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Andrew Haydon: How the decline of criticism led to the rise of Trump

There’s a very fine, sensible new report on the Columbia Journalism Review website entitled: Curtains Fall on Arts Critics at Newspapers [1].

Reading its account of the decline of serious print arts journalism in the US while surrounded by the tempest of global current affairs, it might be tempting to infer that the decline of staff jobs for theatre critics in the US is somehow linked to the apparently irresistible rise of Donald Trump – the timelines match up with worrying ease – and the piece concludes: “While huge swaths of our culture ignores art in favour of celebrity culture, politics and sports, art matters as much as ever. Newspapers should be championing these agents of change… not hiding from them, not pretending they don’t matter or don’t exist.”

Now, it would take a solipsist far more monstrous than me to believe there could be any direct correlation between this decline of newspaper arts coverage and Trump’s election victory. But a realistic argument for there being a correlation might run like this: newspapers have been in steep decline since before the financial crash of 2008, thanks largely to the advent of the internet. Newspapers, being businesses, have worked tirelessly to streamline themselves – divesting themselves of as much expensive, non-core ballast in order to stay afloat. Cultural criticism has always been a primary ‘soft target’ in such situations (in the same way that local councils will cut their theatre funding to zero before even looking at other services).

In this way, we might argue that the decline of certain old-fashioned institutions, certainties, and perhaps even reverence, contributed to his victory, and one could imagine – perhaps not entirely unconvincingly – that, though entirely peripheral, newspaper theatre criticism serves as a kind of ornate bellwether; a curlicued canary in the mineshaft of this cultural life.

Now, as someone who has, at most, worked on the peripheries of newspaper criticism, and often against it – having been based largely online, on blogs and in online-only theatre magazines – I tend to resent this sort of argument.

Newspapers are not the only place where informed theatre criticism can be found. And, while I argued against the narrative of “the rise of the amateur”, which suggested that the internet was nowt but barbarous wasteland, I also deplore Michael Gove and his “Britain’s had enough of experts” claim. (One lot of reactionaries preaching “fear the amateur”, another lot preaching “mistrust the expert”. What is even left?)

In passing, then, it is worth restating: the theatre blogosphere did not cause the decline in staff jobs in newspaper criticism. The newspaper industry was already in decline by the time the technology arrived that allowed for an alternative.

There might be some who equate the rise in theatre blogging with the current moral panic over ‘fake news’. But for me, the idea that fake news is new at all requires a remarkably short cultural memory. What was the National Enquirer, after all? Does nobody else remember Fox News during the ‘war on terror’? What is the entire tabloid press, if not rabidly partisan wranglers of distortion and untruth?

By contrast, for what very little it’s worth, theatre criticism tends – if nothing else – to be honest. From the lowliest, most badly written newspaper review, all the way up to the most articulate, learned blogs (and vice versa), you do at least get the impression that critics are trying to tell you the truth as they understand it. Which brings us to another important part of this argument.

The real winner of the US election (and indeed, the Leave vote in the UK before it) is the narrative that poor white folks outside cities had had enough of a liberal, metropolitan elite.

In a way, it’s the ultimate victor on both ‘right’ and ‘left’ (as was) of the political spectrum. The majority of people on both sides appear to have assented to the ‘truth’ of this story, regardless of nuance or even accuracy.

This version of events tends to put both theatre and theatre criticism squarely in the camp of the privileged, cosmopolitan, metropolitan, liberal elite, which then makes it impossible for either theatre or theatre criticism to say anything about these new ‘anti-elitists’.

Of course, like any construction of reality this binary, it is at best a ludicrous simplification, and at worst a gross distortion. It might be how the leaders of these populist, right-wing movements like to see themselves, but since both are millionaires drawn from modestly (Nigel Farage) or wildly (Trump) wealthy backgrounds, with the staunch support of the same, it is a narrative that needs urgent debunking.

And this work of deconstructing a narrative is precisely the work of the critic. In fact, it’s almost tempting to suggest that it’s a shame the papers let their theatre critics go at precisely the moment when their skills might have been most usefully redeployed.

Nevertheless, that is where theatre and the arts find themselves now; painted into a corner where their own critiques of the elitism of those in power is first met with charges of hypocrisy. If nothing else, you have to admire the tactical brilliance of such a manoeuvre. And, of course, it’s not a charge without some basis in reality; there is more theatre in urban centres than in towns or villages, and an almost absurd concentration of critics in the capital – although I would argue this is more a by-product of the economic circumstances in which theatre (and, by extension, criticism) are created than a conscious choice. Much less is it an immutable, unchangeable, irreversible reality.

After all, if there’s one useful lesson to be learnt from the victory of Trump, it is perhaps this: just how far you can get with the power of bald assertion and fiction – which are nothing if not the twin pillars on which theatre is also founded. And, instead of being surrounded by a self-interested media circus – one that often looks like its ultimate aim is only its own perpetuation rather than serious interrogation – theatre gets theatre criticism, which at its best is generous, supplementary, considered and engaging.

Next month, fellow contributor to The Stage Catherine Love and I are setting up a new, free, open-access course on writing about performance, in Manchester. Sometimes, looking at the state of the world, and at the shrinking job market for bright, new, critical voices, it’s difficult to remember why. Our hope, though, is that such a scheme will encourage a new wave of critical voices, from as wide a range of backgrounds as possible, whose perspectives will be crucial in the ongoing fight to keep informed analysis at the heart of critical thinking at a time when nothing could be more necessary.

I’m not suggesting that the decline in theatre criticism in the national press has led to the rise of Trump, but the ability to work out whether to think so or not is precisely why the practice of critical thinking is valuable. Otherwise, we’ll end up with headlines like “How the decline of criticism led to the rise of Trump” for real.