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The Jewish Ethicist: Caustic Critic

The Jewish Ethicist: Caustic Critic

Can I publish a brutally honest album review?


Q. I write music reviews for a popular magazine. Sometimes I think a disk is really crummy. Can I write my honest opinion?

A.This delicate question is faced not only by critics but at some time by virtually any columnist. The way to the ethical answer is to examine the job of the critic, and to whom he owes loyalty.

One way to examine this question is to consider a negative review a kind of slander, or damaging speech. Then we would judge it according to the usual standard for this kind of criticism: is the damaging statement necessary to obtain some constructive benefit, without resulting in undeserved harm? Here the benefit of panning the work in print would be that prospective buyers know that the album doesn't really meet your standards of quality and taste. But going overboard would cause more damage than deserved and so would be forbidden.

There is much truth in this approach, but I don't favor it because it focuses on your loyalty to the artist. In my opinion, this is not the main consideration. In most cases when a publication publishes a review of a book or album, it is based on the explicit or implicit request of the author or artist. Publishers intentionally send review copies to the largest publications, and are generally happy to provide copies to any legitimate publication which is interested in providing objective criticism. So you don't owe the performer any debt of gratitude to praise his or her output. A sincere negative review is not a "damaging statement" at all.

The responsibility of the critic is generally to the audience. It's your job to give them accurate information about the album which will help them decide if they want to buy it or listen to it. However, this doesn't absolve the critic of the obligation to be balanced and reserved. In fact, it only heightens it.

An exaggerated emphasis on the failings of any artistic creation is not only unfair to the artist; most of all it is unfair to the audience. Any work of art will have admirers and detractors; most people don't need to be warned to stay away from something they aren't enamored of. A lukewarm review will keep away most who are not "true believers"; anything more caustic will probably turn off readers who would really have enjoyed the album.

In my experience, when a reviewer writes a witty piece demolishing or ridiculing a book or performance, his main objective is to showcase his own wit and writing ability, not to provide the reader with information that will help him decide if he wants to obtain the recording.

I know that I use this as a criterion in my own writing. I have a weekly newspaper column on the topic of ethics in business and public life (in the Jerusalem Post), and not surprisingly I find no lack of what to criticize. Whenever I am particularly proud of a column, feeling that I have really done an exceptionally fine job battling the forces of evil, I know that is the time to e-mail the draft to myself instead of my editor. A second, objective look at these columns almost always convinces me that I haven't done justice to the subject, given the complex context of our ethical decisions. I may have written something witty and entertaining, but not something informative and journalistic.

Honest and informative criticism is a vital contribution to the progress of art. But caustic, one-sided criticism is virtually certain to fail to do justice to the artist and, even more importantly, to the audience.

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The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.

The Jewish Ethicist is a joint project of and the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem. To find out more about business ethics and Jewish values for the workplace, visit the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem at

October 8, 2005

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Visitor Comments: 2

(2) alice frost, October 10, 2005 12:00 AM

Helpful guidelins

Thank you, Rabbi for your helpful guidelines re criticism in print. I too am a sometimes print critic, and your comments are helpful. It's important not to be clever at the expense of the artist who has worked so hard and feels so vulnerable, as if their soul is on the line. A critic's negative comments can be devastating to the artist, and therfore should be framed in as gentle and positive a light as possible while still being constructively analytical. Critique the art, not the artist.

I think critics should have to study, produce, perform and be publically critiqued before they write about someone else's artistic product. It's easier to criticize than create.

Alice Frost

(1) Anna, October 10, 2005 12:00 AM

I agree

I agree; you mustn't mislead the public by being insincerely kind, but nor must you be gratuitously cruel. I loathe the sentimental Irish tenor kind of music, but hope I would be objective enough to say that Tenor McSaccharine was a tuneful singer etc and not that he was so syrupy that I fell into a diabetic coma*-unless he was by any standards, of course !

I hate the way that some critics think that anything they don't like must be bad. It should, surely, be possible to judge a work on merit. If a singer or band has produced an album below their usual standard, then say so by all means; I would like to know that before I handed over my money.

As someone with a cruel wit handed down through many generations of witty and articulate Irish ancestors, I have to be on my guard against making others the butt of my barbed tongue, especially in print.

Thanks again for the Ethicist's wise words.

*Or suggest that the album's producers provide insulin with every copy.

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