Those of you in the arts admin world might be interested to read Drew McManus’ critique of my post about ways to improve the concert experience.

In essence, he suggests separating artistic and non-artistic criticism. His blog (Adaptistration) is aimed at arts administrators, so he takes the apparently reasonable step of editing out everything I said about the music. If that helps somebody get the point that you should give out programs to the will-call line and put in more toilets for the ladies, then great.

It does, though, eviscerate a key part of my argument:

That the longest piece in the concert was played badly, and should have been cut. Mediocre performances aren’t just a boring waste of time. If nobody acknowledges that they are bad, it creates the illusion that there’s something the audience doesn’t get. They feel alienated, and they don’t come back. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t stage concerts if there’s a risk of doing them badly – there’s an element of creative risk in any good concert – but I am saying that we do ourselves a disservice when we create an environment that is hostile to the idea that there is room for improvement.

There are plenty of ways you can dismiss my artistic criticism. Here are a few that I’ve seen:

1) Artistic criticism is subjective therefore the bad reviews are wrong

This isn’t necessarily the case. Statements like “that was good” are subjective, statements of fact are objective. Here are some statements of fact:

The orchestra did not play together. The brass did not play the fortissimos at anything like the volume they are capable of, and their attack was often soft and untidy. Woodwind entries often started quietly and then got louder a few notes in. The violins did not always bow together. Strings and woodwind both rushed towards the end of long runs of notes. The basses were not in tune. The conductor spent a lot of time with his head down in the score, and never fully extended his arms in any direction.

To the average listener, this looks like petty nitpicking. To the trained musician, these facts are all tell-tale signs that the orchestra and conductor are under-prepared or uncommitted, and put together they add up to a performance that fails to communicate the dramatic potential of the composition. That is my opinion.

2) The critic couldn’t play as well as the performers, so his opinion is irrelevant

This is a good old-fashioned logical fallacy. We’re in no position to judge something we can’t do ourselves. I can’t lift a Steinway, but there’s an easy way for me to find out if you can. It is a common belief among musicians that the audience is in no position to judge the quality of a performance, and it is toxic to successful audience development. It’s also arrogant and condescending. The audience came to be entertained. They are the customer. They are paying your salary, and they are right. The very best performers don’t have any trouble selling out venues. If you do, then don’t blame the audience.

3) I don’t hear anybody else complaining

If it is OK to dismiss one complaint without addressing its content, then it is OK to dismiss all of them, one at a time. Eventually, people will stop coming, and the patrons and sponsors will have the place to themselves. At the rate things are going, that should take about ten years.

4) The author is obnoxious, so I don’t care what he thinks

Argumentum ad hominem is latin for “name calling” and it is a rhetorical device to avoid addressing the issues. In other words, I might be an asshole, but that doesn’t make me wrong.

5) There is a hidden agenda behind this criticism which undermines its validity.

The motive for making a statement is unconnected with the accuracy of that statement.

It doesn’t matter why your neighbor is telling you that your house is on fire. He’s telling you. A cautious person might check for smoke before calling the fire department, but unless your neighbor has a history of annoying hoaxes, only a crazy person would just sit down and turn up the TV.



Post a comment
  1. kimchikraut #
    August 31, 2009

    We all have to remind ourselves that the audience did not come out to watch us masturbate. For that, you have to buy the DVD.

    • properdiscord #
      August 31, 2009

      It’s usually me that lowers the tone.

  2. September 7, 2009

    unfortunately recently music criticism has become music boosterism. i think we all like the good reviews, but i have too often participated and listened to many performances in which the review did little to illuminate and critique the actual performance (especially if there were big names involved). today its all about access and who could be your next boss so i understand why many are afraid to throw stones at the ivory towers… but at the end of the day its pretty amazing what the low level of performance a $20 ticket buys. somebody has to call a spade a spade.

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