Kleinmeisters: an early 21st-century typology of the term would be easy to delineate. Kleinmeisters are those composers who get dozens of orchestra commissions, especially for concertos, and hundreds of performances. Most of them, virtually all of them, are very nice people – naturally, since they’ve made careers out of their ability to accommodate. (The younger generation of kleinmeisters is astonishingly good-looking.) Because the major-paper critics are part of the system, the kleinmeisters get incredibly positive reviews in the top 15 or 20 newspapers and music magazines. They excel at two genres: the ten-minute concert opener with lots of brass and percussive momentum, and the concerto whose solo part is visibly at the limits of endurance. Their music thrills with its virtuosity, its patent sense of difficulty; it is neither remembered nor asked for afterward. Frequently their performances are greeted with a vindicating roar of applause that is taken to attest to its quality, but is really either intended for the poor soloist having survived his ordeal, or else a reflection of the piece’s noise.
What’s lacking with the kleinmeisters is any sense that their music is taken seriously. It is praised, usually in vague and unconsciously patronizing terms (“X really knows her way around an orchestra”), but it is not discussed. Its methods are not problematized. It may be considered thorny, but no one pretends it presents a new perceptual paradigm. Reviews most often cite as praiseworthy its orchestration – in other words, its professional clothing, not its content. Most of all, there is no buzz about the kleinmeisters among younger composers. Harbison, Chen Yi, Penderecki, Higdon, Zwilich, Sierra, Paulus, get to command vast musical resources, but no young composers heatedly argue the merits of their pieces. Their names don’t come up in internet discussions. No one acts as though they hold any key to the future. After all, these composers write in styles in which far more vivid music had already been written decades ago. The kleinmeisters of 19th-century Russia were ridiculed by the musical intelligentsia outside that circle, but today’s American kleinmeisters have a whole Potemkin music scene built to support them and protect them from reality – reality being that their music is drab, unoriginal, and cared about by no one, for good reason.
If the French Ministry of Culture were to hold hearings on why there are so few innovative young French filmmakers today, Claire Simon’s documentary “The Graduation” (“Le Concours,” better translated as “The Entrance Exam”) could be Exhibit A. (It played last fall in the DOC NYC series and this past weekend at the True/False Film Fest, which is where I saw it.) It’s entirely possible that France’s movie-doldrums are merely a passing chill and that there’s an underground current in the French film world that’s soon to burst forth with inventive energy. But, for the moment, it’s hard to avoid noticing that France hasn’t produced a historic director in three decades.
Many excellent French movies have been made in that time; many talented directors have arrived on the scene with noteworthy débuts—and most of them have become quickly less audacious after a first film or two. Some exceptional filmmakers have built unusual careers on the margins of the system; some have worked within the system to bring distinctive worlds to life; none have revolutionized the art. For the most part, France’s filmmakers get old while they’re still young, normalized and formatted by a rigid system of financing and production, which is embodied in the hurdle-hopping that Simon shows prospective film students enduring at France’s most prestigious film school, La Fémis.
The most original filmmaking is comprehensively original—as creative in terms of financing, administration, and methods of production and post-production as in directorial imagination. The ways of working, the inventiveness that creates a new mode of organization and new techniques behind the camera, are reflected in the originality of the film itself. The fuller the existing system that young filmmakers must slot themselves into, the thinner the scope of their attention, the narrower their spectrum of innovation, and the less likely that they’ll be able to innovate radically within it. Seeing, in Simon’s documentary, the directing candidates forced to analyze a scene, submit a dossier, step on a set and direct a dictated scene, is like watching the training of hired hands rather than original artists—people better suited to writing grant applications than scripts, better suited to following orders than creating new worlds, to playing the urbane part of a director in meetings and interviews than actually being one
I think Brody's crazy to think Susan Vernon was the hero of Love & Friendship. Even if she was the protagonist in that film there was no real room for doubt in Austen's tale or even in Stillman's adaptation of it that Lady Susan was an unusually nasty piece of work.
But then it seemed last year The New Yorker staff spent the whole year telling their readership to vote for Clinton and then spent months doing book-of-the-month blurbs about books that supposedly predicted the rise of Trump. For the mainstream fourth estate to have botched predicting an outcome so badly it can sometimes seem as though what we'll lose if we lose the freedom of the press will be sadly negligible. What if the critics themselves are susceptible to those vices of the life of the mind they regret to document in the artists of our era?
Sure, we're losing arts critics left and right ...
Cultural criticism is a form of journalism—odd journalism, but journalism nonetheless. The Times film critic A. O. Scott mounted a vibrant defense of this sour science in his recent book “Better Living Through Criticism.” He writes, “As consumers of culture, we are lulled into passivity or, at best, prodded toward a state of pseudo-semi-self-awareness, encouraged either toward the defensive group identity of fanhood or a shallow, half-ironic eclecticism.” The role of the critic, Scott says, is to resist the manufactured consensus—to interrogate the successful, to exalt the unknown, to argue for ambiguity and complexity. Virgil Thomson immortally defined criticism as “the only antidote we have to paid publicity.”
But, bah. The role of the mainstream critic at an established publication is to manufacture the consensus.
Maybe people in the smaller-scale press have a chance at formulating counter-consensus or whatever you want to call that, but once you're writing for The New Yorker or a similarly large-scale prestige publication your work is what establishes the consensus in critical terms. Yes, yes, critics can dissent that Michael Bay's movies make so much money and that we're on a fifth Transformers film now. Sure, there can be requisite complaints about how Disney keeps raiding the vaults to remake stuff and who's going to complain that much that Emma Watson is Belle now? We've got ourselves a live-action remake of Ghost in the Shell coming along ... which I might end up watching out of curiosity in spite of the fact that I have thought since day one of the original anime release it was a seriously over-hyped film. There are good reasons Oshii is not as famous as Hayao Miyazaki is here in the West or even in Japan.
Besides, Thomson's bromide forgets that an antidote to paid publicity is exceptionally bad word-of-mouth.
Critics may tell themselves their role is to stand athwart popularity shouting "stop!" but that seems too self-aggrandizing an approach. I've been less than impressed by the A. O. Scott variation of criticism as the art of the voice stuff. I'm one of those dour Calvinist Presbyterian types so whether I'm reading a Presbyterian or a Marxist I do appreciate that both of these sorts of people care about what the content of the art work is. I might disagree utterly with Adorno on jazz but I don't begrudge Adorno's concern that whatever art proposes to address should have something to do with truth. Ironically Francis Schaeffer would have argued ore or less the same thing.
If anything its the critics who are most likely to be champions of a shallow, half-ironic eclecticism. People who are purists about punk or rap or country or blues or mid-century jazz or Baroque music are not necessarily going to be demonstrating the kind of "shallow, half-ironic eclecticism" that could be easily displayed by a critic. I'm not necessarily suggesting Alex Ross has that kind of problem. Anybody who stumps for the sacred choral music of Frank Martin can't be all bad in my book. :) Frank Martin's Mass for double chorus is one of the gems of 20th century Christian liturgical music as far as I'm concerned. But in a way critics like Ross and Scott may still paradoxically exemplify the kind of problem they write about.
Maybe the theme here is that as with artists themselves so it may be with critics, that we may have an era of kleinmeister critics riffing on kleinmeister artists.
I know that Ross and Brody write for The New Yorker and all but ... when peeps at that magazine have moments of almost Spenglerian doubt about contemporary Western arts ...