Critical Condition

Maya Angelou couldn’t write her way out of a paper bag.

Wait.  Stop!  Before you either close the browser or ponder mailing me a piece of doo doo as an anonymous present, I should tell you-- the above sentence is a quote-- and not from me.

I saw it last week while reading this obituary of the late author and activist.  I, perhaps like you, recoiled slightly from the screen in disgust.  The words certainly have more sting because Angelou is dead, but even so, I thought: “Who the hell would say such a thing… and more importantly, why?”

We live in the age of Trolls.  As Macklemore says in “Same Love” while referencing hordes of haters (and homophobes) on the web: “Have you read the YouTube comments lately?”  We hate on politicians.  Celebrities.  Movies.  Trends.  Music.  Fashion.  People will spend their precious time writing a vicious 9 page Yelp diatribe against a local restaurant.

Some of us have a love affair with hate.

Now, this post isn’t going to be the blog equivalent of a Rodney King speech or my attempt to buy the world a Coke so we can hold hands and sing in perfect harmony.  Anyone who reads my Facebook updates knows I post snarky and cutting comments frequently.  I don’t think there’s anything wrong with razzing a ripe target now and then.  But what has begun to rankle me more and more as I get older is the Professional Critic.

When I think of the job description… it’s hard to conceive of a more pathetic occupation.  Your job is to critique the art of others.  You don’t create the art.  You simply point out what you like… and what you don’t.  And the “don’t like” part is what draws us to reviews in general.  It’s why the late Roger Ebert had a best selling book called “Your Movie Sucks.”  There is a perverse pleasure we get from something getting torn apart.  I am not immune to this allure, by the way.  Speaking of Ebert, I’ve spent quite a bit of time watching old Siskel & Ebert reviews of movies I liked… or hated.  And I sometimes will deliberately read a review in Entertainment Weekly if I see the movie got a bad rating at the end of the piece.  Oh, that movie got a “D?”... I gotta read what they have to say!  It’s pop culture sadism.

Maybe the Maya Angelou slam was just too personal, or exactly not what I wanted to read in a piece that also recounted the immense challenges and tragedies she faced.  I felt provoked that someone would dare say that about this woman on the same day so many were paying tribute to her-- even though the quote was from long ago.  It was made after Angelou’s poetry recitation at Bill Clinton’s first inauguration in 1993.

The speaker was one very white, and I assume very privileged (he went to Yale) man named Harold Bloom.  As you can read in his entry on Wikipedia, the guy has a very esteemed and educated background, and has published loads of literary criticism and observation.

No difference to me.  Harold Bloom is an ass.  He knows far more than I ever will about Shakespeare and Chaucer but he doesn’t understand or appreciate Angelou, so he publicly tore her down.  I have no illusions that every piece of art should appeal to every person.  That’s ridiculous.  What gets my goat are these jerks who shit all over something because they don’t “get” it.  We hear these choruses from the professional critics over and over again.

Miles Davis is a sell out!  Bitches Brew?  That’s not jazz!

Jackson Pollock?  That guy just flicks paint on a canvas!  That’s not art!

Rap is misogynistic and violent.  There’s no melody.  That’s not music!

I saw a fantastic example of this kind of imbecilic mean spiritedness in a recent issue of Rolling Stone.  It was about the new reissues of Led Zeppelin’s first three albums.  The writer acknowledged that-- back when the first 2 records were first released-- the magazine had dismissed them as “brutal blues ham.”  


I had to go back to the source.  The nasty sarcasm that nearly oozes from the screen in the 1969 review of Led Zeppelin II is a perfect example of criticism that was so laughably off the mark that it reveals the critic to be a complete buffoon.  Imagine, being the moron who panned Led Zeppelin II?

Oops, part II.

Shut up, Critic.  Maybe it’s not for you.  Maybe you don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.  Maybe you don’t have the perspective to appreciate every creative expression.  Or maybe… now brace yourself… maybe you should try creating something of your own instead of spending your time pointing out the highs and lows of other people’s art.

I’m sure the critics themselves would be able to articulate a reasonable defense of their trade. Why it’s important, relevant and (perhaps?) an integral part of the artistic landscape.  I have embarked on a new artistic endeavor lately and have also begun to view more of my other work-- like this blog and my podcast-- as art.  I still feel pretty sheepish about proclaiming it as such.  My old mindset would say: “Well, it’s just a little podcast.  There are millions of podcasts.”  Or… “Only about 20 or so people read my blog.  It’s not the Huffington Post or anything.”

Now I am revising those views.  I put my blog and podcast out there to be consumed… and hopefully appreciated… but I mainly do it for my own gratification.  They might be small drops in the gigantic ocean of creative expression that’s out there, but they’re my drops.  My art.

Since I opened with a quote from Harold Bloom ripping on Maya Angelou (seriously: what a dick!), I want to close with one that I saw from Amy Poehler, who increasingly is impressing me as much with her web videos and aphorisms as her comedy.  

“I want to be around people that do things. I don’t want to be around people anymore that judge or talk about what people do.  I want to be around people that dream and support and do things.”

Yeah.  Me too.