A Critic at Large, Part I

GUEST: Edward Rothstein
AIR DATE: 01/21/2011
VTR: 09/21/2011

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

And just a quarter century ago the professional assignments of the guest journalist sitting at this table then elicited an introduction from me filled with admiration and more than a bit tinged with envy.

So it is today.

Then, of course, it was the New York Times’ Daniel Goleman, whose “beat” was the behavioral sciences and who reported regularly on some of the most interesting psychological themes one could imagine … from the uses and misuses of memory to individuals’ changing patterns of personality to the roles that aging and a growing sense of our mortality play in diminishing our anxieties in middle age.

Well, now my guest is the New York Times’ Cultural Critic-at-Large Edward Rothstein, whose “beat” strenuously but happily is ideas and the arts, museums and notions about war and slavery and justice and religion and all those wonderful things that make one envy Mr. Rothstein his journalistic tasks.

My guest is very well prepared academically for his assignment, to be sure…as he was for his previous position as Chief Music Critic of the Times.

A graduate of Yale, he holds a doctorate from the famed Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, has done graduate work in mathematics at Brandeis, and earned a Master’s Degree in English literature from Columbia University.

In short, ideas seem all to be grist for my guest’s mill. And as I thought, Mr. Rothstein about how I was going to begin our program today, I wondered, “How do I select from all of those essays that you’ve written over the years, packed with interesting ideas and I picked ‘Connections, Myths About Genius. Does Genius Exist’?”.

And you wrote here, “Genius has been judged to be little more than a product of good marketing or good politicking. It has been seen as a form of intellectual imperialism”.

How do you see it? How do you see it as you write about all the geniuses you’ve covered?

ROTHSTEIN: Well, I think there was in the Academy, in particular, for a while, a tendency to think of the idea of human greatness as some sort of “put-on” as if this was something that was being sort of ideologically sold to those of us who didn’t know better.

And your great human figures, whoever they may be in whatever field, there certainly is a tendency to idolize and to eliminate the sort of “feet of clay” that even the greatest of people have.

But this always seemed to me really to miss the … it, it’s an inescapable feeling when you come in contact a mind or an achievement that is of a different order.

Not a matter of oh, you know, there’s this … there’s this famous line that Johan Sebastian Bach apparently said, or is reported to have said, that, you know … “Anybody who worked as hard as I had would be able to do the same thing.”

Now, I mean this … to me this sort of just shows his genius that at a certain point he didn’t think, he didn’t think that this was something that was of another order.

But it’s so clearly a matter or not just working hard. It’s … it requires working hard, it requires that 90% perspiration and, and … but the nature of the achievement is so objectively overwhelming that I think it, it needs to be recognized for what its, that there is a phenomenon that, that we should recognize, assess, judge, put in context, all the rest … but also have great respect for.

HEFFNER: Does that put you even more in awe of many of the geniuses you’ve dealt with in your writings?

ROTHSTEIN: Well, I … yes, actually … I mean it’s … you know … I … there is a certain point where you sort of come to understand say a particular figure or a piece of music, or a composer or a novel, or whatever it is … an argument or an insight … and it changes the way you see the world, the way you perceive other things … that this way of putting things together may be, may have a … debts to many other kinds of influences, but something about the particular simplicity and elegance and concentration of this expression is so powerful, that you find that other things that you experience are felt in … as if it’s being seen through the eyes of this work or this achievement.

HEFFNER: What does it do to you to be a … I was going to say to play the role of … but you don’t play the role of critic, you are a critic. What, what over the years do you feel has changed in you because of this … these assignments.

ROTHSTEIN: Well, I think … it’s a little bit strange, actually, that in some ways I became a newspaper critic.

HEFFNER: Why?

ROTHSTEIN: Ahemm, I guess because maybe connected a little bit to what I was just describing about this sort of sense that … of, I guess, intellectual awe that I have with respect to sort of works of genius, that I feel that there is something about them first that is of such a different level and nature than the things we come in contact with every day. That’s it’s very hard, that you can’t review and write about daily life always having these as the sort of archetypes and modes of what things should be.

You don’t review a play and say, “Well, it’s, it’s not King Lear”. You don’t listen to a new composition and say, “Well, it’s not Beethoven”. And yet those models have to always be there in your mind as a critic because there is a great tendency when you’re doing daily journalism, a daily criticism, a weekly criticism, to start to think that … you lose the bigger perspective and your memory sort of becomes constrained by your constant sort of feeding input of experience of contemporary life.

And you start to say, “Well, this is not bad, this is pretty good because … you know … I’ve been … for six months I’ve been going around to X, Y or Z and I’ve seen all these different things and this stands up pretty well, and it’s not bad.

And then you step back and say, “Now wait a minute what about … if I look … take a bigger perspective and I look at things that have gone on in the last 50 or a 100 years, or take an even bigger perspective and say, What about the … what’s my … what, what are my standards here, what am I using for judgment?”

And I think it’s too easy to, veer in either direction … that is to say, Well, you look at the ancient Greeks and that becomes the sort of model for everything. Or you say, you know, anything that is sort of a popular hit and something that’s in popular culture right now that seems so vital, that becomes the standard or that there’s no distinction to be made between them.

So these are all, sort of, I think critical traps in a way that it, it’s very easy just in the force of experience to get into … and I, I think what I try to do is to somehow keep in mind, even in the midst of enthusiasm for current things, something of this sense of scale. And that’s, that’s very difficult to do.

HEFFNER: Well, you say you try to keep in mind something of the sense (clears throat) … excuse me … of scale. Do you have an obligation as a critic to communicate to your readers what that scale is?

ROTHSTEIN: I think so, or I think it sometimes can come off implicitly in, in the way in which you write about something or express something.

That is you, you can be extremely enthusiastic, but use words that indicate that what you’re … that your enthusiasm is of a certain kind.

I’m trying … let me think of an example. I mean I’ve heard … let, let me take a musical performance. I’ve heard performances where at … when I was doing daily criticism … where I just did not even want to take notes. I didn’t want to think, I was just totally mesmerized intellectually, emotionally, on every level, by what was being performed.

And those performances are very rare. And, and … and actually it’s rare in any art … to come across something like that. And when I’ve written about those experiences I want to make sure that it’s clear both that it’s rare and that this is in someway a touchstone, that this is, after all, what everybody is sort … who’s experienced it … sort of yearns for, or strains at or hopes to find.

And that the pleasures of sort of daily cultural life or intellectual life are one thing and this is something else. And it’s good to keep those things … it’s good to keep both in mind.

HEFFNER: Well, you know, I went back … you’ll forgive me if I went beyond the New York Times and I’ll talk about another essay you wrote for a non-New York Times publication.

But this, of course, was about you and it was from the University of Chicago, talking … the title was “Everybody’s A Critic” and this was about you.

And the section on being a critic quotes you, “I don’t know too many critics who go out for team sports,” Rothstein confessed in a 1998 Slate electronic journal entry.

“We spend too much time determined to figure out everything for ourselves”, talking about you critics, “shunning the dangers of group think, opposing the forces of fashion, the pressures of indebtedness, the obsequies of fandom.

“Whatever drummer this critic mass marches to, it is not often compatible with notions of team work, self-sacrifice and submission to the will of a coach.

“We march to the spastic beats of self-conscious individualism, a perverse conformity”. You bragging about that?

ROTHSTEIN: Hmmm.

HEFFNER: There you are …

ROTHSTEIN: Well I …

HEFFNER: … off by yourself.

ROTHSTEIN: (Laugh) Yeah. You know there was a, there was an essay that Hal Rosenberg the art critic wrote, probably about 60 years ago, called us, I think “the herd of independent minds”. In my more cynical moments this is what I think of that, that … in a way … takes the culture of criticism is this, these independent minds sort of struggling to work things out on their own.

You know, don’t tell me about what X, Y or Z is … or what so and so said, you know, it’s up to me to come to this assessment or judgment.

And you have hundreds of people saying exactly this same thing. And what’s sometimes surprising is how, how this, I think, urge toward independent individualism, ends up creating its own kind of conformity and its own kind of … set of manners …

HEFFNER: The herd.

ROTHSTEIN: Yes. And, and, and again I’m talking about a struggle that, I think every critic must or probably does go through in … over time … that is how, how exactly am I defining what I like or don’t like or how I react to things? And what is it that I’m missing because … this is a very idiosyncratic way of viewing the world. That is to say, nothing else, no other opinions are going to be as important as, as mine. And that I am marking out a sort of independent path.

I mean the … we would have no sort of notion of community, no social structures, no … no sense of nation or of, of larger purpose, if, if this were really the rule by which people sort of operated.

HEFFNER: But isn’t it … for the critics?

ROTHSTEIN: And it is, it is for the critics and I think it can sometimes lead to this … a pride that is maybe overdone and an insensitivity to other ways of seeing things.

HEFFNER: What about the power that goes with that pride?

ROTHSTEIN: Ahemm, the best thing I can say about this is that The Times has a tremendous amount of power still … not as much as I think it once did … in, in the sort of cultural world because there are now so many different … I mean there was a period when a review from The Times would be of a performer or of a play … could be … could essentially make or break somebody or something.

And when I was starting out as a young music critic I would spend many nights in then Carnegie Recital Hall listening to debut artists play for perhaps several dozen audience members … many of them probably members of the family.

And the purpose of the debut recital was to, essentially, get a review in to The New York Times and this review would then be used as a sort of chit in somebody’s career for an academic position or for students or for another booking or something like this.

So The Times review had this tremendous impact on individual careers. Now that still goes on, but The Times is part of this larger sort of cultural world, it’s not just the Internet and television, etc.

But I don’t think that sort of power still exists. At the same time there are certain things that working for The Times does, that confers an amount of power that very few other publications have the power to do.

And in certain areas that can be quite strong, so that you can become very used to saying, “Ah, this is Edward Rothstein from The Times, can I see X, Y or Z in the next two days. Or I need this and this material”, and it will appear and doors will open.

And the fallacy is in thinking that this is some way a sort of personal power. I mean it’s personal … not … but it, it’s really the institutional power being sort of fed through the individual person.

HEFFNER: Doors open.

ROTHSTEIN: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: But doors close, too.

ROTHSTEIN: Oh, yes.

HEFFNER: Not on The Times, but because of The Times. Have you … have you ever been concerned about that kind of power that you wield, you and your colleagues?

ROTHSTEIN: I think in the … at the moment of writing or thinking about this, the only thing you can do in order to function is to ignore it. And, and to just try to be as honest and knowledgeable as possible about whatever you’re discussing or looking into. Because otherwise you are so in danger of second guessing or modifying or contorting what you say that it, that you end up sort of ruining your act of criticism.

But I mean there are ways in which because something’s is in The Times where it might not be seen as clearly also, that where it might be … I mean there’s a way in which we read newspapers where we pay less attention to certain aspects of something and more attention to others. Or the context of the newspaper creates the ways in which we understand or read.

So it’s possible, too, that this power of The Times can end up clouding some points that you want to make because they’re not … they can’t stand apart from that newspaper context. I’m not sure I’m being clear about this.

HEFFNER: This I don’t quite understand. I think immediately of … oh, I think of Frank Rich when he was a drama critic and of, I kept hearing about the enormous power and kept regretting so many times as much as I came to enjoy him when he left that position and wrote his more general columns for The Times.

I remember a play … what was it … All Good Men … or … it was a play that my friend David Brown was involved with and I remember going to see it opening night and loving it, thinking it was wonderful. And Frank Rich killed it.

ROTHSTEIN: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: He didn’t totally kill it because David and his fellow producers were able to buy space in The New York Times for ads …

ROTHSTEIN: Mmmm.

HEFFNER: … over a considerable period of time. And it got people to go and then …

ROTHSTEIN: Word of mouth.

HEFFNER: Yeah. Now it’s that kind of power. Do you think The Times still has it?

ROTHSTEIN: I don’t think so.

HEFFNER: Because you can turn elsewhere so quickly …

ROTHSTEIN: Yes. And because there are so, so many that the, the sort of newspaper review isn’t, isn’t as supreme as it once was as a sort of marketing tool. That it’s … I mean I don’t want to go too far in that direction, either, because it … obviously there’s still tremendous power in the institution and in, in the way it’s read.

And the assumptions that it, that it presents which is, “Look we have some fantastic writers, we have readers who are intelligent and eager to understand. And there’s a sort of synergy here that is really remarkable, I mean … and I, I remember in being a music critic being struck by … if you go to a concert, a classical concert in Carnegie Hall, say … 99% of the people sitting in that hall will look for The Times review of that concert.

This is not true if you went to a, a Nicks game … this would not be true if you went to … even … well, let’s say a rock concert or it wouldn’t be true, necessarily, even of an art gallery opening. It would be less where there’s a different kind of sort of professional review association.

HEFFNER: How about the people associated with the reviews you write … of museums, of themes, or religion … ah … whatever.

ROTHSTEIN: Well, let’s say if I’m … I review a lot of exhibitions now or new museums … and I think … there … I don’t … there are not a lot of critics who do what I do as far as museums are concerned. I think there’s no other critic in, in newspapers now that has a beat like this. And that’s thanks to The Times sort of deciding that this would be something interesting to, to do.

So, in a sense the … in many of these places that I go to, the only piece of non-sort-of-feature or non-background writing that takes place … the only piece of critical writing may end up being The Times review. I’m not certain about this since it’s not true of the really major openings and events.

But, I don’t … and I know that from having heard from exhibition people that if I’ve written a very positive review of an exhibition that certain kinds of exhibitions can find lines around the block afterwards.

But that that … this is still a matter of like, well what kind of exhibition is it or what kind of event. For example, let’s say when … probably five years ago or so … this, this … let me give you an example from the other end … I … one of the most … I think one of the worst new museums that I have seen in … was the American Indian Museum in Washington.

HEFFNER: MmmHmm.

ROTHSTEIN: And I just thought everything about it was sort of intellectually … sort of weak and dishonest and sort of manipulative. And I was kind of shocked about this and I said so in a couple of essays.

Now this has, this is fine … it’s not going to change the fact that that building is there, that hundreds of thousands of people go and that many people end up liking it. So that kind of negative reaction … the only thing I can hope is that the argument that I’m making about this will cause somebody to think about …

HEFFNER: The next …

ROTHSTEIN: … well, yeah, the next time, or modifying something, if they’re convinced that I’m right or it I’m, if I’m not then maybe somebody will try to convince me.

HEFFNER: Well, what about the positive …

ROTHSTEIN: But the, the positive things … there are, there are really gems of exhibitions that might be overlooked that I try to cover. And there I know … and I’m trying to think of a particular example … a couple of years ago at Sotheby’s there was a display of the Hebrew book collection of a particular collector in England which was one of the great world collections of seven centuries of Hebrew printing.

And it was really a remarkable thing and I, I wrote about it in, in the paper. And it was not a kind of exhibition, like in a typical museum … it was … the idea was Sotheby’s was trying to sell this to a major institution or a major collector.

But it was on display, publicly, free for a week. And after my review there were lines to go see it. Because this was something that was where my sort of description of it, or evaluation of it was apparently convincing enough to enough people so that it, it just made it an event.

HEFFNER: What about the …

ROTHSTEIN: But it …

HEFFNER: Yeah, I’m sorry I didn’t mean to interrupt.

ROTHSTEIN: But … so, there, there are some things where I, I know things matter and other things where it won’t matter. But my own sort of intention in writing still stays about the same.

HEFFNER: What about the response to you in the, in the paper or at the paper … the “Dear Sir, You cur … “

ROTHSTEIN: Oh, yes.

HEFFNER: … sort of things.

ROTHSTEIN: I tend to get … it is very difficult for me, sometimes to predict what our … what kind of response or what pieces are going to touch a nerve that will lead to responses.

Sometimes something will be posted on the web and I’ll be deluged with letters, almost immediately. Sometimes I, I will think I wrote something that was good or important and it disappears into the ether.

It’s … so since it’s impossible for me to predict, I try not to pay that much attention to it.

HEFFNER: Well, you know I, I there is so much … our, our time is just about up, there’s so much more that I want to ask you about … so many of these exhibits … I, I think of what you wrote about slavery. And the response to it … one letter of which I, I saw that I hope you’ll stay where you are, let us complete this program and then do another one. Okay?

ROTHSTEIN: Be happy to.

HEFFNER: Good. Thank you so much for joining me on this program, Ed Rothstein.

ROTHSTEIN: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

And do visit the Open Mind website at www.theopenmind.tv

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.

Produced by THIRTEEN    ©2014 WNET, All Rights Reserved.