Today in the New York Times, Roberta Smith expressed great enthusiasm for the Whitney Biennial in New York. (And can we take a minute to appreciate what a pleasure it is when a critic really, really likes something – and to remember that this excitement only carries weight when the critic in question is not generally thus excited?)
But one sentence in the review leapt out at me – about music, of course.
Smith writes, “Another filmmaker who stands out is Werner Herzog, who contributes “Hearsay of the Soul,” a ravishing five-screen digital projection, to his first-ever art show. An unexpected celebration of the handmade by the technological — and a kind of collage — it combines greatly magnified close-ups of the voluptuous landscape etchings of the Dutch artist Hercules Segers (1589-1638), whom Herzog considers “the father of modernity in art,” with some justification. The shifting scroll-like play of images is set to sonorous music, primarily by the Dutch cellist and composer Ernst Reijseger, who also appears briefly on screen, playing his heart out. I dare you not to cry.” [Emphasis is mine.]
I haven’t seen the Whitney Biennial, and/or this Herzog piece, though after reading the review, I would like to. But I was struck by the line “I dare you not to cry.” In the middle of this sophisticated appreciation of contemporary art comes this throwaway line implying that seeing a classical musician at work, “playing his heart out” (classical music always leads, it seems, to clichés), is something so moving and genuine that it will evoke tears. And this kind of naïve, heartfelt statement falls right into the “gosh, ain’t these talented folks grand” school of classical music appreciation that my own work as a critic has largely been about trying to get beyond.
Time and again, artists and thinkers who are sophisticated observers of their own fields step back and goggle when they see classical artists at work. I often cite a Shakespeare concert presided over by Adrian Noble, the acclaimed stage director who was just about to make his Metropolitan Opera debut with Verdi’s setting of “Macbeth;” a few weeks before the show, the Met co-presented a performance that juxtaposed readings of Shakespearean monologues with singing of Shakespeare-based opera arias. Noble spoke between the pieces: he had acute insights about the spoken monologues, but after the opera selections he was reduced to the equivalent of, “Wasn’t that great.” (This uncritical and disengaged attitude was reflected in his staging of “Macbeth.”)
Yes, classical musicians can be amazing, and their performances are the result of a kind of intense dedication (those hours of practice) that rightly inspire respect in those who don’t do it themselves. Yet all artists spend hours and hours making their art, and few other artists are greeted with the same kind of awe simply for doing what they do (“You wrote a BOOK? All those WORDS? Wow!”). Classical music has a reputation of being something smart – indeed, its fans are often stereotyped as nerds and eggheads – but the way that people engage with it often seems to me anything but, as if it renders otherwise smart thinkers uncritical. Smith can write thoughtfully about Herzog, but the musician reduces her to effusion.
This rah-rah, “Mozart was the greatest genius EVER” kind of reception also interferes with the dissemination of contemporary music. A visual artist once asked me about this, herself somewhat perplexed; I like the most contemporary, avant-garde art, she said, but with music, I stop around Mozart, or maybe Schubert, and I can’t relate to the contemporary at all.
I dare you not to cry, indeed.