02 February 2018

Cultvating Hostility - A Critic's Dilemma

Are there problems when critics review the work of their friends, peers, neighbours or associates?  Is it possible to be totally dispassionate in a piece of criticism concerning someone with whom the critic is either professionally or socially involved?

I suppose all critics get asked this from time to time. 

Years ago, I reviewed some new music by William Mathias in the Organists’ Review and was decidedly lukewarm in my opinion, suggesting (if I remember rightly) that it seemed to have been written in haste with the minimum of effort or originality.  David Gedge, the then organist at Brecon Cathedral (and himself a personal friend) wrote a letter which was published in the next issue, in which he wondered how I would be able to continue living and working in Bangor where I would come into daily contact with William Mathias, who was the then professor of music there.  It never struck me that it would be a problem, and when I asked Mathias about it, he, too, did not see an issue.  He went on to say that I had been right – it had been written in a hurry and he had fallen back on some previously used ideas; he thought my review both fair and perceptive, and he certainly could not take umbrage at that.  If anything, our personal relationship improved as a result.

As a critic I’ve certainly had my fair share of abuse and vitriol from those who feel I have betrayed my friends and the community in which I live.  It certainly seems to be more prevalent and vicious in Singapore than elsewhere, which may imply that here people are less tolerant of voiced opinions other than their own, are more nasty than elsewhere or that they care more passionately about music.  While I can happily take whatever abuse is hurled at me (try being a bus driver when abuse from your colleagues, other road users and passengers is a daily occurrence  - everybody knows how to do your job better than you do) I have to confess I have largely given up reviewing Singapore wind bands.  For some reason, whatever you say about them is an excuse for a sustained barrage of the most foul, vulgar and incoherent abuse which often seems to have been orchestrated by a single person who, in most cases, has either not read, has only partially read or has been unable to comprehend what you have written.  In the main, though, critics expect and, indeed, quite enjoy abuse and argument; it does show that people read and think about what you have written and that your words have encouraged them to formulate and solidify their own views.  That’s a good thing to which all critics would subscribe.

But I can imagine that to receive such abuse from colleagues, friends and neighbours might be disturbing.  Luckily, the Singaporean mentality is always to hide behind a cloak of cowardly anonymity (expressing personal views is not a Singaporean trait) so I have no way of knowing who hurls the abuse at me. In societies and cultures where people are more willing to claim ownership of their own opinions, I have certainly been faced with strong contrary opinions voiced by those whom I know.  And it has never disturbed me.  Sometimes it has led to protracted correspondence – something I try to avoid since critics usually luxuriate in the last word, and should permit it to others when they wish it – and sometimes led to a period of reconsideration on my part.  In no case, however, has it led to any lessening of pre-existing friendships, any sense of hostility in future meetings or any loss of respect towards either party.  Genuine criticism based on objective assessment is respected, whether or not it is accepted, and any legitimate artist will know that the critic is offering a professionally dispassionate rather than personally coloured view.

My absolute conviction is that, when you elect to be a critic, you do so in the full knowledge that you will, at some time or another, find yourself in a position where you are reviewing the work of, or presenting your own critical assessments to, people you know and people with whom you need to maintain an ongoing and amicable relationship.  If that relationship is likely to be affected by something you present in your professional capacity, then you must accept that the relationship was already fragile and potentially unsustainable.  What you cannot do is adapt or even suspend your critical ethos.  It is highly unethical, and therefore unacceptable, for a critic to adopt a different set of values for friends and acquaintances than for those with whom the critic does not have a relationship.  Does the policeman refuse to arrest his brother for murder, simply because it will sour their future relationship?  It is one of the obligations of the role that personal feelings do not interfere with professional ethics whether you are a policeman or a music critic (or a politician, as well, but try telling that to some politicians!).

Of course, critics who go out of their way to cultivate a personal relationship with those with whom they are likely to enter into a professional one are heading for disaster, but the musical world is sufficiently small for such relationships to be an inevitable consequence of repeated peripheral acquaintanceships, and both critic and musician need to have sufficient mutual respect not to let this interfere with the professional relationship.  If a musician is offended by what a critic says, then in all likelihood the critic was right – the musician is not of a sufficiently strong artistic calibre to warrant more generous appraisal.

All this is prompted by my having encountered someone yesterday who had written a review of a concert, but told me he had felt obliged to be dishonest and say it was good when, in fact, it was not.  He felt under political pressure not to express his true thoughts since he lived and worked among those whose work he had reviewed.  For me that undermines every piece of criticism that person has ever written, and will ever write; if critical faculties are adjusted in order to suit the context of a personal relationship, then such criticism is valueless.  There can never, ever be an excuse for such behaviour, even at the risk of breaking personal and social bonds.

I told him as much.  I doubt he will ever speak to me again.  Ah well.  Such is the life of a critic!

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