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Reconsider Me, Baby

By Scott Smith in News on Nov 27, 2006 3:30PM

2006_11_oldladyyoungwoman.jpgThough there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary, Chicagoist reserves Sunday mornings for the sacred, rather than the profane. Our rituals alternate between sleeping and reading or kneeling and praying.

This Sunday was the former, as we tucked into a fantastic series of articles in the Tribune’s Arts section wherein its critics reconsiders an earlier review he or she wrote. Only the most self-aware reviewers will admit that criticism has as much to do with the critic, as it does the art. Howard Reich tidily sums this up with his reasoning of a reconsideration of jazz singer Ann Hampton Callaway: “The reason, I believe, has a great deal to do with Callaway’s evolution, and my own.”

The Trib series exposes this dirty little secret in several enlightening pieces on the nature of criticism.

In writing about the rehabbed Symphony Center, John von Rhein states “there is no such thing as a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ review – only a subjective response to a given performance of a given work on a given date, usually written on deadline.” Greg Kot further elaborates by describing a review on deadline as a jazz solo: “You get one take, no overdubs, and every mistake you make is going to be audible.”

In criticism, Chicagoist often measures what the artist is trying to do versus what he or she achieves. It’s a sentiment we’ve seen reflected in Roger Ebert’s writing, but it can, at times, be a flawed yardstick, as understanding what’s in an artist’s mind, using only the work on display, is as speculative as anything else in criticism. It’s why we’ve occasionally used different voices in reviewing the same works in an effort to offer a more complete view.

Some works of art are static and it is the critic’s perception that changes over time. But one could make an argument that art often reflects the period in which it was created so the revisionist views of the Trib’s film, music and architecture critics suggest that perhaps art is not so static after all.

Judging a work that is as much text as subtext, or a career that will transform through growth, is a trickier business with theatrical works, food, television and an artist’s oeuvre being particularly subject to evolution. Moreover, movie critic Michael Phillips notes that it is a fool’s errand to tie commercial success to artistic performance and such speculation has no place in criticism.

All in all, it’s an insightful look at the process, though one that’s best read over coffee and jazz records as the Sunday morning sun peeks through your window. But perhaps we’ll feel differently about that a few months from now.