Here’s what happens when critics fail

Here’s what happens when critics fail


norman lebrecht

January 13, 2018

We find ourselves up to our eyeballs in trash.

Ben Yagoda has written a fine assessment of what happens when critics try to please.

I had exactly the same response when reading the recent Booker winner, Lincoln in the Bardo.

Read here.

And check back here.




  • John Borstlap says:

    I agree – so much criticism is toothless and so bland that it does not create any stimulus for discussion.

    For that reason, I’m happy to report that criticism of the 1st edition of my book touched extremes, from ‘an important contribution to musical aesthetics’, ‘wonderfully eloquent book’ and ‘superb summation of classical music today’, to ‘a reactionary founder of an obscure sect’, ‘petty-bourgeois, right-wing extremist’ writing ‘totally weak and stink-boring tonal pieces’.

    And that is mainly about the writing. I won’t open the tank of worms of reviews about the music.

    Where critics, for a moment, forget their routine and bank account, and pull all the stops of their ingenuity to praise or to condemn, and for once forget about the danger of appearing in the next edition of Slonimsky’s “Lexicon of Musical Invective”, one can be happy about one’s efforts.

    • Sue says:

      I was very interested in reading both of those links!! It’s important to remember that name-calling and labelling people is the last refuge of the scoundrel but very much a part of our narcissistic modern world. Not merely intellectually lazy, attacks with ad homs always reveal the ignorance of the perpetrator and his/her desire to remove opposing viewpoints with which they simply are unable to engage. And so to the ‘sonic artist’ who reviewed your book; revealing a depth of resentment, arrogance and practiced skill in projection one would expect from somebody who has no argument but doesn’t want anybody to find out!! I learned nothing about your book but an awful (literally) lot about its critic.

  • Pippin says:

    “Lady Bird is an exercise in tedium and self-regard.”

    That is Yagoda’s idea of a cynical, contrarian review.

    In fact it is an entirely accurate description of that terrible film, a dreary, derivative waste of two hours and $15.

    • Brian says:

      I enjoyed Lady Bird but completely agree with the point about critics’ overrating “A Quiet Passion.” Awful movie.

      There ought to be some kind of self-examination when, at least according to Rotten Tomatoes, the critics’ views are so sharply out of step with audiences’.

  • BillG says:

    Speaking of critics, Dallas was very fortunate in the post war period to have John Rosenfield as the music critic for the morning paper (as it was then). Not only was he a critic in the usual role, he was a supporter for developing music in Dallas. From his bully pulpit with the Dallas Morning News he helped Dallas get on the road to establishing a solid, if not sometimes wobbly, symphony and opera community. He was followed by John Ardoin who followed in the same mold. They were both good and the paper supported them. Now Dallas doesn’t even have a full time music critic on its one daily fish wrap.

  • Jeff gorsky says:

    I saw a quiet passion this year on a flight to Calcutta and it was an excellent movie, intelligent and moving. That Yagoda singles it out for criticism without actually having seen it i think completely discredits his authority. There is an anti-intellectual slant to this article that I find very disturbing. I see and enjoy most of the big Hollywood movies—I would put Thor in my top ten for the year—but one can enjoy popular works without dismissing movies that are made with craft but don’t appeal to a wide audience

  • Shalom Rackovsky says:

    Points which should never be lost sight of:

    1. No statue has ever been erected to a critic, and none ever will.

    2. No critic’s opinion of a work of art, or of a performance, in any medium, is more valid or important than your own.

    3. Therefore, the opinion of a critic about a work of art, or about a performance, should never influence your own.

    4. Nothing- absolutely nothing- of any importance happens when critics fail.

    • Cyril Blair says:

      Not so, there is a statue (a bust) of Eduard Hanslick in the Arkadenhof, University of Vienna. Not to mention a statue of G.B. Shaw in Dublin.

      Your other points are dubious as well….you don’t seem to acknowledge that high quality criticism is enormously valuable. Possibly not to artists, but certainly to consumers of art. That doesn’t mean we have to swallow it whole. Good criticism helps viewers and listeners and readers develop their own critical faculties. How could it be otherwise?

      • Shalom Rackovsky says:

        I was not aware of the statue of Hanslick. As to your other point, you are entirely correct. I don’t acknowledge the idea that “high-quallity criticism is enormously valuable”. I don’t require outside help to develop my own critical faculties, and I don’t believe you do either.

        • John Borstlap says:

          I asked a critic friend of mine what he thought of this comment, and he said he didn’t think it was a bad opinion but he added that he might be mistaken. I personally think critics, esp. music critics, are most helpful, you know that the opposite of what they write must be true.


    • David R Osborne says:

      I like 2-4. However apparently no 1 is not true… Read the comment by ‘RB’ here:

    • Saxon Broken says:

      If it wasn’t for critics I would almost never buy a CD or go to the theatre or the cinema. I want to see what informed opinion thinks before I commit myself. I simply am not, for instance, going to watch large number of films to form my own view of whether it is good. Instead I look through the reviews and then select something there is a good chance I will like.

  • Bruce says:

    I still like Hermann Hesse’s essay “On Criticism and Critics” where he says (I’m paraphrasing) that the critic’s job is not to be objective, or to play the “on the one hand/ on the other hand” game, but rather to make clear his preferences, and the reasons for them. That way, readers who are familiar with the critic can read the review and deduce for themselves what they would have thought of it.

    In less highfalutin terms, many of us have a friend or relative who is happy to spout opinions about movies, and many of us have developed a system of “Aunt Velma hated it — it must be good!”

    (Sometimes, as with a recital, it is not possible to experience the event again; sometimes, as with an opera or play, you can go to a different performance which might be close to the one the critic went to. And sometimes, as with an art exhibit, movie, or recording, you can experience exactly the same thing the critic experienced.)

  • Cyril Blair says:

    Even if critics succeeded, we would still be up to our eyeballs in trash. The creators (novelists, artists, composers, musicians) are doing their absolute best. They can’t do any better. If the critics panned 90% of performances/novels/works of art etc., how would that result in better quality stuff being created? Artistic impulses are what they are. They come from talent and training, they aren’t honed by critics.

    • David R Osborne says:

      Good comment Cyril, although I do not agree that any genuine creative impulses come about through training. You have to have them in the first place, and if we could only face that reality we might go some way towards addressing the over supply of mediocrity referred to in both the article and this comments section.

    • John Borstlap says:

      How could we conclude that artists always do their very best when there are artistic ideas flying around which advocate the very opposite? Ideas, which are not even artistic ideas: Jeff Koons, Andy Warhol, John Cage, Johannes Kreider, and so on? The iconic art works which are still venerated today, offering artistic standards for everybody to see and to hear, were created in periods and places where the cultural climate cultivated quite strict norms and well-circumscribed traditions. The same goes for non-Western cultural traditions. Most of the rubbish which is presented as ‘established art’ in museums for ‘modern art’ and festivals for ‘new music’ is the result of the misunderstanding of what cultural traditions are, and the naive romanticizing of ‘avantgarde’ in the last century: breaking norms as an artistic category (what it is not). And many critics go along with the romanticizing, hoping to be seen as ‘progressive’, oblivious of the obvious fact that what was ‘groundbreaking’ half a century ago, or longer, is no longer ‘groundbreaking’ today but tired repetition of an empty idea.

      • Pianofortissimo says:

        Yes, and paraphrasing an avant-garde icon: A urinal is a urinal is a urinal. People seem to forget it.

      • David R Osborne says:

        But John I believe that we should indeed endeavour to embrace the ‘new’. Starting by moving on from that tired 70 year old definition of what ‘new’ is.

        • Sue says:

          Not for its own sake, no. When philosophers and academics become engaged in the creation of ‘the new’ this usually spells trouble. And it’s a reversion of the time-honoured convention of theory following practice. The singular success story of this, IMO, was the Florentine Camerata when they laid down the foundations for opera; from memory all were practicing musicians and composers, not academics hide-bound to an ideology and usually on the public payroll.

        • John Borstlap says:

          Yes, but what is ‘new’? A work of art created from a personal point of view will always be ‘new’ in relation to the moment the work did not as yet exist. As soon as it exists, it is no longer ‘new’ but that is irrelevant. How to ‘move-on’ from the old, established ideas of the last half century? Repeat things? I don’t think so…. but what does history tell us? Every generation of artists who interpret a certain repertoire of subjects with a certain repertoire of technical means, do this in ever changing ways, according to personal taste and temperament. One example from many: 17C painting. Where does that immense variety come from? Certainly NOT from the urge to be ‘modern’ or to ‘transcend boundaries’. Surely lots of 20C artists and composers were ‘modern’ in a conscious way to escape the limitations not of tradition, but of their own talent.

      • Cyril Blair says:

        “How could we conclude that artists always do their very best when there are artistic ideas flying around which advocate the very opposite?”

        What I meant is that most artists are doing THEIR personal best. I suppose there are a few very good artists who are still, yet, underachievers. But for the most part I think John Cage was doing his best, Andy Warhol was doing his best (though I’ve never liked him, at his best or at his worst). Beethoven was doing his best. Agnes Martin was doing her best. J.K. Rowling is doing her best. Perhaps Mendelssohn may have been a bit of an underachiever, although maybe not – maybe he stretched himself to the limit of his capabilities. I’m not saying that all these artists doing their best result in the highest quality art works, merely that most of what we see in the museums and hear in concert halls and read in novels is people stretching themselves to their limits, whether we enjoy the results or not. Thomas Kinkade was doing his absolute best, and a crock of shit it was.

        • John Borstlap says:

          Yes, I see what you mean. But I don’t think one could generalize. Jeff Koons does not make his own stuff but has a crew working-out his ‘ideas’, he is still too lazy to put his balloon animals together. John Cage did not do his best, he gave-up ‘doing things’ when he discovered he could cheat the new music establishment easily and had a crackpot ‘philosophy’ ready to ‘explain’ what he was not doing; he wanted to remove the creator from the work, i.e. himself included. Hence 4’33” where the environment is the ‘piece’. There are ‘painters’ nowadays who never touch a brush but outsource their ‘ideas’ to poor locals in developing countries who really can paint. And so on…. why do such things happen and are accepted by an establishment? Because of so many nonsensical postwar ideas about art – like the institutional theory of art which says that a work of art is art when a majority of institutions with their art curators and theoreticians declare it is art – a crazy theory developed by Arthur Danto and George Dickie, and just like the Humpty-Dumpty thinking in Lewis Carol’s “Through the looking glass”; a word means something what I decide it means.

  • Torinese says:

    The value of criticism lies in the possibility that the critic might observe something you hadn’t noticed and you might find your experience enhanced thereby.
    The position of someone who considers it impossible *a priori* that another’s observations could ever be of benefit is interesting to contemplate.

    • John Borstlap says:

      I agree with the idea that a critic can see / hear something one had not noticed. Then you go back to the work and listen again… but you should always take your own experience – if need be after being prompted by someone else – as the more important one, to compensate for the many people whose opinions are not their own.

      There is the amusing story of a song recital in an early 20C Parisian salon, with a program including some Debussy songs. During the Debussy, a man in the audience got up and began to protest loudly, disrupting the performance. The singer stopped and led the man to the composer, who was present, thereby calming him considerably. And Debussy liked the man very much and expressed the wish to get to know him better.

      ‘When many people agree with me, I get the feeling that I must be wrong’. (Oscar Wilde)

    • Shalom Rackovsky says:

      I consider it equally likely that I [or any other listener/observer- there is nothing special about me] will observe something that the critic didn’t. There is also the possibility- in fact, the probability, in my experience- that the critic will attempt to make a significant point out of something which I/you consider to be secondary, negligible or simply not correct. On balance, therefore, it is clear that the opinions of critics carry no more weight than those of any other audience member.

      • John Borstlap says:

        True…. we don’t know what the assessment prowess of every individual listener is. But the critic who writes in a journal or newspaper in a professional sense and even gets paid for it, if they are still around, is supposed to be a professional, formulating a contact between the performer or/and composer and the audience, which is, after all, not expressing its opinions in print. (That is now changing, by the way.)

        Judging a musical performance is very difficult and requires a long period of experience, and juding musical works is even more difficult. And there are no concrete standards apart from the subjective experience of inherent standards, hence the custom of comparison in reviews.

        The music critic / music journalist forms an important link in the holistic network of musical culture, he/she is part of the context where the composer, the performer and the listener are co-dependent on each other. Without music criticism, an important stimulus to discussion would be lacking, and all we would have would be the chatter on social media, a sea of entirely unfiltered reactions and impressions. But that does not mean that the critic will have the last word on musical matters.

        Also music criticism in journals and newspapers underlines the public status and meaning of the art form. The gradual erosion of such criticism is deplorable, as if classical music is merely a niche entertainment for the rich, and elitist at that. Music journalism can bring the art form back into the public eye, also for people who don’t go to concerts.