Tim Page: "The Education of a Critic"

Journalism professor Tim Page, who won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1997, wrote a first-person article in the July edition of Opera News Magazine about the learning curve of becoming an acclaimed music critic during his career at The New York Times, Newsday and The Washington Post.

"Strange as it may seem, it had never occurred to my brash younger self that almost everybody pursuing a career in music was there because of a love — a calling, if you will — with aspirations to artistic nobility," Page wrote about his start as a 27-year old critic at The Times. "Because there is not the same lust for fast money that fuels so many of the other arts, the sort of barbed, slash-and-run criticism found in some movie, book and commercial-music reviews generally has no place in our discipline. It should have been obvious to me that reviewing the latest exploitation film or pulp novel — that is, purely commercial product — was a different case from reviewing an earnest, scared young musician who had worked for years to get to this point. But it took me a while to realize these home truths."

He wrote that this is not to advocate bland, uncritical criticism because journalists have a duty to tell the truth, and the exposure of incompetence goes along with the job.

"And there are times when righteous anger is not only permissible but essential — for if the critic will not take on plummeting standards and grotesque, expensive misfires, who will?" he wrote.

He said George Jean Nathan once observed that there were two kinds of criticism — "subjective criticism and bad criticism." Today, thanks first to the alternative press and more recently to the blogosphere, deeply subjective criticism has become so prevalent in our culture that Page has proposed to pull back a little and do my best to rehabilitate objective criticism as well.

"This does not mean that we quash individual views at USC (quite the reverse — orthodoxy and heresy are both welcome)," he wrote. "But it does mean that students must have the facts correctly marshaled when they are making their points. Put it this way: as much as I would disagree with this conclusion, I would not be particularly upset if a student presented me with a cogent, closely argued devastation of Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony.

"But if he or she referred to a long saxophone solo in the second movement, there would be problems, for the Pastoral, of course, has nothing of the kind. In short, I care about facts, and I insist that my students do, too: we must be reporters first, and nothing undermines the credibility of a critic more quickly and drastically than any misstatement. Still, I am finally less concerned with a student's opinion of a given work than with the representation of that opinion."

Full article