Last February, The New York Times spoke with its own chief film critic A. O. Scott about his then-newly released book Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth. Although he’s a film critic, his insights into the craft and value of criticism apply to music too.
Scott addressed two issues I’d constantly struggled with: how much a critic should focus on describing and how objective a critic should be.
A recurrent theme between Scott, Chandler Levack, and Jesse Brown is that the ultimate purpose of criticism is not to tear down or build up a work; it is to develop an understanding of a work in oneself and in others.
Scott has helped me tactfully insert my subjective experience into my live reviews. I used to avoid first person no matter how awkward my sentences would end up, but he’s right: the only thing you can be sure of is your own experience. But, he stresses, you shouldn’t leave a review at “I saw this show. I thought certain things about it. I felt a certain way. I was bored, moved, frustrated, confused.” As a critic, you must turn your experience into something that might be useful or interesting to somebody else. Explore why you felt certain ways or thought certain things and what that experience was like. Compare your experience to those of others around you (as far as you can perceive, anyway). What did everyone else seem to feel? What did they comment to each other? Did their views or moods align with yours? Why or why not? What might the performance have done for them but not for you? Start with what you know. Your argument will follow from there.
Reaching these levels of understanding also provides the basis from which you can write negatively but constructively, or at least with tact. Ask of a performance or work: “What is this for? What is this doing? Who is the artist talking to? Who does the artist imagine their audience is, and how does the artist appeal to that imagined audience? How can I imagine myself in those audience’s positions? What would that experience be like? How is the music failing to speak to me?” If the piece doesn’t speak to you, it’s fine for you to say as long as you clarify your viewing context and try to understand how the piece might work for other people.
Description may be even more fundamental to criticism than understanding. Description will bring you as close to accurate judgment as possible. But, as has already been explained, reviewing is more than just giving a book report or telling what happened. Avoid these pitfalls by returning to your own experience. Your argument will follow from description.
At one point or another, most critics probably ask themselves, “Who am I to judge?” To Scott, the answer is simple: you’re just another person in the world. There are people out there, even just on Twitter, who know far more about a specific subject than critics do. But the critic’s job is to organize and extend the conversations that are going to happen anyway and are happening all the time. Plus, the fun of critiquing to Scott is that no one needs a license; there’s no bar or examination.
It’s reassuring to hear Scott express the same points that I believe about the value of taking in culture that you are not a fan of or don’t know anything about. By reading reviews outside of your specialty, not only do you broaden your knowledge; you pick up unique descriptions and inventive metaphors too. Forcing yourself (or being forced) to experience works or performances outside of your tastes or specialty forces you to think critically about those art forms. So read critics who write about topics you’re unfamiliar with or dislike, and see how those writers discuss their respective forms. And of course, there’s always the potential to be surprised – or confirm your distastes.
As a critic, you want to be useful and provide some consumer advice. But, as Scott points out obviously, readers could just be looking for something to kill time with, so you need to be entertaining too. Develop a relationship with them so they come back to your work. The critic should be a companion to them but one who’s just a few steps ahead in terms of analysis and ideas.