Monday 19 May 2014

Much appreciated: the Specs code of practice

Regular readers of this blog - thank you, darlings, thank you - will know that I rarely dip into politics or political correctness, and what I'm writing about tonight is hardly a new issue, more's the pity. But I suppose I'm fired up to draft something because what I happened to read about today is so specifically about something close to my heart, I couldn't let it pass.

Depending on your tastes in music and social media, you may already know that some of the broadsheets' opera critics have come under considerable fire for their reviews of Glyndebourne's latest production, Strauss's 'Der Rosenkavalier'. To give some very brief context, all three characters making up the opera's central love triangle are sung by women: the female parts by two sopranos, and the young man torn between them by a mezzo-soprano.

I've no intention of naming any names here - if you're curious, you will find out all you need to know through Google - but essentially, all three of the writers were disparaging about one of the women's physical appearance, despite largely praising her singing. The subtext - not that it was especially 'sub' - was clear: this woman would be just right if only we had found her more attractive.

The mezzo Alice Coote, in a very cool-headed but brilliantly thorough response, picks this apart beautifully. You can read her open letter here. Wisely, she argues deliberately and exclusively from the 'opera' angle, since the nature of genre makes the offensive comments all the more ridiculous (for example, she's at pains to point out that physicality is clearly an important element of, say, ballet). Opera, says Coote, is all about what the human voice can achieve. (I would respectfully add that I enjoy listening out for what the orchestra is doing, too, but that's to take nothing away from her point.) Opera leads a completely non-visual life on radio and CD. On stage, it takes on an extra dimension, as the direction, production and interpretation all make a contribution. It may well be unique in its ability to satisfy the listener/viewer in these two separate scenarios. Given those riches, what the performers actually look like is irrelevant.

Well, if only that were true. But in our current media climate, where appearance is the be-all and end-all whatever the form or genre of entertainment, no wonder these men - all watching the same production, all working quite independently - felt moved... no more than that, felt entitled to home in on someone, especially a woman, who happened to look a bit different.

Any response I can make on the subject of sexism, and the harm it causes, is inevitably inadequate - I don't experience the sharp end of it, day in, day out. But so visceral was my reaction to this, that my mind went into a kind of free-fall - to the point where I wondered what people these days thought criticism actually was. Or what it was for. Do these reviewers sit there after a glorious performance, racking their brains to think of the chink in the armour? The thing they might notice that would make them seem more clever (or 'winningly outspoken') than the other critics? A need to exert power over careers, or approaches, or artistic decisions they're not in a position to make themselves? It's now a cliche that the internet has made everyone a critic (and worse, has acted as an enabler for horrific abuses) but these are not anonymous trolls, cowering behind pseudonyms - it is apparently now ok to make these sort of statements with your own byline in the next edition. The general culture we now seem to inhabit, though, I'm sure has its roots in the 'go ahead and say it - no matter how hurtful' electronic arena.

The critics themselves - and I don't necessarily include just the three miscreants from today - would no doubt argue that they are sent to review plays, operas, exhibitions and the like, and as such, must call it as they see it. I don't disagree with that, provided they can back up their opinions and avoid making it personal. If you say something is useless or rubbish, tell me why. Tell me a little about your tastes, so I know why whatever you're slagging off doesn't satisfy them. Acknowledge that if this is the fifth 'terrible' work you're seen by someone in a row, that fans of that person are probably going to enjoy it. Criticism has become a dirty word - I want analysis. I want understanding.

I know why I write this blog. It's a privileged activity. I'm a punter, so I tend to only go to things I expect to enjoy - which in turn means that I almost always come to you as an enthusiast, a champion. I like to think that where I've stumbled across something that hasn't always made sense to me, I've explained why, and then tried to turn in on myself and examine that response. I suppose I've ended up by accident with a code of practice:

  1. Negativity is one of the most harmful viruses infecting the internet. Use your powers for good, not evil. If there is an artist, musician or anyone you love, you help them to continue, and you add to the lives of others by sharing that enthusiasm.
  2. Be mindful that 'criticism' is now itself a kind of artform, a kind of writing - rather than a tool. Libraries, Spotify, Soundcloud, streaming, YouTube, virtual web tours and seminars... it is very easy for people to get a flavour of what they're interested in without needing a critic's steer (or sneer). So again, write about what you love. If I'm interested in something, a thousand of you slagging it off will not deter me from seeking it out. But if ONE of you recommends something I don't know about - I will go and find it.
  3. Mostly, when enjoying the arts, you are watching or listening to people doing something you can't do. They have the talent, they put in the hours. Even if you play their instrument, they're probably playing it better. They've probably written something you couldn't have imagined, or found an interpretation beyond one you could've divined. None of this invalidates your response to what they do - but you owe them respect, courtesy and rigorous use of your brain cells before you start to type.
  4. Never be dismissive of anything. If you think you can write something off in a sentence, you won't have thought about it hard enough. So don't write about it at all.
  5. Put yourself into what you write. As people get to know you, they will look for that in your responses. I think I'm most like this with opera. I clearly don't know that much about opera, at least not yet - but anyone who wants to know the details can look in a 'Big Book of Opera', rather than the 'Specs' blog. I feel I'm writing about my adventures in learning about the artform, and that readers can choose to join me if they want to.

Ultimately, then, I just don't feel like I write 'reviews' as such, or 'criticism' - although I must inevitably flirt with those things. I suppose this is a rallying cry for what sometimes feels like the lost art of 'appreciation'. I'm not here to tell you whether or not I love something; just to try and explain why I love it, and why I think you might too. I promise never to look for chinks in the armour when so much of it is intact, and dazzling.


  1. I see your point, and I agree with it, however there *is* an answer of sorts to some of the questions you raise here -

    1. Hello - thank you for your comment, and for the link - very interesting. I confess, I would take issue with most of what he, along with other critics, says, though - primarily to do with the 'realism' and 'language' issues. Bit unusual for me, but I'm actually planning a follow-up post about this - partly because I find the rush by critics to 'self-justify' (not that criticism needs justifying) a little unseemly.

  2. But you still hate U2, right?