More than 40 years ago in a letter to The New York Times on the subject of book-reviewing, the cruelly astute Gore Vidal complained about the practice of "the loose putting down of opinions as though they were facts, and the treating of facts as though they were opinions." Doesn't it sound all too true, and as relevant today as it was in 1964? But is it?
Certainly some pontificate more than most, but are any such ex cathedra judgments worth the time of day outside of a cathedral? Can there always be a clear distinction between opinion and fact? Surely what may seem an indisputable fact to one person is often merely his or her opinion.
Do we not too often confuse the subjective with the objective and readily assume that our own personal taste is always nattily provided with the signature of unassailable truth? It isn't, you know. It is just your opinion, your seemingly objective view of a totally subjective fact. Why subjective? Because it is a fact not open to irrefutable proof--like say two and two equal four-although it is altogether likely that advanced mathematicians can cast doubt even on that modest proposal.
You can, say that Mozart is a greater composer than Minkus--you can offer as evidence that Mozart, for example, is more complex, makes greater demands upon one's sensibilities, and so forth. You can, and this is even more significant, suggest that the consensus of intelligent and cultivated persons has consistently supported your opinion. But when the chips are down you cannot actually prove your proposition, although, in this deliberately slanted case (after all, I wasn't comparing Debussy with Ravel, or Dvorak with Tchaikovsky), after taking careful note of that consensus, any Minkus advocate might be wise to reconsider his position.
In the arts--more than in almost anything, including gastronomy--there is still no absolute right or wrong. Many people have sought to suggest that art is a question of morality, which sounds great, but it simply isn't true. Art is a question of taste. Naturally, taste is like an irregularly conjugating verb: I have good taste, he has fair taste, you have execrable taste. But who knows, when everything is a matter of viewpoint? Taste is opinion, and opinion can so easily slide into dogma.
In recent years I have noticed in the dance audience, and even more among my estimable dance critic colleagues, what you might call a hardening of the opinion arteries. Admittedly, humility is rarely part of the critical attitude. No great harm perhaps. Remember Winston Churchill's remark, following the suggestion that his rival politician Clement Attlee was a very humble man, that he had a great deal to be humble about. But also remember that America is unfortunately one of the few countries where the term "opinionated" can be used almost as easily in praise as in blame.
An opinion is a fine thing to have, especially if it is an informed opinion, which certainly is true of most of our critics. Yet nowadays there seems to be far too hasty a rush to judgment, with opinions apparently being backed by little but opinion, as if they were self-fulfilling prophecies. I believe a critic should be--if we are moving into the court of opinion-an advocate rather than a judge. Obviously he will have views on the merits of the specific art displayed, and one hopes he will express them with some force, even more eloquence, and persuasive grace and wit. Yet not, surely, ruling out the possibility of being ... well, just a tiny, tiny bit wrong.
It is salutary to remember how often we find ourselves faced with a work of art changing our minds on second, third, or subsequent encounters. Our reactions are never east in stone, and we sometimes perceive at a later glance something we missed on a first. Here's perhaps an object lesson for critics and other opinion-wielders. When I first saw Ashton's Scenes de Ballet in 1948 and Balanchine's Nightshadow (La Sonnambula nowadays) later the same year from my seat in Covent Garden's peanut gallery, I cheerfully booed them both. Of course, I didn't start writing professionally until two years later. Thank God!
Senior Consulting Editor Clive Barnes also covers dance and theater for The New York Post.
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|Date:||Dec 1, 2005|
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