The pianist Dejan Lazic, like many artists and performers, is occasionally the subject of bad reviews. Also like other artists, he reads those reviews. And disagrees with them. And gripes over them, sometimes.
But because Lazic lives in Europe, where in May the European Union ruled that individuals have a “right to be forgotten” online, he decided to take the griping one step further: On Oct. 30, he sent The Washington Post a request to remove a 2010 review by Post classical music critic Anne Midgette that — he claims — has marred the first page of his Google results for years.
It’s the first request The Post has received under the E.U. ruling. It’s also a truly fascinating, troubling demonstration of how the ruling could work.
“To wish for such an article to be removed from the internet has absolutely nothing to do with censorship or with closing down our access to information,” Lazic explained in a follow-up e-mail to The Post. Instead, he argued, it has to do with control of one’s personal image — control of, as he puts it, “the truth.”
For those of you who have forgotten (heh) the details of the “right to be forgotten” since the E.U. enshrined it in May, the basic premise is this: Individuals have the right to their personal information, so they should also have some control over their personal search results. If a search for your name on Google or Bing turns up “inadequate, irrelevant or … excessive” links, the court ruled, you should be able to ask the search engine to remove them.
Leaving aside the fact that Lazic’s request is misdirected, under the ruling — it applies to search engines, not publishers, and only within the E.U. — its implications are kind of terrifying. We ought to live in a world, Lazic argues, where everyone — not only artists and performers but also politicians and public officials — should be able to edit the record according to their personal opinions and tastes. (“Politicians are people just like you and me,” he explains.) This is all in pursuit of some higher, objective truth.
Of course, there are two truths in this situation, as there are two or more truths in most.
In Lazic’s version, Midgette mischaracterized his 2010 performance at the Kennedy Center and slandered him as a performer, out of ignorance or malice. (“Defamatory, mean-spirited, opinionated, one-sided, offensive [and] simply irrelevant for the arts,” is how he put it.)
In Midgette’s version, Lazic’s performance wasn’t dreadful, but it didn’t live up to what she expected of a performer with, to quote the review, such “prodigious gifts.” So she gave him a tepid review, peppered with references to Lazic’s achievements. Not eviscerating. Not a “slam.” But a criticism, sure.
“I tried to make it very clear in my review that I thought this was a pianist of significant ability, and for that I thought he could do better than he did,” Midgette said. From the review:
His recital of Chopin and Schubert on Saturday was unfortunately on the same spectrum. The selection of those two composers is usually a way to demonstrate a pianist’s sensitivity as well as his virtuosity. This performance, though, kept one eye fixed on monumentality. Some of the pieces, such as Chopin’s Scherzo No. 2, sounded less like light solo piano works than an attempt to rival the volume of a concerto with full orchestra. This scherzo became cartoon-like in its lurches from minutely small to very, very large.
It’s not that Lazic isn’t sensitive – or profoundly gifted. The very first notes of Chopin’s Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise Brillante at the start of the program signalled that he can do anything he wants at the keyboard, detailing chords with a jeweler’s precision, then laying little curls of notes atop a cushion of sound like diamonds nestled on velvet. Again and again, throughout the afternoon, he showed what a range of colors he could get out of the instrument, switching from hard-edged percussiveness to creamy legato, crackling chords to a single thread of sound. The sheer technical ability was, at first, a delight.
Whose truth is right: the composer’s or the critic’s? And more critically, who gets to decide?
It’s a question that goes far beyond law or ethics, frankly — it’s also baldly metaphysical, a struggle with the very concept of reality and its determinants. Lazic (and to some extent, the European court) seem to believe that the individual has the power to determine what is true about himself, as mediated by the search engines that process his complaints.
Accordingly, in the three months after the “right to be forgotten” ruling went into effect, Google approved 53 percent of take-down requests on first application, and an additional 15 percent upon further review.
Those removals included articles from the Guardian about a former Scottish soccer referee who lied about granting a penalty kick, a BBC article that discussed a Merrill Lynch banker’s role in the financial crisis, and a report in the Daily Mail about an airline that had been accused of racism by a Muslim job applicant. And they proceeded despite the fact that, as Google complained in a filing to regulators, “in many cases we lack the larger factual context for a request, without which it is difficult to balance competing interests.”
Of course, all that balancing and fact-gathering is generally outsourced to journalists. Now, at least in Europe, there’s a sense that personally involved individuals are somehow furthest from bias, somehow closest the truth.
“I so often listen to a concert, and then the next day read about it in the newspapers — read something that is simply too far from the truth,” Lazic complained. “This is something I, as an artist, am seeking and looking for my whole life: the truth.”
Never mind that such an attitude torpedoes the very foundation of arts criticism, a pursuit that even Lazic says makes us “better off as a society.” Never mind that it essentially invalidates the primary function of journalism, which is to sift through competing, individual storylines for the one that most closely mirrors a collective reality. Or that it undermines the greatest power of the Web, as a record and a clearinghouse for our vast intellectual output.
“I can’t imagine that journalism would have to abide by such strictures,” Midgette said. “Once something is in a paper, it’s a matter of public record, and then it’s on the record for better or worse; isn’t that so?”
It’s so in the United States, at least. But Europe seems to have different priorities for truth.