The State of Music Criticism, vol. 1: Can performers be critics?

A small hubbub recently arose on Facebook when my friend, the composer Shawn Allison, posed a question. 

As it turns out, Chicago's most prominent music critic had taken the Spahlinger Festival to task for what he viewed as poor marketing. Ouch! A good-natured discussion among members of the Chicago new music community ensued. Meanwhile, the folks who had slaved over the Festival probably had a bit of steam coming out of their ears. Putting together a massive event like that is not easy, and to be publicly scolded for not promoting it well enough is not pleasant. Also, although von Rhein perceived the University of Chicago as spearheading the festival, the reality (as with most grassroots project) was more complex and less ... well-funded.

As the Facebook discussion unfolded, a familiar point arose: the lack of informed, sympathetic journalists covering new music in Chicago.

Of course, this was of interest to me, so I chimed in: 

Nomi brings up an important point: if a performer is writing about the work of other performers, is that a conflict of interest? It's a worry that I've had myself, in my years of writing about music. But I believe this concern is rooted in a vision of music criticism that no longer serves us. In this "old way" of seeing music criticism: 

  • the critic is objective, and is not swayed by personal relationships with anyone onstage;
  • the critic is an expert, whose knowledge means they can weigh in about what is good or bad;
  • the critic assesses value, thus affecting the prestige, popularity, and financial success of an artistic endeavor. 
  • the critic might give the project a public thrashing (i.e., a terrible review).

This is the opposite of how I have always approached writing about music. In my personal vision of engaging in criticism, 

  • I am approach the performance from within the artistic community, and I am fundamentally sympathetic to the existence of the work;
  • I understand my perspective to be subjective. Some of the most interesting writing in the world is highly subjective, and objectivity is probably an illusion anyway.
  • I work to understand the work on its own terms, and to place the work in dialogue with other works of art that feel relevant to me. My job is not to assess value, but to understand and connect. 
  • If I cannot sympathize with or connect to the work, I simply do not write about it. (Composer Dave Reminick, whose mother was a food critic for 25 years, described it this way: "She tells people where to eat. She doesn't tell them where not to eat.") 

What do you think, dear readers? Is such a vision of criticism naive?