. But I do try to highlight that my tastes are not universal.

I can’t be counted on to recommend a piece of art. I can, however, be counted on to take the time to research a piece of art, and describe the art carefully, and, when given a chance, interview the artist. I will do what I can to find out how something is made. I will discuss, in as much depth as I can, the sort of art it is, and where it fits in with other art, and I will muse about why one sort of art may be popular and another unpopular.

I may write about art as it relates to broader social trends. I will try to craft a narrative out of these musings and scraps of reportage. I think this is the sort of thing that critics should be doing, because they have the time and the access to do so. So while I may offer my opinion about a piece of art, I am less interested in doing so than giving the reader as many tools as they can use to make up their own minds about a piece of art.

That’s the task of the contemporary critic, I think. People are perfectly capable of figuring out how to spend their own money. If there is one thing we’re especially good at in America, it’s spending, and nobody needs my help with that.

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Charlie Quimby on 09/07/2011 - 12:53 pm.

    Good piece. It describes the job critics have always had, but today we mostly have “reviewers.”

    The job also seems to be viewed very differently in the publishing industry, where so many reviewers face another kind of conflict of interest. They’re colleagues, competitors, or aspiring writers themselves who may see their own worked reviewed by the author they’ve just critiqued. That happens rarely in the performing and fine arts.

    As a one-time professional critic, I never felt influenced (other than the way you’ve aptly described) by comp tickets and other freebies. But now, as a novelist looking to get published, I confess I think twice before even posting a review at Goodreads.

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