Monday, September 03, 2012

Critics: We Need Them

[Update update: On December 18th, 2014, the New York Times fired Kozinn. I've edited a few spots to reflect that, and removed the old link to a failed petition to reinstate him.]

[Update: I changed the wording in the opening paragraph to more accurately reflect the change in Kozinn's status at the Times, and added the link at the bottom.]

News broke today that Allan Kozinn was being relegated to the post of "general cultural reporter" at the New York Times, a backwater assignment. The reasons are murky, but it certainly has nothing to do with the quality of his work. This is of a piece with much of our cultural landscape today: the publishing industry is in crisis, and so once-key positions at major newspapers are cleared to make way for, what exactly? As a composer, producer, and occasional member of various arts boards, I cannot but wonder at the wisdom of such a move. I wonder more at what it says about the state of arts journalism. Kozinn is an exceptionally able critic, at ease with contemporary music, historic performance practice and a recognized authority on the Beatles. Try finding any two of those qualifications in another writer.

Virgil Thomson's first review for the New York Herald-Tribune (entitled "Age Without Honor") quoted his friend, the painter Maurice Grosser, as saying "I understand now why the Philharmonic is not a part of New York's intellectual life." I understand now why it is becoming less necessary to open the New York Times arts section with any regularity. With the side-lining firing of Allan Kozinn, the Times moves ever closer to irrelevancy.

Criticism is perhaps the most underrated of all the journalistic pursuits. Everyone thinks they can do it, and very few can. Frequently critics are all tarred with the same broad brush, being labelled as disgruntled wannabes. But the best critics offer something valuable: perspective. A good critic's writing will give you new insight into a concert you attended; it will help you understand the importance of a concert you missed. And over time, the accumulated work of a worthy critic (even one with whom you regularly disagree) will leave a permanent impact on a community. The measure of Allan Kozinn's writing can be felt in the outrage and indignation that is spreading across the internet. Composers, musicians and music-lovers rightly see that a crucial ally is being stricken from their midst.

A critic without bias is a critic not worth reading. Bias is essential. But not incompatible with being fair-minded. Virgil Thomson, George Bernard Shaw, Hector Berlioz and Robert Schumann were biased, opinionated critics. They had values and they fought for them. They were not always right, but they were nearly always perceptive. Which is why we can still learn things from their criticism, about their age and the artists that inhabited it. With Kozinn's sidelining (emblematic of a wide-spread and disturbing trend), I fear the art of our own age will be that much more opaque—to ourselves and our descendants.

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