Critical Thinking: Whose Opinions Really Matter?

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Ever since there was opera there were critics to criticize it. “Opera seems always to have needed interpreters," wrote Yale University music professor Ellen Rosand in the journal 19th-Century Music in 1990. "Its failure to conform to the standard laws of genre or kind rendered opera suspect; it was continually called upon to define and redefine, to explain and justify itself.”

Fast-forward four centuries, and whether or not opera still “needs” interpreters, besides those on the stage and in the pit, is debatable. Nevertheless, traditional print critics have been joined by bloggers, commenters, Facebookers, Tweeters and message board junkies. And that has Michael Kaiser, the president of the John F. Kennedy Center and author of The Art of the Turnaround: Creating and Maintaining Healthy Arts Organizations, upset.

In (ironically) a blog post published on Monday for the Huffington Post, Kaiser bemoaned the fact that “arts criticism has become a participatory activity rather than a spectator sport” and that “blogs, chat rooms and message boards devoted to the arts” are part of the problem.

Kaiser also finds it hard to distinguish professional reviews from amateur reviews (no clear example is given for where such confusion may be most apparent). And while Kaiser acknowledges that the fate of the arts should not rest in the hands of any one critic, he believes “great art must not be measured by a popularity contest. Otherwise the art that appeals to the lowest common denominator will always be deemed the best.”

The Monday missive has since attracted a flurry of responses, appropriately enough in the comments section of his Huffington Post blog. “Since this article is posted online on a blog, I am having a hard time telling whether the writer is an expert," wrote one reader. "I want to be sure he has been vetted by his employer before taking what he has written seriously." Others chimed in on the niche Twittersphere of the arts, and on other blogs.

Arts organizations, including many mentored by Kaiser and his Kennedy Center Arts Management Institute, have spent the last few years navigating the digital world in hopes of courting younger generations. The connectedness of the Internet means a New Yorker living in London can keep up with the intimate goings-on of San Francisco Opera, or a Dallasite who has never been out of the country can watch the inaugural performance of Moscow’s restored Bolshoi Theatre thanks to YouTube.

But art isn’t made in vacuums, and organizations have begun to realize that in order to capture the holy-grail youth markets, they must encourage communication and dialogue as they open up what were normally Indiana-Jones–style mausoleums for public exploration. For those born into the new millennium and the preceding couple of decades, there is no experience worth having if it cannot be discussed afterward.

An example of the popular audience review videos made by performing arts organizations—with a glam Met twist.

In this, Kaiser contradicts himself: He writes “it is wonderful that people now have an opportunity to express their feelings about a work of art,” but he then says that this same opportunity is what will lead to the death of criticism.

What Makes an "Expert?"

“Most serious arts critics know a great deal about the field they cover and can evaluate a given work or production based on many years of serious study and experience. These critics have been vetted by their employers,” writes Kaiser. “Anyone can write a blog or leave a review in a chat room. The fact that someone writes about theater or ballet or music does not mean they have expert judgment.”

Unlike medicine or engineering, there are very few hard-and-fast facts that signify an expert: Chief New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini has a masters in music from Yale and a doctorate in the same from Boston University, yet Pulitzer finalist and New Yorker critic Alex Ross studied English. Yet even with their accolades and laurels, does it really matter ultimately what Ross or Tommasini think if the person reading the review has an entirely different experience with the same concert?

What Ross or Tommasini may do in such a case is make a compelling argument for their opinion, offer another way of approaching the art at hand and perhaps incite some conversation (online or otherwise). Even a bad review can be less of a dismissive sign to avoid at all costs, and more a juxtaposing view put out there to be contested and discussed. It’s why enterprising publicists insist there’s no such thing as bad press.

The multisensory experience of opera is what makes it one of the hottest art forms when it comes to criticism. There’s not only the musical experience coming from singers, conductors, orchestras and composers, but visuals in acting, costumes, staging and sets. A drab Tosca at the Met can be an atrocity with a miscast trio of leads, or it can be salvaged by a triumvirate of sublime singers. Which performers fit those roles will inevitably vary from critic to critic and listener to listener, and it explains why Amazon carries 953 recordings relating to Puccini’s same opera (the premiere of which opened to tepid reviews but was a box office success in subsequent performances). 

As a music journalist, and one who often reviews performances (reviews often posted on this blog), I’ll be the first to tell detractors that my opinion may mean the most to publicists and marketers, but ultimately it’s just one opinion. I actually love arguing over certain performances, recordings, productions as the more worldviews brought into the conversation inevitably add to my own greater appreciation for the art form. It’s fun to gush, but it’s even more fun to debate the merits and shortcomings of a Tosca without the candlesticks, a sadomasochistic Abduction from the Seraglio or a Eugene Onegin set in the USSR. And while I have nothing but respect for my fellow critics, some of my favorite conversations are with my mother and grandfather-in-law, both physicians by trade and both full of illuminating opinions whenever they leave an opera house.

What’s scary in Kaiser’s article isn’t the trend of audiences sharing their opinions of works. What’s scary is the line of thinking that a person can spend $25 or $375 on an opera ticket but would be discouraged from saying what they thought. And if organizations follow Kaiser’s line of thinking and close their ears to this feedback, they’re closing their ears to the future of the arts.

Are bloggers' and web commenters' opinions as valid as critics'? Or should opinions be left to the critics? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.