“There’s no such thing as ‘a B+ album’ ”
June 15, 2001 6:03 AM   Subscribe

“There’s no such thing as ‘a B+ album’ ” “...or a three-and-a-half-star album or whatever. Value is not an internal property of a work of art, so, to me, grading a record is not just inane and offensive, it demonstrates a profound misunderstanding about how people react to art.” Interview with Glenn McDonald (ibid.).
posted by joeclark (12 comments total)
Seems to me the only thing dopier than attempting to criticise subjective works is paying enough attention to critics to criticise their criticism.

You will never convince me that Tin Machine wasn't a great band. Do you hear me?! Never!
posted by dong_resin at 7:23 AM on June 15, 2001

In Critique of Judgement, Kant wrote, ...the finality of a thing, so far as represented in our perception of it, is in no way a quality of the object itself (for a quality of this kind is not one that can be perceived) although, it may be inferred from a cognition of things.

Greenberg had major issues with this. From his essay, "Can Taste Be Objective": ..objectivity of taste is probatively demonstrated in and through the presence of a consensus over time...no explaining this durability - the durability that creates a consensus - except by the fact that taste is ultimately objective.

Greenberg went on to state that it was ludicrous to believe that within our own narcissitic, solipsistic experiences, we would ever come down on a single work (his example was Homer) as being "good" without the quality of the work residing within the work itself. No agreement, no matter how tentative, could ever be reached without the work itself having innate qualities. Our own subjectivity, of course, does inform our own opinion, but when the politics and the fashions of the time pass, there is a consensus, as he states.

Individuals are entitled to their opinions, no question. That being said, it is the beautiful benefit of a democracy for those opinions to be "wrong".

I actually put together a poll on whether or not people believe quality is intrinsic to a work of art as something of a joke on the group blog I run on Wednesday. So far, "You made this a poll? FOOL!" is winning.
posted by J. R. Hughto at 7:38 AM on June 15, 2001

Definition of rock journalism: People who can’t write, doing interviews with people who can’t think, in order to prepare articles for people who can’t read.

- Frank Zappa { The Real Frank Zappa Book}

I think anytime you try to measure passion you're gonna get different numbers based on who you ask.

I rather like what Steven King had to say about literary criticism on a TV bio show. Paraphrasing: "Criticism doesn't matter, either they're reading your stuff in 100 years or their not"

Which for me, is the crux of the biscuit. Searching for objective, final, universal metrics about art is a useless, ultimately Sisyphisian task. However, works which stand the test of time, that you can measure. Problem is, you have to wait till all the participants are dead to get it right.
posted by artlung at 8:08 AM on June 15, 2001

Did I just use the wrong "their/they're/there"?

I am so ashamed.

Correction: Criticism doesn't matter, either they're reading your stuff in 100 years or they're not.
posted by artlung at 8:12 AM on June 15, 2001

Ouch, well thanks to the insane color scheme, I decided against trying to squint through the article. But the premise is pretty silly. I don't see why a critic shouldn't be allowed to rate something three stars or B+. Obviously different people will react differently and judge the music (or whatever art) based on different things. There are ways to judge a measure of objective value in art, although those methods may have nothing to do with the level of enjoyment one may receive from a particular work.
posted by daveadams at 8:57 AM on June 15, 2001

The stars or the school-like grades are there for the readers, not the artists. In other words, readers (particularly those of mainstream publications, or any publication hoping to make a largish profit) want them more than the writers and editors themselves do. It's true. And this as true with film criticism as it is with music journalism. My favorite rating system, however, used to be those of Stereo Review, now Sound & Vision. Some adjective or phrase would be used for the audio quality of the recording (shack with a tin roof, say), preceded by the same for artistic quality (pathetic, immature genius). Now the mag just does the stars thing. The old, sadly defunct Musician magazine did not use stars or any phrases at all, as far as I can recall. Please note that I called it "sadly defunct."
posted by raysmj at 9:26 AM on June 15, 2001

Ok. Criticism is not completely defendable. But there is A LOT OF STUFF out there. Just like we need MetaFilter or the New York Times or Entertainment Weekly or the Grocery Store Reader, in a best case scenario, to filter the wheat from the chaff, we need critics to pick out the good stuff from the bad, according to SOME set of criteria. That's why there are a lot of critics. Find one you like. Stick with 'em. Recognize the ego within their words. Parse it out. Deal.

I only have so much time and money, and I'd rather spend that according to what Jim Deregotis (sp?) tells me than a DJ at KROQ.
posted by thebigpoop at 9:51 AM on June 15, 2001

Depends on what the album is graded. Quality of musicianship. Originality. Production values. Mastery of a form. Many people could agree on these factors. As for the rest, "it blew my mind" is just de gustibus.

It's like movie reviewers. I can generally rely on a couple of reviewers to tell me whether I'll like a movie based on past experience. Likewise with music... you learn who likes what you tend to like. If you can find a person like this, an A or a D may suffice.

posted by Twang at 10:15 PM on June 15, 2001

In my POV, music criticism is a whole different ball of wax than other arenas (movies, television). Music feels like a more personal, one-on-one relationship with the tunes vs. a movie or television - which tends to be a more grouplike experience. I think its easier for a group to say "this movie is bad" vs. "we love this album". Maybe it's just me and my twisted view of music (it's all the same to me).
posted by owillis at 10:22 PM on June 15, 2001

I wish there were a way to re-examine "criticism" in media. Instead of telling me whether or not they like it, I want a critic to just describe to me what it is. Instead of rating it on some subjective criteria, I'd want them to list objectively what the art contains. Joe Bob Briggs had the right idea:

"Eighteen dead bodies. Thirty-seven breasts. Leg-ripping. Stomach-ripping. Crotch-stomping. Man beaten to death with his own leg. Broken-bong stabbing, with brain-frying. Jerry Springer wife-trampling scene, with head-stomping. Exploding brain. Excessive geriatric drool. Hand-hacking. Bullet to the forehead. Plunger-wielding police interrogation. Fat man eaten by an escalator. Man killed by corn flakes -- the obvious victim of a "cereal killer." Pickled body parts. Self-inflicted gunshot to the brain. Knife to the hand. Light-to-the-head electrocution. Guy sandwiched by two trucks, with double leg loss. Automotive head-squashing. Razor-blade finger-slicing. Liquor-funnel alcohol abuse. Exploding director... Also projectile-vomiting on French tourists..."

Now that's how ya critique a film! I'd like this idea taken a little more seriously. A critic should do stuff like count how many times in a ten minute period the audience erupts in laughter. Did anyone in the audience cry? How many people walked out for popcorn and never came back? A film critique shouldn't be focused on the movie alone; it should be focused on the audience as well.

Does the movie echo familiar stuff from previous films? If I liked movie A, B, and C, would I be more or less likely to appreciate movie D? Don't use a broad rating system for violence and sex. COUNT the BODIES. Is it just a trickle of blood shown or did they have to import buckets from Tom Savini's private stash? Don't tell me if it's PG-13 or R, which ultimately means nothing. Tell me whether or not we see Halle Barry's boobies. If I like boobies, I'll see the film. If I don't like boobies, I'll see something else.

Making movies should be an art. Critiquing movies should be a science. For some reason, Hollywood and the rest of the world seems to have that backwards. I will never get a grip on this reality.
posted by ZachsMind at 1:35 AM on June 16, 2001

Gee, I know I'm a little late to this party, but . . . what a lame article! Set aside for a moment the fact that I don't particularly like The War Against Silence (I *do* like it, but not enormously) -- what in the world was said there that isn't patently obvious to everyone?

You know, there are two reasons criticism exists. One reason is that we, the public, want to be told what's good by people in the know. That's why critics give things ratings and make judgements about the quality of work -- to tell us, in a summary way, whether they think something is good or not. I completely fail to see the essential difference between a long, rambling, subjective review at T.W.A.S. and a B+ in Entertainment Weekly. One of them is long, one of them is short; if there's a difference, it's that E.W. is up-front about its value judgement whereas T.W.A.S. insists on softening the blow (or evading accountability, however you might look at it).

The other reason we have critics is to tell us things about a work of art we don't already know -- and though we might deny in our own democratic way that anybody else can tell us what we ought to or are able to feel when exposed to art, it's undeniable that a music critic might spend more time, and spend it better than we can, with a record. This is also why we have literary critics of the academic sort: to tell us, after spending a lifetime with books, about the books we've already read and to help us read them better. The best critics illuminate the art they criticize. That's why we still read Matthew Arnold, and why they put that silkscreened text up on the walls of art galleries.

Being a critic isn't about subjectivity -- singularity -- aloneness. It's about community, the group, the sharing and re-experiencing of art. It's a shame when critics feel they need to apologize for their own work this way, and when artists feel they need to attack it. Active and constant criticism (like MeFi right here) is a sign of culture; and culture doesn't happen between your ears; it happens in the communities art creates out there in the world.
posted by josh at 9:04 PM on June 16, 2001

a music critic might spend more time, and spend it better than we can, with a record

They might, but typically they listen to a record once or twice and then write it up. Personally, after listing to a record just once I can barely remember which songs were which, but maybe they just have way better ears than I do.
posted by kindall at 9:45 PM on June 16, 2001

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