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Criticism 101

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Distinguishing the particulars of a topic rates as the most basic element of aesthetics (art criticism), or of philosophy generally. Picking apart the quality of an underlying melody of a lead vocal, versus the harmonic and production elements- that’s what critics DO.

I was perhaps slightly hurt, then, by this accusation in the comments to a Blogcritics post: “Al Barger pretty much confines his jabbering to the subject of liberal perfidy, and he’s one of the worst about sticking political screeds into the review categories.”

Really. I think I’m one of the BEST. If you look carefully, I’ve repeatedly tried to address art that has political content, trying to distinguish between the artistic versus political merits of a song or movie. Note for example this positive review of John Mellencamp’s new protest song.

Now, dissecting and mocking liberal perfidy is certainly a legitimate and highly entertaining philosophical sport. I like to think that I write about other things as well, but liberals need to be knocked around. However, I would take it as a significant personal insult to be accused of inability to make even a basic distinction between art and politics. Those are whole separate branches of philosophy. I’d sure hate to thing that I am so blinded by political passion as to not be able to appreciate the skill, craft and passion of a good song or movie just because the author is a liberal.

Liking or disliking a song or movie just because it presents a political stance that you agree or disagree with shows shallowness of artistic judgment. If a song has a good tune and is emotionally convincing, I don’t have to agree with any secondary political sentiments.

Similarly, I’m known to listen to a fair amount of various types of gospel music. Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers really do it for me. Elvis gospel, Bob Dylan, even Jimmy Swaggart and Bach get my attention. I won’t quite go so far as to say that I’m absolutely sure there is no beyond, but I’m certainly no kind of believer. Yet much of the world’s greatest and most meaningful music has been created as religious expression. There is emotional truth in the Hallelujah Chorus that transcends the specific issue of the truth value of Christianity.

Similarly, no code of correct political views will cause me to dismiss so compelling a jam as “London Calling.” This rocks, no matter what kind of commie foolishness the boys were buying into. Likewise, the fact that Rush are Ayn Rand fans ain’t going to make me puff them up into being major-league talent. They’re just not that good.

Now HOW someone presents their political views in art is a fair topic of criticism. The lyrics of the Beastie Boys “World Gone Mad” just suck. They are a weak and boring scattershot expression of their weak and boring outlook, besides any other issues. It’s just not a good example of craftmanship. On the other hand, the lyrics of Tracy Chapman’s “Talking About a Revolution” present a much more interesting and skillfully drawn picture of poor folk conspiring in whispers, even though the socialist revolution thing she is describing is at some point just silly.

The fullest and truest appeciation of life and art comes from developing careful intellectual understanding of things. Being able to distinguish between good melody (or story or painting) and good politics should be considered a basic rudimentary issue for any intelligent person.

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  • “liberal perfidy” … isn’t that redundant, at least these days?

  • Elder Harris

    I once was a professical singer untill I was visually impaired, by a drive by shooting in the year 1993. But if it wasn’t for gods grace I probally wouldn’t be here today. I am very fond of your work it moves my in a way that couldn’t ever be put into words. You may not believe this but I also toured with the funkadelics. I was just wondering if you and i could get together and do something together. I am not a crazied stalker or anything just thought that you should know that.
    I will comment another time with my address and phone number. I will be looking forward to your response. GOD BLESS YOU

  • Elder Larry Harris

    Hey again it is me the man who sent you an email yesterday remember. I said that I would give you my phone number and or address in case you had wanted to take up on my offer and contact me.My phone is (757)-***-1953 feel free to contact me I am really looking forward to it.

  • Eric Olsen

    Elder Larry (is there a Younger Larry?), who exactly are you trying to contact?

  • Does Al have a stalker?

  • Mr. Harris- Thanks for your attention, but I’m not a musician, so it’s not like we’d get together and jam.

    Also, I obviously don’t recommend publishing your phone number on a web page. That’s just asking for trouble.

  • Eric Olsen

    I think he’s looking for Tracy Chapman

  • BB

    Gee Al, I would have thought you would be more receptive to fan mail as opposed to the usual vitriol from others whose names I need not mention (shudder).

  • Eric Olsen

    Or maybe he’s looking for Ayn Rand – I hate to break it to him but Tracy probably won’t be interested and Ayn is dead.

  • Oh, I’m perfectly receptive to praise- note that my first word of response was “thanks.”

    Eric, how did you get that he would be looking for Tracy Chapman?

  • The Theory

    fantastic article, Al.