Sunday, February 27, 2005

everyone a critic

someone wrote to say that one of my reviews wasn't objective enough.

I don't really know what 'objective' means. I think I know what it's supposed to mean, in that an 'objective' assessment of any given situation is supposed to be one that's uninfluenced by personal prejudice on the part of the assessor. it's the credo of both the experimental scientist and the BBC journalist. an 'objective' report - whether on a set of clinical trials or a distant war-zone - is meant to be one that just states the facts. conversely, a 'subjective' report is one that comments on the facts from a personal viewpoint.

I just find it a little hard to believe that there can be anyone left in this well-informed world - this better than at any time in history informed world - who seriously believes that there can be such phenomena as 'facts.'

I have just read a report that includes an interview with the surviving 'Brother No.2' of the Khmer Rouge - the Cambodian communist elite which, under the leadership of Pol Pot ('Brother No.1'), organised the killing of over a million and a half people who were in any way associated with 'wrong thought'. This man - a free man, incidentally, who has never been formally accused of or tried for anything - not even minor traffic offences - denies any knowledge of those killings. From his point of view, they are not 'facts' at all, but misunderstandings and misrepresentations of otherwise inexplicable events that somehow left a million and a half people lying in unmarked mass graves.
Slobodan Milosevic is currently playing the same game in front of his accusers at the Hague.

truth, clearly, is a function of belief as much as it is a function of fact.
I understand, for example, that a majority of American and a few English citizens actually believe the government-peddled 'facts' presented as justification for the invasion of Iraq: a) that Iraq was involved somehow in the destruction of the twin towers; and b) that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction which were capable of being launched against allied nations (ie Israel - but there were dark, incredibly preposterous hints at the time that London and Washington were at risk) at twenty minutes notice.
I also understand that the 'fact' that our planet coalesced from a mass of smaller planetoids over a period of several thousand millennia and that life on earth then evolved after a waiting period of several more is seriously disputed by many millions who prefer the biblical 'truth' that all this happened in a week.

so I find it a little dismaying that anyone should expect 'objectivity' in a music review.

a piece of music, like any work of art, is an objective phenomenon in only the most limited and constrained sense: any evaluation of its value can only ever be an opinion. it's not like a racing trimaran - you can't apply a set of rigorous assessments in order to evaluate its efficiency: check-list assessment will effectively forestall the design of a racing trimaran that has blunt ends, a corrugated hull, a tiny mast and is made from reinforced concrete; but if I were to compile a list of things that music does and reverse-engineer those aspects of some of the most successful three-minute hits into a song, I might end up with a hit, an amusing TV mini-series and another gadfly celebrity or five, but I won't have made music.

there are, it's true, music journalists who try hard to appear objective. they do this by using a form of analytical language that invokes and implies authority if not authenticity by association with either a form of academic hermeticism or street lingo, or a combination of both. such critics rarely use the first person singular, for example: they conceal their opinions behind a buttress of recondite allusion and a shield of encyclopaedic cross-reference. either that or they just describe what happens in the music, track by track, as if it were a series of paintings, or the plot of a movie.

art in general, however, is very resistant to evaluation against mechanistic sets of criteria.
this is the problem with teaching art, whether it be painting, performance, or music - the teacher has to allow the student the freedom to develop their own set of discriminatory sensors within the context of understanding that nothing comes from nowhere and that everything ultimately refers to something else. that some art is 'good' and some is 'bad' and that there's a spectrum of relative goodness and badness in between is simply not the case. art is not like science. bad science is demonstrably bad. there is an international language of science which subjects any new science to a rigorous process of peer-reviewed evaluations which has nothing whatsoever to do with individual opinions about what happened (usually - there are outstandingly interesting exceptions when it comes to cutting-edge science like cosmology or string theory or quantum effects). such is never, has never been, nor could ever be the case with art. art is always and irrevocably contextualised by its cultural currency, and that currency moves up and down in the cultural stock markets as fast as a whore's drawers.

the dominant culture decides. always. this is very obvious in the case of the endless struggle we English have with the so-called Americanisation of our culture - from root to branch, from spellings to styles of governance, it's clear that there are some aspects of supposed Englishness that are on the wane. (the same applies everywhere, of course - the Académie Française was established to maintain the purity of the French language, and has certain strange legislative powers that actually oblige newspaper editors not to use words like 'le weekend' and so on.)

English spelling was a very flexible affair in Elizabethan times. Shakespeare used at least two spellings for 'colour': coulour from the original Old French and color from the Latin; colour, the compromise, became the more commonly used one, so that by the time Johnson and the other eighteenth-century dictionary writers came to formalise it, they decided that 'colour' was the way to go, whereas 'formalize' was not. and so it has continued.

we can continue spelling 'colour' the English way so long as we don't want to rewrite an HTML tag, however, in which case we have no choice: if we want a web page with a black background, then 'body bgcolor=#000000"' is the only spelling that will work. in the programming world, it just hasn't proved to be worth anyone's time to create and insert into the browsers the snippet of code that would apply an either/or there. and it's no longer a 'fact' that Americanisation with an 's' is right and Americanization with a 'z' wrong. most dictionaries now concede that either will do. and, while we're on the subject, you'd better be clear about which floor you want to live on: if you choose the first floor here, you'll expect to be on the first landing you arrive at upstairs, whereas in the States you'll be put on what we call the ground floor. there are innumerable such examples of cultural difference, of course.

obviously (to me and maybe to you) there's a lot of misplaced energy here: whereas it's definitely worth fighting tooth and nail against a lot of instances of creeping Americanisation (the insurance-based model of health care that's undermining the NHS; the virtual monopolisation of media-ownership; the politics of paranoia; the measuring of success exclusively in dollars and cents; the industrialisation of human relationships) it hardly seems worth the effort to rail against those shifts in language use, for example, that are just going to happen, willy-nilly, as part of the development of a living language. there are many American usages that are uniquely apposite and great fun: 'go figure', for example, is so wonderfully succinct - the English 'work it out for yourself' doesn't capture the half of the conspiratorial shrewdness contained in that expression. ditto the ubiquitous 'meh', which I think perfectly encapsulates the frequently needed 'totally average - neither good nor bad - not worth talking about' hand-waggle. I shall continue spelling colour o-u-r for the same reason I pronounce laboratory with the accent on the second rather than the first syllable - because that's how I learnt it here (and, besides, the American way still sounds too close to 'lavatory' for me to be able totally to suppress the sniggering seven-year-old inside us all whenever I hear it). however, I expect a word such as 'probably' to be displaced by the already widely-used 'prolly' eventually, and, come the twenty-fifties, surely the grandchildren of the current generations of Cholmondeleys and Featherstonehaughs will have decided enough's enough - we're Chumleys and Fanshaws - get over it, grandad.

most human transactions are based on agreements: these range from the trivial (I agree to call this object salt in order that there won't be any confusion when you ask me to pass it you at the table) to the metaphysical (I agree that what you are perceiving and recognising as 'real' is much the same as me in order that we might co-exist and communicate in similar universes). there are real and valid arguments that one individual's inability to agree with another on either of these levels - these supposed aberrations from normal behaviour - represent merely an extreme form of alternative opinion rather than symptoms of madness, but so long as the cultural consensus remains in favour of salt being sodium chloride rather than a fluffy quadruped with long ears, the social boat remains relatively unrocked by such assertions.

in the matter of critical objectivity, however, the check-list-and-score method of assessment is one I'll continue to resist, since it belongs ultimately in the same cultural model that requires that someone must be to blame for everything bad that happens - the 'the insurance will cover it' model, in other words. sometimes shit just happens. and quite often it happens under the auspices of the major recording labels.

go figure.

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