Five Requirements: What Makes a Great Critic?

Great criticism cannot take place in a vacuum. A great critic needs great art to write about and a public excited about the art form and eager to read opinions about it. For example, New York was an international center of classical music performance and consequently of criticism several decades ago. I want to make some observations about the circumstances under which criticism flourished then, and I will apply these “requirements” to what’s going on in today’s blogosphere in a later post.

A Way to Make a Living

Unless you have a trust fund and/or indulgent parents, you need a way to make a living. Although it is hard to believe today, once upon a time the New York Times employed four or five opera critics – and they reviewed both new productions and performances in which there was a major cast change. Music reviews appeared almost every day. Today the Times basically has one critic who reviews almost everything (opera productions, symphony concerts, lieder recitals, etc.).

New York also had two COMMERCIAL classic music radio stations, and the one that is now a rock station (WNCN 104.3 FM) actually published a glossy magazine every month called Keynote, which included articles, reviews, and a program guide.

The bottom line is that there were enough opportunities to allow a lot of talented critics to make a living writing criticism – maybe not a great living, but a living.

Passion

The second circumstance was that a substantial audience of all ages cared – and bought opera tickets and new opera recordings and also bought newspapers and magazines to read reviews. People argued passionately about who was the better soprano or tenor, or the better conductor.

The critics had passion too, and argued among themselves and with the audience about who was the best and why. In the end (at least to me), this was a matter of taste, but it was fun anyway.

Encyclopedic Knowledge

A friend of mine was one of those four or five opera critics who used to write for the Times, and he still spends a lot of time listening and sometimes blogging about classical music. He has a huge collection of recordings, which he listens to day and night, in the office and at home. Sometimes I will ask him for advice about whose recording to buy of a particular piece and am astounded by the thoughtful suggestions that I receive.

Taste and Opinion – and an Ability to Express Them

I once had a college professor whom I swear had read every novel ever written (yes, that’s probably impossible, but it seemed that way). There was only one problem. Although he knew all the plots, he never liked one author better than another, and he never made interesting connections between various novels. Talk about dull and boring!

Critics need taste and opinions, unlike that college professor, and the ability to make connections and argue about them in prose.

Realism, Compassion, and Understanding

Last but not least, critics need to know the history of the art form they are writing about, whether they are discussing novels or musical performances or paintings (or rock concerts, movies, or graffiti). Critics also need to know something about the lives of the artists (and how hard it is to do what an artist does), although that need not change their judgments but perhaps temper them.

I guess in the end I would also like critics to be decent human beings, and to show some compassion and understanding at the same time as they tell the truth as they see it. Is that impossible?

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About Regina Domeraski

I am a writer and have been for as long as I can remember. I worked as a technical writer and now a marketing writer for high-tech companies, but my interests go far beyond technology and include writing as an art and a craft, creativity, film, classical music, and the mystery genre (after all, Hamlet is a murder mystery).
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