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.