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A Lack Of Critical Mass

Posted by acdtest on July 8, 2003

A Lack Of Critical Mass

his Newsweek article by Douglas McLennan on the reasons for the present sad state of classical music in this country declares a simple but fundamental truth. In the classical music world, no media buzz, no legitimacy and no audience. While it’s true that it’s possible for meaningful buzz to be generated sans media participation, it’s a very rare occurrence indeed. The media is what generates buzz, and in the world of classical music, at the center of that media buzz generator is first, foremost, and always, the classical music critic. What McLennan is bemoaning — and he’s spot-on correct about it — is the lack of a healthy and vital mass of informed critical ferment in the classical music world today. Or as he puts it:

[T]he main reason classical music is no longer on the menu of cultural literacy is that somehow it lost the critical mass of a critical community that listens/talks/writes about music as though it matters and where there are frequent debates, multiple judgments and competing ideas to keep things energized. How can you build artistic consensus that keeps renewing itself if you lack critical voices? Without that consensus, it’s difficult to argue that classical music deserves a place at the table.

Just so.

Today what we have in the mainstream media for the most part are either critical incompetents, or critics who think as does this culture commentator who, speaking of capital A art generally, opines that

…the old freshman-in-college quarrels of “Is it art?” “Is it great art?” [are] to my mind, at least these days, Who cares? Or rather: I prefer to see [discussions] about art not get hung up on such questions. […] [There are] people who, bizarrely enough, like these discussions, and there are also people who like to come out gunning for a fight. Snooze-ola. Spare me. Puh-leeze. I’m outta here. […] [What’s of interest are] such topics as, How did you respond? What moved or touched you? What did you notice about the work, about how it’s put together, how it works, and what it reflects?

How very progressive. How very postmodern. How very today.

Such attitudes, by and large, seem to be typical of our current crop of mainstream classical music critics as well, and are reflective of the degree of effeteness to which they’ve largely degenerated. When genuine performing artists and composers argue among themselves about classical music (as opposed to the poseurs, who are legion and no better than the present-day mainstream critical crowd), they argue about things such as music and non-music, great music and trash, and meticulously detail their cases and state their claims in terms as hard-nosed and absolute as if they were so many propositions of Euclid. And, if it comes to it, as it on rare occasion does, they’re ready to defend those cases and claims with fisticuffs if need be.

The generally debased and PC-contaminated crowd which today constitutes the mainstream classical music critical fraternity relishes nothing so much as engaging in discussion of classical music in ways more appropriate to genteel luncheon and dinner parties where it’s considered the height of gauche to argue in any manner that might upset the digestion of those seated at table. Arguing in that gentle, genteel way makes members of this critical crowd feel they’ve been winning, intellectually probing, stimulating, and “with it,” when all they’ve managed to be is glib; nattering on about nothing of real substance or pertinence while at the same time keeping hands clean, hair un-mussed, and digestion undisturbed — theirs and their readers’.

Well, I’ve a bit of news for this critically well-manicured bunch: Your brother mainstream classical music critics of prior eras would have none of such gentle, genteel pap, even in proper and oh-so-civilized Victorian England. When they discussed or wrote on matters musical they were not in the least afraid of dirtying hands, mussing hair, and disturbing digestion. They carried on their dialogues red in tooth and claw if need be, as in those culturally more concerned eras we had in the mainstream media that healthy and vital mass of informed classical music critical ferment the lack of which today McLennan so bemoans; a critical fraternity made up of courageous and erudite classical music critics who felt that anything musical worth arguing about was worth perishing for.

Will we in future ever again regularly see their like in the mainstream?

Only The Shadow knows, but I have my doubts.

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