[Note: This post has been updated (1) as of 2:00 PM Eastern on 1 Aug. See below.]
Blogger, lawyer, and freelance writer Zach Carstensen of The Gathering Note — a fine classical music blog heretofore unknown to us but called to our attention via a post by Scott Spiegelberg of Musical Perceptions, and now added to our exclusive Culture Blogs listing on our left sidebar — has this to say about arts critics and arts criticism:
I am not a journalist by training but I have freelanced. I am a lawyer. I didn’t go to J school and I have never been a staff critic. What I know is arts journalism is changing and I think it is changing for the better. Arbiters of taste are becoming a thing of the past when the Internet and recorded music can help anyone become an expert on Brahms, Beethoven, or even someone like Conlon Nancarrow. There are more tools than ever for people to form opinions about the music they are hearing and the events they are going to and just as many ways to express an opinion about what they are hearing. Facebook and Twitter let Average Joes pan a performance or tout its virtues.
These changes might seem unsettling. For people who run magazines and newspapers it is probably as unsettling as the emergence of Napster was to the recorded music industry. I think these changes bother people because they diminish the power of the print media as an opinion maker.
Arts organizations are nervous for completely different reasons. As magazines, newspapers, and critics disappear there are fewer mainstream publications telling them their performances are good. Ironically this hand wringing is occurring at the same time the explosion of social networking and other platforms has made it easier for their audience to comment on what they are hearing. This new type of commentary isn’t always good, but some of it is very good especially when compared to the Mad Lib concert reviews we have become accustomed to. Ultimately, shouldn’t the opinion of the audience matter more than someone who brands himself a critic?
In the world of the arts (as opposed to the world of popular culture), the answer to that question is, of course, a resounding No — that is, assuming the one who "brands himself a critic" has the education, training, experience, and expertise that would bestow upon him a right to that title. For arts organizations to look to and take in earnest the opinions of the arts world equivalent of the Common Man to assess how well they're doing artistically is a perfect prescription for artistic suicide. The arts world's Common Man may be entitled to an opinion, but it's entirely worthless to anyone but himself and his kind. To say the thing less generously, the arts world's Common Man is not entitled to an opinion beyond expressing that he liked or disliked whatever it is he heard and/or saw, and, given the source, we all know just how worthless that sort of judgment is except to the one declaring it.
Mr. Carstensen then muses,
I don’t believe critics will disappear, but their role will change. Someone has to shape the discourse. Maybe the role of the critic is one of a moderator; someone who might expound on a subject but never pretend to be the final word on a subject. Maybe a critic is someone who is interested in what other people have to say and is willing to provide a forum for them to express themselves. Maybe the critic is the conduit between the media that remain, the audience, and the musicians. What do you think the role of the critic should be?
And the answer to that question is that the role of a genuine arts critic (i.e., someone who has the education, training, experience, and expertise that would bestow upon him a right to that title) should and ought to be what it's been since Day One: to provide illumination for, and educate and generally enlighten the arts world's Common Man, and to provide aesthetically, technically, and historically well-informed critical feedback to arts organizations who have forever looked to well-informed critics to help them (the arts organizations) make clear-eyed assessments of their own artistic performance notwithstanding their perennial and de rigueur bitching and moaning about the uselessness of critics and what they have to say.
We fervently hope Mr. Carstensen is right in his expectation that arts critics (genuine arts critics, of course) will not disappear. They're a necessary element in and component of a culturally healthy and flourishing arts scene, for in their absence yawns the mosh pit.
Update (2:00 PM Eastern on 1 Aug): Zach Carstensen responds by selectively quoting from and commenting on our above (he omits quoting or making any comment on or mention of what we had to say regarding the central issue to hand: the role of the arts critic), and in the process thoroughly misunderstands our point while unwittingly confirming it; viz., that the arts world's Common Man isn't qualified or competent to hold an opinion beyond expressing what they liked or didn't like about what they heard and/or saw (or will hear and/or see). None but a properly educated, trained, experienced, and expert arts critic is qualified and competent to express opinions beyond that and have those opinions worth something other than their worth to the one expressing them.
What's that we hear you saying? That's an outright elitist position to take?
You betcherass it is. It's also an ineluctable truth of the real world.