Critical Conditions

Some forms of creative expression never receive the respect they deserve. In humor, it's the clever pun or play on words that, however ingenious its construction, seldom earns more than a begrudging groan of acknowledgment. In the world of pictorial art, it is the caricature that, however penetrating its perception or pointed its depiction, will never be accepted on a par with representational realism. And believe it or not, only 200 years ago the novel was considered little more than a pastime for idle ladies and gentlemen of less-than-true literary talent.

We have seen, even within the memory span of our youngest readers, the social furor raised over some instances of artistic expression gone awry: the Mapplethorpe photographic exhibitions; the manufacture and sales of allegedly pornographic videotapes and CDs, the topless/bottomless go-go/strip bars that at least keep a substantial number of our citizens off both welfare and the streets, and the poor hapless souls who manage to get themselves caught tickling their privates in public. Am I missing something here? Despite MTV's refusal to present certain tapes for the delectation of its massive prepubescent audience -- as if those kiddies were not already semi-crazed and hairy-handed from far too much self-jollification before this -- the numbers show that neither Madonna nor Michael has suffered in any way from this form of censorship.

So why is it that whole bunches of pumped up, bleached blond, kindergarten dropouts are being threatened with loss of income and perhaps even jail time for doing the same old grind that millionairess screwhead Madonna is doing under the sanction of artistic freedom? Paul Reubens was disgraced in front of the world for performing an act of self-gratification in the privacy of his own seat in a darkened theater. A dumb thing to do, but was it in essence any more immoral or any less an act of creative expression than the comparable groin-scratchings and simulated orgasms of rock's and Hollywood's biggest stars? While our culture has always denigrated word play as a legitimate form of humor, we have simultaneously reveled in broad farce and slapstick.

Once upon a time, way before the Rock Era, probably during the Stone Age, someone must have remarked, upon examining a particular cave drawing, that it was either too abstract, lacking in depth perspective, or, possibly, not expressive enough of the collective psychic energy that went into the hunters' killing of the beast. Whoever that person was, he or she was the first art critic and the progenitor of all commentators to come. After another several thousand years we had a vital, self-generating home industry of critics of all sorts of things, everything from pyramid design to self-adornment and cosmetology, from gladiatorial skills to architecture and etiquette. The first critics of drama arose in ancient Greece, and, tellingly, they came from the educated class, not the peasantry. They were not the type of people for whom personal preference alone determined the quality of a work of art. Rather, they sought to discover and identify the basic characteristics of transcendence in a work and distinguish those from what was merely technically proficient or superficially appealing. And in one way or another, that is what the better of today's critics are still trying to do.

It doesn't really matter whether the medium is film, stage drama, dance, musical performance, literature, or stand-up comedy. What matters is whether the critic is reporting a sincere, well-considered evaluation based on objective analysis, or whether he is just trying to attract attention to himself by being controversial. If it is the latter, then sooner or later he will lose his credibility. But if, over a period of time, his appraisals are proven valid often enough, then his voice will ultimately assume the dimensions of final authority.

The field of jazz criticism is no different from any other exercise of personal opinion in public print. We are all protected by our First Amendment rights, so if I write that I am bored beyond belief by certain types of popular musical entertainment, no one can challenge my right to make that statement. But that is not really criticism. It's not enough to simply voice an opinion. To qualify as legitimate criticism, the writing must also explain why a particular artist or performance is either superior, inferior, or merely commonplace.

There is a basic assumption inherent in the critic's role that goes against the grain of the public. This is the notion that, for one reason or another, the critic has better taste than the reader, who proverbially just knows what he likes and doesn't want to be confused by the facts. We've all read scads of angry letters from readers who would apparently like nothing better than to see the object of their indignation, the critic, editorially restrained from expressing unpopular views or, failing that undemocratic extreme, being tossed out on his ear. What could possibly be more upsetting than to have some pompous, arrogant elitist imply time and again that his taste, by virtue of his greater experience and training, is superior in terms of refinement to that of the masses?

The appreciation of music is also subjective to a great degree, but it can be heightened through increased knowledge and understanding of the techniques behind it. For example, even a person who believes that he is tone-deaf can be taught to distinguish between performers whose intonation is flawless and those who display tendencies toward sharpness or flatness of pitch. These variations in pitch can be demonstrated through mechanical means, so that one need not even depend on a less-than-perfect sense of pitch perception. In the same way, the listener can also be taught to identify idea patterns and structural developments in improvised jazz choruses as well as the differences between conventional and unconventional harmonies and chord progressions.

True, some untrained listeners can perceive these subtleties on an intuitive level, but the majority cannot, and they're the ones who would best benefit from the experience of a qualified critic, if only to be pointed in the right direction. Curiously, though, for every novice who has the humility to admit that he does not already know everything there is to know about jazz, there are dozens more whose egos get in the way of their own learning process. They simply refuse to acknowledge the fact that others may be able to teach them something. These are the ones who shy away from reading anything more analytical than liner notes. And these are also the ones who are the first to write angry letters to the editor. Every time some self-ordained arbiter of taste delivers some scathing attack on a cherished idol, these easily outraged sycophants rush into print demanding his summary execution. They simply cannot tolerate opinions that clash with their own, even when the critic takes special care to support his commentary with concrete examples and illustrations.

Precisely because it dares to flout conventional thinking and refuses to pay lip service to sacred icons, criticism is the least respected and most reviled genre of literature extant. But if most people knew as much about their favorite art forms as the critics did, there would be no need for them to serve as interpreters, elucidators, molders of public opinion. Every person would then be his own most informed critic, and there would no longer be anyone left to write angry letters to editors. Just think how boring that would be!

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Jack Sohmer