Criticism and Dvořák

Continuing on my research about the crisis of criticism, I’ve just finished reading an essay by pianist Sarah Rothenberg on criticism in the world of music.[1. “Measuring the Immeasurable,” in Maurice Berger, ed.,The Crisis of Criticism (The New York: New Press, 1998), pp. 147-168.] Rothenberg begins her essay describing a visit of Antonín Dvořák to America in 1892. The event, that included Dvořák’s premier of his “From the New World” Symphony, was reviewed by New York Daily Tribune‘s music critic Henry Krehbiel.[2. See also a commentary on Krehbiel’s article by Michael Beckerman: “Henry Krehbiel, Antonín Dvořák, and the Symphony ‘From the New World’,” Notes 49.2 (Dec., 1992), pp. 447-473.] What stroke Rothenberg the most about the review was the fact that it included “fourteen musical examples, with a total of eighty bars of music” (148). She explains:

The presence of excerpts from an orchestral score quoted freely in a daily sold on streetcorners speaks eloquently of a defined relationship between critic and reader, composer and audience, producer and consumer. While Americans were, for the first time, quite self-consciously attempting to put a distinctly American imprint on the European tradition of concert music (for the issue of American identity was a large part of Dvořák’s project in this country), there was nevertheless, quite unself-consciously, an accepted notion of the relevance of such discussion and an expectation of musical literacy for those who wished to enter into it. (148) [highlights are mine]

Rothenberg goes on explaining some of the reasons why such “musical literacy” was possible. For instance, she observes that up to probably the time of Dvořák’s visit, around the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, most people only had two ways to enjoy music — either by making it by themselves or by being “in a room where someone else was making it” (149). And this could be said not only of music but of many other art forms. In fact, we don’t need to stretch the idea too much to include painting and, consequently, to connect her assessment with Benjamin’s essay on the lost of aura in industrially reproducible art.

I have always understood Benjamin’s idea of aura as a way to represent the experience of evaluating, of assessing value in artistic goods. Metaphorically Metonymically, the aura is a — somehow mystical, it’s true — way to account for that experience, to understand the economy of desires that connects producers and consumers of artistic goods through ‘use value’. In my view, a consequence of Benjamin’s analysis is the recognition that mechanically reproducible art creates recurrent bubbles that abruptly destabilizes that economy. Eventually, the effect of this loss of aura is an artistic market that is completely fetishized or commoditized.

What Rothenberg describes is a similar process. By introducing mechanically reproducible music, that auratic experience between listeners, performers, composers, and score is, as she describes so well, loss forever. But she goes beyond Benjamin, at least in my view. Why? Because she introduces into her analysis the role of the middlemen.  Critics are the middlemen in the economy of desires that operates in art. And although middlemen are usually associated with unscrupulous car salesmen or shark speculators, Rothenberg’s analysis demonstrates that despite all the bad imagery middlemen play an important role here. Good critics help leveling the  playing field without distorting it.

The function of the middlemen is to help the negotiating parties in understanding each other. In the economy of desires involved in art, it means negotiating between producer’s and consumer’s expectations about each transaction. Critics help both parties in agreeing on a common language to express their needs and wants, on what they bring to the negotiating table. The combination of industrialized art consumption and the disappearing of the critic brings as main consequence that both producers and consumers of art goods lack of a common language to articulate their needs and expectations other than the language of money — therefore the unavoidable fetishism. As Rothenberg remarks, modern consumers of music are incapable of understanding a piece’s score and therefore the only way they can assess value — on their auratic experience — is in terms of money or any of its proxys — such as ratings, sales, popularity, etc.

So, paraphrasing Rothenberg’s title, facing the dilemma of their inability to measure the immeasurable, contemporary art consumers are left with only one option: to measure the only measurable variable we have left, money. In another post I’m going to talk a little bit about this, the relationship between money and criticism.

Do We Need (Literary) Critics Today?

“Criticism is death” seems to be a fashionable catchphrase these days. In the era of the Internet, when access to information has become as ubiquitous as leg shaving and as easy as dental flossing, people find no use for this particular kind of looser. Looser? Yes! As 19th Century British statement and author Benjamin Disraeli harshly sentenced once, critics are usually seen as “men who have failed in literature and art” — that is, literary loosers.[1. Cf. Lothair (1870), Ch. 35.] So, the phrase “All critic is a failure” seems to be, according to the Uruguayan poet Mario Benedetti, a universally-accepted truth — “above all for those who aren’t critics themselves,” he adds. Benedetti also admitted that “critics” are sometimes “annoyed and — most often — annoying.”[2. Cf. El ejercicio de la crítica. Crítica literaria 1950-1970 (1981), p. 17.] And the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky went even further by calling his critics names such as “scoundrels” and “asses.”[3. Cf. Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2009), p. 913.] Thus, being as they are the object of so much animosity and bitterness, why do we need critics in the first place?

Answering this question is the challenge that I have decided to take up for myself in a series of essays I’m working on at the moment. It’s true that the profession of critic is far from being a truly fashionable occupation these days — as it might be the case with rich teenage burglars or their Reality-TV “celebrity” victims as those portrayed by Sofia Coppola’s latest flick. Well, I guess only a few of today’s critics can afford Louis Vuitton briefs or Hermès wallets. By the way, mine come all from Walmart and Kmart. And although politicians continue to dislike us — a professional hazard that critics have always faced from the very beginning, we only need to remember whatever happened to Demosthenes and to any of his brethren — the problem now is that the ‘public’, whatever the term means in our post-modern days, just don’t care. And it wasn’t always that way.

“Criticism was born of the struggle against the absolute state,” reminds us Terry Eagleton in his interesting The Significance of Theory (1991). As the same Eagleton remarks in a lecture on the death of criticism, the occupation of literary critic began in the hands of rhetoricians. Language and persuasion were their initial realms. Later on, during the Enlightenment, rhetoricians became what we call nowadays critics. And yes, since the beginning  its feud was against the “absolute state” of the late 17th and 18th century but also against all remaining vestiges of Medieval dogmatism. In the language of today’s Hollywoodian ethos, 17th and 18th century critics were sort of the Batman and Ironman of the days — let’s remember that Voltaire and Rousseau also liked to put on costumes. Critics were not only fashionable but also actually read. They were very cool back then!

But at that time literary criticism wasn’t a (bourgeois) profession in the sense some people understand the term today. As Peter Uwe Hohendahl explains in his very insightful The Institution of Criticism (1982), the term ‘literary criticism’ doesn’t always mean the same in different times and places. In Anglo-Saxon circles, the term refers mainly to a kind of Academic writing — the kind of writing that is done by scholars and professors and that usually never reaches the general public. In Germany (as it’s the case with most of Latin America), the term refers to both scholarly writing and journalist writing — the latter what Americans usually call ‘book reviewing’. Well, this unity of meaning was common during the 18th century and most of the 19th century — at least until 1850 when, according to Hohendahl, the influence of positivism changed this practice forever. So, when Dostoevsky was using names against his critics, he was referring mostly to the journalist or ‘hybrid’ type.

In a sense, more traditional critics used to fulfill a clearer — and more independent — social function in Modernity’s consumerist society. They were intermediaries between the producers (authors) and the consumers (readers). No surprise then that it was them who fought against the absolutists of the past by helping their readers to see in the fictional world a mirror of their own condition. But also, this mediation happened under the assumption that literature was aesthetically relevant, that it had value by and in itself and independent of its uses in society. The task of the critic was to mediate, to interpret and evaluate the object of art on behalf of the reading public. Whether this process of mediation was scientifically rigorous or not didn’t matter as long as critics were able to affect their reading audience in some way, to point them to what was believed to be ‘good’ literature.

I think that when ‘criticism’ became an academic field, its social function became more opaque — at least from the perspective of the general public — since it was expected to satisfy the same requirements that science and other academic disciplines are always expected to satisfy — that is, to explain (literary) phenomena in a rigorous and methodological way. I think that by doing this criticism actually hurt itself since in advanced capitalist societies this process of ‘seeking rigor’ always led to some form of monetization. In terms of the Frankfurt School’s theory of commodification, what this trend did was to ensure the fetishization of criticism. In other words, criticism lost all aesthetic or immanent value — it was either ideologically motivated or socially constructed — and was forced to validate itself in terms of more accepted forms of exchange value — be it academic or institutional indicators such as salaries, scholarship output, impact, etc. When criticism accepted to be evaluated in the language of modern day’s capitalist society — as science and engineering have been doing for a while now — it opened up the door to what’s happening today.[4. The question remains whether this process can be avoided at all, of course.]

But, of course, this is just one possibility of explanation. Non-academic criticism is in crisis too. Its health depended on the health of traditional forms of journalism — paper-based newspapers, magazines, etc. — that are becoming today an endanger species all in themselves. As new forms of news dissemination became popular, journalist criticism became a target of the the same problems threatening the traditional news outlets.

Anyway, there seem to be certain agreement that today’s critics are as useless as bidets or perhaps even as the same newspapers that used to carry their work. For instance, in a recent interview American author and critic Louis Bayard commented on how

Book reviews are closing shop or drastically scaling back inventory. Film critics at newspapers all over America are getting tossed on their ears. TV reviewers are heard no more in the land.”

All these are interesting “indicators” that seem to “suggest that America’s critics are becoming an increasingly endangered species,” as Bayard concludes. In a more alarmist fashion, one could say that if this trend continues as of now, people will put on the same face when they hear the word ‘critic’ as they do when hearing the word ‘platypus’ — nonetheless the fact that a platypus still stars on its own TV-series and that the one dedicated to (films) critics was cancelled after just 23 episodes a long time ago.

But back to our initial question, do we still need critics today? I will try to explore alternative answers in future posts.