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Classical 101

Everyone's a Critic, or at Least Has an Opinion

Art critic and prize-winning author John Berger

When British art critic and prize-winning author John Berger died Jan. 3 at the age of 90, it was something of the end of an era. Journalist Ian Maleney wrote in The Irish Times of Berger's passing, saying:

"Today, criticism is often seen as old-fashioned – why rely on some old fart at a newspaper to tell you what’s what when you can bloody well make up your own mind?"

Maleney went on to say:

"This is a reasonable position; why peruse a dozen 150-word album reviews if you’re just looking for something new to listen to? Spotify can do that for you."

One thing he said, though, really resonated with me:

"In a world where culture is merely entertainment, criticism has no function."

Powerful words. Are our orchestras, dance companies, theater troupes and art galleries merely entertainment? I think not. They are a reflection of us—and cause us to reflect upon the world around us.

As newspapers and other publications have trimmed costs, it has often come at the expense of arts and culture. Not that there aren't stories written about orchestras, artists, writers and performers—rather, it is arts critics who oftentimes seem to take the hit.

While you can find reviews and opinions on any and everything online, it is virtually impossible to decide who actually knows what they're talking about, who has an ax to grind and who is throwing together cut-and-paste comments to pick up a few extra bucks. We depend upon journalists to provide reliable commentary.

Credit Library of Congress
Fritz Kreisler enjoyed messing with critics by publishing his own music as "lost manuscripts" written by other composers.

Many years ago, I was asked to provide a review of a particular arts organization (which I shall not name) from the lay perspective. I had been at WOSU for several years and had regularly attended their performances, so I thought I would enjoy it. I did, but I also discovered just how much work it was to move beyond what was simply my opinion to WHY I had that opinion and to back it up with sound reasoning.

That experience gave me great respect for those who can write intelligently about a performance, particularly with a deadline looming. AnneMidgette, who writes for the Washington Post, and Mark Swed from the LA Times, are two of the best when it comes to classical music criticism. They are, however, becoming a rare breed.

When a concert is presented, but no review follows, I feel the community as a whole misses out. Informed, knowledgeable, insightful reviews add immeasurably to the arts and culture scene. Those who were there get another perspective on what they saw and heard, while those not in attendance are often compelled to go find out for themselves what they were missing. 

I am thankful we in Central Ohio seem to take seriously how much our arts organizations add to life in Columbus. Couple that with food, books and other varied reviews, and it paints a picture of a vibrant, exciting community in which to work, live and raise a family.