The right to make creative progress

Why musicians should be allowed to move on – and why we should, too

Concert pianist Dejan Lazic caused a stir recently, by requesting that the Washington Post remove an unflattering review of one of his performances from their website. Some commenters confined themselves to expressing wry amusement at the tender egos of performers. Other voices were more critical, with Ivan Hewett at the Telegraph branding the episode an instance of ‘misguided madness’.

Hewett: Lazic’s ‘misguided madness’

Hewett notes that the Lazic affair is not directly analogous to requests that have been made to Google and other search engines under Europe’s ‘right to be forgotten’ ruling – rather than requesting that the offending review be de-indexed from searches on his name, Lazic went to the Washington Post directly and requested the removal of the review entirely. He also notes, rightly, that the European Court of Justice ruling is not directly applicable in the United States.

However, Hewett uses the Lazic incident to launch an attack on the warrant of the ECJ ruling itself, calling it a ‘legal monstrosity’ that should have been ‘laughed out of court’. Hewett claims that the ECJ ruling creates a dangerous precedent for ‘thousands more thin-skinned pianists, actors, novelists, etc.’ He warns that such artists do not have the right to attempt to ‘massage their public image into a more flattering form.’

There are several problems with Hewett’s argument, not least of which is his slide from an acknowledgement that Lazic’s case is different at core to the ECJ’s ruling, to a critique of that ruling on the basis of the Lazic case. However, Hewett also misses a deeper issue, in his treatment of the case: an important, and overlooked, way in which the internet has impacted on the role of the critic, and on the nature of our engagement with artists.

What is the role of the critic?

A good critic is, above all, an expert commentator on the state of an art, as Daniel Mendelsohn argues. A good critic does not gush senselessly, nor does he or she spout vitriol without justification. A responsible critic engages constructively with the artist. She points out strong points, she points out weaknesses, and she keeps an eye on the artist’s output to date as she does so – out of respect for the performer, and for the art itself.

It is important to remember that music critics are, first and foremost, music-lovers. And they want us to love music just as much as they do. It follows that negative reviews are just as important as positive ones – as long as they’re honest, of course – because they help us to understand what is valuable about the art in question.

So, whether the review is positive, or negative, the critic is interested in encouraging us to engage with the art constructively and critically ourselves. The critic wants to promote further discussion. She wants to help us to form our own considered opinions.

And this is where things get tricky, in the digital age. Dejan Lazic’s case is complicated, so let us take a hypothetical case: one of the ‘thin-skinned’ pianists, who Hewett thinks will now be emboldened to distort her public image under the ‘right to be forgotten’ ruling.

When a ‘thin-skinned’ performer wants to move on

Suppose that a Google search on Jane Doe unfailingly returns, at the top of the list, one negative review. This review isn’t damning: it’s a careful evaluation of a performance that didn’t quite come up to scratch. Suppose that review was entirely justified, as an assessment of Jane’s merit, in that performance, on that night, as assessed by the critic in question.

But this assessment is not valid for all performances, for all nights, and for all critics. The critic in question would be the first to acknowledge that. But this is the problem that the hierarchical ordering of Google searches creates. In Lazic’s case, Google’s mysterious algorithms place the Washington Post review above far more popular websites (such as Wikipedia), and well above any other press articles.

If one negative review unfailingly appears as the top result – which could happen for algorithmic reasons that have nothing to do with that review’s continuing validity – this does not encourage us to explore Jane Doe’s work further. It has the opposite effect: it is more likely to discourage us from doing so.

Search results can discourage us

Why? Let’s suppose that I see an advertisement for an upcoming performance by Jane Doe, of whom I haven’t heard before. She’s playing, for example, Ravel, le Tombeau de Couperin. It’s one of my favourite pieces, and it also happens to be very challenging for the performer. I ask myself: is it worth going? Is she likely to pull it off? Or is she likely to fall short of the mark?

I could look up back issues of music magazines, or I could ask my friends if they have heard of her. I could try to find recordings of hers, in order to familiarize myself with her style. But in the digital age, the easiest way for me to proceed is to open a browser window, and search for ‘Jane Doe’.

Now, the first thing I see when I do that is a review that, while constructive, is negative overall. It praises her technique, but points out certain expressive misjudgments in her playing, noting that, given time, she is likely to improve.

I don’t notice that the review is from five years ago. It doesn’t immediately occur to me that perhaps Jane Doe has, in fact, improved her technique, just as the critic hoped she would. Really, I don’t think too much about it. I just say to myself: well, that’s that decision made, then. And I don’t book tickets.

We don’t always behave like ‘digital natives’

Now, it might be argued that we do not so unwittingly swallow Google search results. We are ‘digital natives’: we carefully contextualise the information we read on the internet. We don’t take the results of online search as gospel, nor do we necessarily internalise their hierarchy, as indicating a truthful and exhaustive evaluation of a given performer.

This may be the case in general. But sometimes, we don’t really behave like digital natives. The instantaneous decisions, and choices we make online, are not always so considered. Let’s go back to Jane Doe.

Suppose that there are two performances, of the same work, on the same night. One is by Jane Doe, and the other is by Joe Bloggs. I don’t know either performer, but my lunch break is nearly over, I have a meeting in five minutes, and I have to book the tickets fast. I only have time to do the most rudimentary research.

When I Google Jane Doe, I see the negative review in first place, followed by other, more positive ones. And when I Google Joe Bloggs, all the search results are positive reviews. Which performance do I book, as I drain my mug of tea and check my watch? I book tickets to see Joe Bloggs.

The right to move on

This is what Ivan Hewett fails to appreciate, in his dismissal of the possible concerns of future ‘thin-skinned’ performers. Performers like Jane Doe should be allowed to progress beyond a bad performance. They should be allowed to get better. They should be allowed to move on

And we should be allowed to move on, too. We should be allowed to approach Jane Doe’s performance of the Ravel with curiosity, rather than with suspicion. We should be given room to explore carefully all of the critical reviews of Jane Doe, taken in context – including, of course, the negative ones.

It could be that de-indexing of reviews is not the solution. And writing to newspapers, requesting them to remove negative reviews, is doubtless not always the solution either. Perhaps what we need are better search tools, when it comes to performers and artists: ones that enable us to see all of their reviews, taken in context, from the oldest to the most current. It seems clear, however, that the current system we have does not necessarily encourage us to approach artists with an open mind.

We should be given space to give artists the benefit of the doubt. This is the space that any self-respecting critic wants to give us in the first place – the space to come to our own conclusions.

And performers should be given space, too: the space to move on from past performances. They should be given room to get better. And it is not necessarily a sign of egoism, or cravenness, or dishonesty, for them to request that space.

Leave a Reply





You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>