25 Comments and Quotations on Criticism

25 Comments and Quotations
on Criticism
Unsystematically Randomized

From Jazz Notes 6/3 1994

By Max Harrison
Copyright © 1994, Max Harrison

This piece is dedicated to the character in Vladimir Nabokov's story The Passenger (In his Details of a Sunset collection of 1976) who maintains, with an almost perfectly straight face, that the orderliness and concision of art are a sad comedown from the chaos and confusion of life itself.

No. 4
There comes a moment in all science fiction films (except Godzilla Meets the Teenage Psycho Chainsaw Bimbos from Outer Space) when the hero, having just despatched a couple of giant skyscraper-eating ants or a platoon of Uranian dandelion men, flops back on the studio rock, dashes the glycerine from his brow, and splutters to his companions in misfortune, "It's no use. There'll be more of them along in a minute. We'll just have to find that formula and destroy them at source."

No. 22
Having spent what seem like several hundred of the best years of my life at the task, I know that record reviewers feel an even greater desperation. See the reviewer crouching bravely by his hi-fi as the latest batch of releases heads toward him out of the miasmal swamp where these flat, disclike pests breed and multiply. He pounds away at his word-processo, and occasionally scores a direct hit (the record company press department screams, wounded, down his telephone).

But he knows that mostly these small, round, silvery creatures, even more numerous than the older, larger black mutation, are impervious to adverse comment rather as lemmings are unafraid of water. Unlike the science fiction hero, he no longer deceives himself, having accepted that no formula would stand the remotest chance of stemming the record industry's unrelenting flood of "product."

No. 14
Certainly W. H. Auden was putting it mildly when (in his Forewords and Afterwords, 1973) he wrote that an excess of reviewing leaves the sufferer "incapacitated by the wear and tear of discrimination." Dealing with topics that just happen to come along exploits rather than develops a writer's gifts, dissipating the specific insights that he has to offer. Besides, a career in journalism encourages a cast of mind which values novelty for its own sake.

Minerva's Owl Takes Off

No. 12
But that is reviewing, you will rightly protest, not criticism. You may even cite Hegel's reflection that the owl of Minerva takes flight at dusk, meaning that the time for philosophy, and criticism, is when the action is over. Reviewers are in the firing-line, whereas critics, like historians, do their work later, at a distance. Ellington's "If you're busy analyzing you can't listen" (quoted in Ralph Gleason's Celebrating the Duke, 1975) completely misses the point. First you listen, then you analyze, then you listen again with sharpened ears; music of substance demands time and effort.

No. 7
Should criticism be to art what philosophy is to wisdom or history to public events? That is, a systematic, organized study with its own conceptual framework? What has always been missing, especially from music criticism, is a co-ordinating principle, a central hypothesis which, like the theory of evolution in biology, sees the phenomena it deals with as parts of a whole. One should work towards a central expanding pattern of systematic comprehension. Or is this a chimera? Jacques Barzun warns that "The search for a critical vocabulary in which we may speak of music by strict denotation is absurd: not even the conventional notes and signs can precisely convey the sounds that we hear" (Pleasures of Music, 1951).

No. 19
Which implies that music is a language hermetic to the extent that it does not connect with other languages, perhaps least of all with the currency of words, speech, writing. Hence the categorizations imposed on both musicians' and listeners' experience of music by the language of even the most subtle critic may be irrelevant, misleading. Is not the critic's whole enterprise something like trying to limn the perfume of a flower that has vanished from this planet, or the cry of an animal now extinct? Stalemate: Bowra versus Turgenev No. 13 Turning for guidance to reputedly wise men, we find they contradict one another as energetically as ever. According to Maurice Bowra (The Creative Experiment, 1949), "The critical calling, with its efforts and frustrations and unanticipated triumphs, is after all, something profoundly natural and closely related to the source of art." Yet Turgenev had earlier protested that "Criticism is a delightful pastime for critics and sometimes delightful for readers; but it has nothing at all to do with the processes by which art is achieved." Can a critic hope to be more than an ineffectual equivalent to a pianist in a brothel or a parson in a monkeyhouse?

No. 3
In his play The Real Inspector Hound (1968) Tom Stoppard, deriding theater critics, claims they see not the play the author wrote but a play to whose content they bring countless fantasies of their own. Alright. Yet that argument works both ways. If a critic has any value it is precisely because of the quality of his mind. As Ernest Newman says, "People respond or fail to respond to certain music by virtue not only of what the music is, but of what they are" (A Music Critic's Holiday, 1925). In other words a critic needs to work on his sensibility as assiduously as an instrumentalist must work at his technique.

No. 25
So a critic's main battle, like an artist's, is with himself. He must be willing to discover what he has to say even while in the process of saying it. He will suffer from the ability to see both sides of an argument, this being the penalty of thoughtfulness; but he should ignore the cynic's advice that those wishing to maintain a reputation for consistency need to plant ambiguities that will provide future lines of retreat. Also he must beware pretentiousness and solemnity, those two drab sirens who always are ready to beckon the serious critic. And he will suffer what Peter Ustinov (Dear Me, 1977) has called "the most terrible of all temptations - that of being listened to."

Understanding or Forgetting

No. 6
Much to be avoided is the common human failing of thinking in opposites, the polarization which leads to individuals adopting one-sided attitudes and growing pugnacious in their defense. At the same time a critic must firmly distinguish between the two basic sorts of music. No! Not good and bad - that is merely facile. The two directions in which music leads us are towards either understanding or forgetting.

No. 10
Relevant here is Balzac's dictum that "The more beautiful music is, the less it is relished by the ignorant" (Ursule Mirouet, 1841). George Santayana confirms that "A musical education is necessary for musical judgement. What most people enjoy is hardly music; it is, rather, a drowsy reverie relieved by nervous thrills" (Reason in Art, 1905). Jean Paul Richter adds, "Music, if only listened to, and not scientifically cultivated, gives too much play to the feelings and fancy; the difficulties of the art draw forth the whole energies of the soul" (Levana, 1807). Which is to say that listening is a creative act, a continuous exercise of the imagination.

No. 16
And in fact the best criticism is written with such force that the reader "sees beyond the given details" (to borrow another Balzac phrase) and completes the dialogue himself. Effective music criticism does not tell people what to listen to, but nettles them into thinking and listening more coherently. Baudelaire's concept of the critic's function as "turning enjoyment into knowledge" is obviously to the point here: he must center on the self-knowledge which is at the heart of knowledge, and encourage others to do likewise.

Go for Subtle Clarity

No. 1
He should try to clarify relationships without erasing subtleties and, far more difficult, attempt to distinguish between what is an aspect of his own immediate culture and what is permanently built into human nature. In the end he may cast some light on the inaccessible hinterlands of the human spirit where all meanings originate.

No. 18
To have any hope of doing that he must cross much hostile terrain, and if his specialization is jazz he will often find himself in places where a fantastic incompetence reigns. There is room only for small-scale examples here, but a highly regarded editor can write of "Howard Roberts - a guitarist new to me who pleased all the musicians he played with. Carson Smith - a great new find in the field of bassists," and this decades after Roberts and Smith had become known internationally. (Jazz Journal, November 1980)

No. 24
Literacy is sometimes beyond these people, and the sleevenote of Mainstream MSTD101 describes Wardell Gray's "Stoned" as showing "a fertive gift for improvisation." Complete incoherence, though, is within their grasp. See for instance the October 1980 and December 1986 issues of Jazz Journal, wherein the same reviewer gives entirely contradictory reviews of the same Helen Merrill record. (As Bruce Willis asks in the film Die Hard 2, "How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?") These examples could be multiplied a thousandfold from the jazz press and related sources, and such effusions recall Time's famous dismissal of Walt Disney as one who could "emerge from a thicket of new ideas in radiant triumph bearing the equivalent of a rusty beer can or an old suspender."

Find the Listeners

No. 2
What such cases really suggest is that although there may be great contemporary musicians, it is hard to find great contemporary listeners. Mostly, we are too involved in present conflicts, too mesmerized by the dominant fantasies of our time, too aware of what currently is imagined to be "right" or "wrong" to be able to match the clear-sighted impartiality of great music. Hence all this has implications far beyond the realm of jazz.

No. 21
The governing ideas, the accepted ways of seeing things in a given period of history, have always been false, everywhere. People seek reassurance and self-justification rather than knowledge, and the pressure on artists to document the falsehoods of their time is great yet often subtle. Artists commended for having embodied "the spirit of the age" in their work should not congratulate themselves overmuch, because if that is all they have done they have achieved very little.

No. 5
We reason to distort reality by accepting, rejecting or twisting the facts to suit our inclinations: our beliefs and opinions are formed by our psychological needs. That is why, as Ralph Ellison says in Shadow and Act (1964), "Reality is difficult to come by. So much of it depends upon the individual's willingness to discover his true self."

Destroy the Bogus

No. 17
It is no wonder, therefore, that most of what reaches us about the arts through the media, and from certain interview- laden books that could be mentioned, is rubbish, written (or transcribed off tape recordings) by lazy deadheads who lack the faintest notion of either art or of hard work. Yet this is where the rare genuine critic may actually prove himself useful. He is the one who goes in relentless pursuit of truth and excellence, who is a merciless executioner of the bogus. Show me a "popular" critic and I will show you one who is not doing his job and probably is not a critic at all.

No. 8
It does not follow that the most hated critic is necessarily the best, though if he is any good he is likely to be scored on both sides, by most of the artists and most of the art public. He will be an abomination except, as Ellison hints, to those few who have overcome their aversion to truth in order to free whatever is good within themselves.

No. 23
To be rejected on both sides implies following a third way, and this can be dangerous. It is not merely ironic to remind the critic that it is sometimes unwise to be right, especially when others are wrong: Cassandra ended her days as a slave in the house of her enemies.

Wanted: Strange Proportions

No. 9
As suggested under No. 6, he does well to leave divisive thoughts to others, to try and understand how the contradictions of human nature fertilize character, and how this works through into art. Remember Francis Bacon's "There is no excellent beauty that has not some strangeness in its proportion" (Essays, circa 1625). Indeed, great works often combine in harmony elements that one might have thought incongruous.

No. 15
Consider - and to get away from music for a moment Jane Austen's tough, -- realistic attitude to human relationship and the delicate elegance of her writing; the seemingly naive directness with which Thomas Hardy tells his stories and the subtle aesthetic and moral sensibility which these tales embody; Robert Burns's unpredictable blend of light-footed grace and animal vitality. There are musical parallels to all these, music being far more than just a matter of self-expression, no matter how much talk there might be about that in jazz circles.

No. 11
In fact, as Suzanne Langer pointed out long since, "Sheer self-expression requires no artistic form. A lynching party howling round the gallows tree, a woman wringing her hands over a sick child . . . is giving vent to intense feelings; but such scenes are not occasions for music, least of all for composing. Music is not self-expression, but formulation and representation of emotions, moods, mental tensions and resolutions - a 'logical picture' of sentient, responsive life, a source of insight, not a plea for sympathy" (Philosophy in a New Key, 1951).

No 20
The espousal of such insights is, of course, no route to winning friends and influencing people, among jazz fans perhaps least of all. Yet, however solitary his path, the true critic will remain burdened with the urge to communicate his findings. This is necessarily so, and it might be best to leave it to that most unlikely of entities, a genuinely wise man, to explain why. "I feel it is the duty of one who goes his own way to inform society of what he finds on his voyages of discovery. It is not the views of individual contemporaries that will decide the truth or falsity of these discoveries, but future generations. There are things that are not yet true today, but tomorrow they may be. So every man whose fate it is to go his individual way must proceed with hopefulness and watchfulness, ever conscious of his loneliness and its dangers" (Carl Gustav Jung: Collected Works, vol. 7. paragraph 201).

[This piece originally appeared in Jazz Forum 5-6/1992, the final issue of the English-language version of that publication, which continues to be published in Polish. - Editor]

C o m m e n t s

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