“Critics are an endangered species”

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Mark writes regularly for The Stage, including reviews from London and the regions, features and, since 2005, a daily online column.
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Yes, I know I'm in danger of beginning to sound like a stuck record here, but the headline to this entry aren't my words: they belong to London theatre owner and producer Nica Burns.

Nica words, which you'll also see reported in this week's Stage and The Stage online, where delivered as part of her speech to mark the launch of this year's Edinburgh Comedy Awards this week.

Among her thoughts,  she offered the following:

It seems to me an irony that in this centenary year of the Critics’ Circle, critics are an endangered species. We have seen the Independent on Sunday make all their critics redundant, we have seen the Review Show fall from BBC2 into a minor channel where the ratings have dropped. It is important that our culture is given the exposure it deserves, and it is important that it is written about and commentated on by people who really know what they are doing.

It's an irony, too, that she should also say this in Edinburgh, where at this time of year there seem to be as many people reviewing shows as putting them on. But as she also points out, though she welcomed the spread of online reviewing on blogs and social media, it should not be at the expense of professional criticism.

As she went on to say:

There seems to be an understanding from the public that if you want great news and you are sending people to Afghanistan or to cover some tragedy somewhere in the world that that costs money. But actually, becoming a really great writer and a good critic also costs time and money and we have to find a way of paying critics and totally respecting what is also an art, just as they respect ours.

That kind of respect is the kind that Ismene Brown, a dance critic and co-founder of the Arts Desk (which, as yet, doesn’t pay its contributors either) has called for in a blog on The Guardian's Culture Professional Network.

Critics, however, are finding, she writes, that

Arts organisations are contributing to the demolition. Facing grant cuts, many of them are diving in panic into social media, feverishly filtering their feeds for "Wow, amazing!!!!" times 30, rather than looking for two or three discriminating reviews that actually study the work on offer, its impact on the soul, its place among human achievements.

Appreciation means to increase the value of something. Critics do that by explaining whether an event was worth the public's time and that each of us has the right to expect much of an artist from our own point of view.

Arts organisations are not the defenders needed here; they are too self-interested. I know from interviewing creative artists that they prize a detailed review by someone they trust to know their stuff, even if they disagree with it. If honestly and intelligently provided, it's food for growth. If the professional critics have any value in this current world, that is where it lies. Let the artists defend the critics. If they don't, let the critic die.

And being picked (and kicked) off we most certainly are, genre by genre, paper by paper. In a well-argued blog a few months ago, Andrew Russeth pointed out that there are now fewer than 10 full-time art critics working at newspapers and magazines in the United States.

As he states,

What is disappearing is not the art critic—you could argue that, with the expansion of websites and social media, there are now more than ever before—but the tradition of a regularly recurring voice in a widely circulated newspaper or magazine or even alternative paper: people who have the opportunity to expose a wide variety of art to a broad audience on a continual basis.

And as one art critic Robert Pinkus who was laid off in San Diego points out about the loss of his job in a comment,

I was the art critic of the San Diego Union and then the San Diego Union-Tribune for nearly 25 years, before Platinum Equity acquired the publication in 2009 and did what equity companies are inclined to do: reduce staff radically, without regard to the relationship of writers to the community. The subsequent uproar about my dismissal and the elimination of the art critic position confirms that there is a substantial readership for the full time critic at a city's major media outlet and that when the critic practices his or her craft with integrity, the community values the role….

The role of the staff critic is unique and irreplaceable; concentrating on that role, you can cover the full panorama of what happens in a city, from the small galleries to the major museums, from the emerging to the established artist. No freelance critic will do the same. We are all culturally poorer for their disappearance from all but a few places in the United States. Journalistic publications of all kinds are struggling to reshape themselves to remain viable and dumbing down such things as visual arts coverage is not helping but hindering their relevance.

After the last full-time art critic in Chicago was laid off by that city's edition of Time Out last month, critic and journalist Deborah Solomon pointed out that critics are not easy to love.

"They are, by definition, bossy and overly opinionated", she states. But she also argues that culture is more than an Old Master painting hanging at the Frick or a black-and-white video flashing in a Chelsea gallery.

Culture is also the time we spend looking at art and talking about it. That’s where art critics come in. They care passionately. Without them, New Yorkers would probably talk about nothing but real estate.

7 Comments

  1. On the other hand, if all critics are going to do is aggregate others news stories, then that’s easily accomplished by a computer programme.

  2. I’m yet to find any computer that can form its own critial opinion based on aggregated news stories

  3. Could the Arts Councils give grants to publications to financially support a programme of published criticism?

  4. No, you are not a stuck record, this is important. The key point I think is that staffers have been able to see everything over a long period and this is invaluable and gives them an advantage over feelancers who may be only dipping in and out.

    As for the arguments from the philistine brigade along the lines of “what’s the point, as my opinion is as good as yours”, the answer is simply “no it isn’t”. There are of course bad critics out there but there are even more bad bloggers. Technology has allowed a greater plurality of voices and with that some greater diversity (but not much) and this has been welcome, but if nobody is reading them all, then who cares? It’s like the tree falling in the woods……..

    Criticism should start from a passion about the subject combined with a greater knowledge of it than the average member of the public and so this precludes newspapers who send any old duty hack to “cover” a show on an evening. Would they do that with football?

    It seems to me there are two kinds of criticism: consumer ratings (the vast majority) and old fashioned “art criticism” which is now unpopular, as if that means anything. The former is what papers and PRs want but the latter is what lasts and what is increasingly found on the better online publications rather than in newspapers, where theatre criticims is increasingly being squeezed out.

    I suspect in the long run the smarter publications will support good writing as it will attract and keep good readers and they will realise that the cacophony of rantings from blogs and comment pages is ultimately getting us nowhere.

    The challenge is how can you possibly develop the art of criticism when only those with a private income or another full time job can practice it when publications now expect content for nothing. At the risk of sounding like grumpy old man there is no other term for this other than “dumbing down”.

  5. “It’s an irony, too, that she should also say this in Edinburgh, where at this time of year there seem to be as many people reviewing shows as putting them on. But as she also points out, though she welcomed the spread of online reviewing on blogs and social media, it should not be at the expense of professional criticism.”

    Although, you’ve already written your “why I’mn not going to Edinburgh” blog. Rupert C. at the Torygraph has done likewise…

    Burns’s distinction between “professional” critics and “online” is largely meaningless (as that idiotic Arts Desk proves, since — as you rightly point out — no one there writes “professionally” even if they are “professionals” in other contexts).

    But most of all, if the “professionals” (yourself, Rupert C., many others) don’t like Edinburgh, then maybe some papers should reboot their critical stable and think about mainlining some of the excellent new blood flowing through the critical establishment (Stewart Pringle, Catherine Love, Dan Hutton, Matt Trueman, et al.). They’re all easily good enough to write for national titles…

  6. Here’s an irony that Nica Burns may not have spotted: a week or so after you reported her words in Edinburgh about the importance of critics, Mark, you yourself remarked on a social media outlet of mine, “I feel like you’ve TOTALLY vindicated my decision to avoid Edinburgh this year. Who needs the hassle? The best stuff will come to London anyway….”

  7. @Ian Shuttleworth: I wasn’t undermining the importance of critics at Edinburgh or elsewhere when I commented on your Facebook posting — I was only SUPPORTING your comment about the operational hassles of being a critic trying to do our work there, amidst the flood of other people claiming press credentials, legitimate or otherwise. The whole world seems to be a critic nowadays…..

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