“Critics are an endangered species”

Mark Shenton
Mark is associate editor of The Stage, as well as joint lead critic. He has written regularly for The Stage since 2005, including 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.