Thursday, November 03, 2005

Art and the Critic: Part 2

It should only make sense, then, to anticipate the coming push-back against the preponderance of adulation the Canadian indie-scene has been the object of lately. As groups like Arcade Fire, New Pornographers, Dears, Stars, Metric, The Stills, Tegan and Sara (just to name a tendentious few) are lauded over, saturation of the all things indie-Canadiana will likely wake mordant detractors from their dogmatic slumber. Moreover, the general truncation of necessary criticism and the ascendancy of less than talented, but more efficiently marketed, apparatchiks won’t help matters.

Yet this outcome is to be expected. Industry has historically been canny at co-opting and digesting the Nouvelle Vague. However, those with better taste cannot be seen to enjoy what, all of a sudden, becomes universally accepted. Public sentiment therefore acts as a type of irrelevance barometer from which the critic can gauge and then, from this analysis, take leave from the banality of groupthink. A critic, thus, finds his niche in the oppositional judgments of what standards of taste currently prevail, or failing those, which should. The piquant irony is that the critic is most often the one who helped expound prevailing orthodoxies of taste. This ambivalence betrays a disjunction.

In some top-self publications this disjunction has shown itself. Writing in Stylus, an online publication of music and film criticism, Ian Mathers has a few curt things to say about indie music, even mentioning some bands of Canadian extraction:
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with indie music, and if that’s all you listen to then yes, this or the Arcade Fire probably sounds as catchy as all get out – but to the average person out there who doesn’t (for example) read Stylus, this still sounds like every other hotly tipped mess that most people don’t like, not because we privileged few have “better” “taste” or something equally smug, but just because most people are bored by this sort of music. It is not a badge of superiority or mark of inferiority to feel differently. But it would certainly be easier for others to tolerate if this was actually any good.
One has to concede that indie-rock tends to be an incestuous claque of the cognizant; Mathers’s point should be taken. I’m not convinced, however, that ‘most people are bored by this sort of music’ or that it’s less tolerable because it’s not good. (Broken Social Scene is selling to exactly the type of people it shouldn’t be selling to)

Mathers’s concern arises out of a reprisal of You Forgot it in People (YFIIP), which he likens to someone unwittingly receiving a golden shower and being told it was rain; and which placed 7th on Stlyus’s own top 50 of 2000-2005. So maybe he just disagrees with his colleagues’ taste, and that’s reasonable; but then in the reader-response section Mathers goes on to say,

I'm a strong believer in the idea that if you love an album, nothing anyone says should (or can) count against that. I also think a fair number of the people who hyped this record don't fall into that category, though, and that genuine love for the whole thing is a little thinner on the ground than some would claim.

Which would be true had we the empirical evidence. Mathers, then, is not only questioning the psychological motives of those who may be strong believers of YFIIP, he’s also throwing into doubt Stylus’s methodology or, more importantly, credibility in making Best-of lists altogether. What stock should we place in Stylus if their seventh significant album (out of a list of fifty) of the last five years has ‘thin’ support on the ground?

And this may be the case. Mathers may be right. But the weight of evidence supports a contrary conclusion: That Mathers just doesn’t like YFIIP while nearly everyone else at his publication does.

Indeed there is nothing wrong with Mathers distaste for Broken Social Scene’s aesthetic meandering, or his sentiment that ‘most people are bored by this sort of music’. Mathers criticism, although, seems to want to have it both ways. So the right brain is hearing it and saying it ‘still sounds like every other hotly tipped mess’, but the left brain is saying its ‘aimless’and ‘structurally it’s a mess’ and ‘aimless’. Ultimately, Mathers’s right brain should be listening to what his left brain is interpreting -- and vice versa -- that way they’d both be sated. What is aimless and structurally a mess to the left brain is novel and remarkable to the right brain, and what is ‘like every other hotly tipped mess’ to the right brain would please the autocracy and desire for familiarity of the left brain. (This metaphor has been unduly stretched)

Insofar as Mathers is exasperated by Broken Social Scene stylistic muddle, he is equally, if not more so, exasperated by the encomiums heaped on YFIIP. Here -- channeling Thalia, our muse of sarcasm -- is Mathers on this score:

This is it? This is the great revolution? This is what topped the critics’ charts, inspired a million rapturous articles and blog posts and personal testimonies? This? This rancid stew of sour indie self-regard, the disingenuous assurance that no, now we’re making pop music (so for once it’ll be good, lol)

It is fairly clear that Mathers’s distaste for Broken Social Scene is in part related to the genuflecting praise they receive. But why should it be any other way?


If reviews come out nem con in the favor of a particular artist and, subsequently, this results in that artist’s ascension, questions of relevance logically reveal themselves. The critic now has a chance to pours scorn on the artist and, inexplicably, the audience, who end up playing useful idiots. Why should this be so?

Well, this phenomenon speaks to the rational fear of the covetous and insular critic – who, at times, is indistinguishable from a booster. (Wink) Once underground music becomes accessible to the mass culture it is somehow seen as losing its aura, pace Walter Benjamin. The mechanical reproduction of it, and its social visibility, the critic argues, degrades its authenticity. This, of course, is entirely independent of the actual creative enterprise of plying ones trade as an artist; they, no doubt, have their own demons to wrestle with. But what is essential to understand is that, in effect, the critic is saying ‘because music I, at one point, thought was culturally significant is being listened to by the lower-brow and obtusely appreciative, the music now offends my sensibilities’.

This is in fact what the critic is saying -- something we’ve all said one time or another out of covetousness for a particular cultural objet d'art only a few of our close friends were astute or privileged enough to know about first. And I would be lying if I said I didn’t bask in my cognizance when I listened to Feel Good Lost, assured that I was in the Know (with infinitesimal pockets of others) months and years before anyone else -- people I gladly turned my nose to. And yes, there was a usurped pang in my chest when someone brought up the fact that they were already listening to Broken Social Scene two months before I was -- and then there was the contained shock when they said they no longer listened to them; likely as a result of my listening to them.

So this pantomime of sophistication, that my art is better and more avant-garde than yours, is nothing if not predictable. But the assertion that just because something is popular it therefore lacks relevance is wrongheaded. (Notwithstanding democratic elections in countries saddled with dictatorships) If so, nearly all classical music, from Renaissance to Baroque to the Romantics to Contemporary Avant Garde, would have no cultural value. Bartok, Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, and Schoenberg especially, are still relevant today -- although in markedly different ways.

And yet the detractors do make sound arguments. That popularity may be its own justification, that prefabrication and mass distribution deracinates the DIY ethic of music in general and indie rock specifically, and that loss of artistic autonomy takes away something authentic in the process are all arguments that have found no easy response. Yet at the same time these arguments raise questions that are structural and indissoluble within the context of art and commerce.

Should artists live in penury to remain authentic? Why can’t being accessible mean something more than just selling-out? Is authorial sincerity in popular art always required, or even detectable? These are all difficult questions to interrogate. But each day the artist, the critic, and the audience are doing the calculus and responding with their actions. These questions are also eternal challenges that won’t be brought to any finality, and shouldn’t hoped to be, otherwise the whole enterprise of art would lapse into solipsism. We can see the forest for the trees or we can just see the trees. I’m a big fan of the forest -- and the trees.

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