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Chris Tookey: Let’s hear it for good, honest critics – they’re an endangered species

Emily Richard and Roger Rees and the cast of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby in 1980. Photo: Reg Wilson Susan Littler and Roger Rees in The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby in 1980. Photo: Reg Wilson
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Reviewing may seem to be in rude health but the art of criticism is under threat, says arts critic Chris Tookey. It is time to fight for criticism that is sensitive, informed and, most importantly, honest

One of the most popular, smug and inane observations of the last few years is “everyone’s a critic”. Looked at superficially, criticism is in rude health. There is a huge amount of it, and it’s more available than ever. Just turn on your computer. On subjects from films to food, hotels to video games, music to theatre, art exhibitions to zoos, reviews are everywhere. There is, of course, an awful lot to be said in favour of increasing the range of people who criticise. There is no reason why reviewing should be the preserve of a metropolitan, white, male elite, as it has been in the past – though let’s not exclude metropolitan white males, who should be allowed their voices as well.

Look deeper, though, and the news is far from good. Most professional critics of the arts, especially in America and the UK, will tell you (truthfully) that paid reviewing is under threat.

Editors are culling most – sometimes all – of their best critics. Especially on the internet but also in newspapers and magazines, there’s more bad criticism than ever before – needlessly rude, ill-judged, poorly expressed or bigoted, and sometimes all four.

Corruption in the field of reviewing is rife. Bad is driving out good

Some ‘reviews’ are not reviews at all, but paid-for marketing tools or uncritical hagiography by friends and relations of the artist (and sometimes by the artists themselves). Corruption in the field of reviewing is rife. Bad is driving out good.

Even in such havens of free speech as Western Europe and America, the story of criticism over the last few years has been a shocking tale of sackings, corruption, suicides, murders and editorial stupidity. Good, honest critics are an endangered species.

In our universities, ‘critical theory’ has disgraced real criticism, by seeking to place the critic above other creators, and viewing all creation through a prism laid down by hard-left dogma, based on race, gender or environmental activism.

Emanating from universities and academic publishing is an unappetising aroma of intellectual snobbery, assuming that structuralism (or whatever doctrine is currently fashionable) is the only way to look at art.

In the wonderfully simple world of critical theory, the villains of our age are authority, capitalism, Christianity, conservatism, convention, ethnocentrism, the family, global warming, heredity, hierarchy, loyalty, morality, nationalism, patriarchy, patriotism, sexual restraint and tradition. Any cultural artefact that contains any of these things is quite simply wrong.

This leads to ‘clubland reviewing’, the kind of criticism that reflects little more than the writer’s anxiety to belong to a like-minded association of reviewers.

One of my purposes in writing Better Criticism: 10 Commandments for a Dying Art is to do something that has not been attempted before. I want to praise and encourage good criticism that comes from a multiplicity of standpoints – criticism that is sensitive, informed, entertaining, useful and (above all) honest.

Good theatrical criticism, in particular, captures a moment that’s unique and would otherwise be fleeting. When asked what his role was as a critic, Kenneth Tynan once replied that it was “to give permanence to something impermanent”.

When I go to the theatre these days, however, I feel depressingly often that the critics have seen a different show from the one that I’ve been watching. It seems to me that many critics write not in order to express their own opinions but to join a club to which they wish to belong: a metropolitan elite handing down whatever opinions are currently popular or fashionable.

Breadth of perspective is usually an asset in a critic. However, reviewers who bring too much ‘baggage’ to a piece of art may end up missing the strengths of the work that is before them.

The original, 1980 production of Nicholas Nickleby by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Aldwych Theatre was a case in point. I well remember attending previews and joining in the standing ovations for Trevor Nunn and John Caird’s wonderful production. Had I been a critic – at the time I was a director in television – I would have written of it in glowing terms. So I was appalled at the notices it received.

The critics en masse condemned it as a literary piece that should never have been adapted for the subsidised theatre, and chose to ignore the production’s bravura theatricality.

There was a deeper, political explanation for their perversity. As all the critics knew, the production had come about because of a lack of funds for the Royal Shakespeare Company. The RSC had been faced with a drastic cut in Arts Council funding. Instead of putting on two or three new productions in London in 1980, Nunn decided to put all the company’s available resources into one spectacular production.

To Nunn’s understandable dismay, the national critics chose to use the opening of Nicholas Nickleby not to review the show in front of them, but to bash the government for failing to support the arts financially.

Enthusiastic word of mouth from members of the audience and former theatre critic Bernard Levin’s passionate defence of it in his Times column turned Nickleby into the greatest commercial (and, in the end, critical) stage success of the 1980s.

Of course, critics should be subjective: they can hardly be anything else. But they should not only find fault, they should commend and celebrate, when they can.

Good critics and their readers are exactly the opposite of the passive consumers that many in positions of power and influence would like us to become.

Despite the low reputation of criticism and the poor quality of too many of its practitioners, it is a noble calling

In the relative safety of Britain and America, it’s easy to be complacent about freedom of speech. But dissent is unpopular in all authoritarian societies, and in many of them speaking out is punishable by persecution, imprisonment and execution.

Despite the low reputation of criticism and the poor quality of too many of its practitioners, it is a noble calling; and we – especially those of us in the West – have become far too complacent and sluggish when it comes to recognising its importance.

Better Criticism: 10 Commandments for a Dying Art by Chris Tookey is published by Arena Books on October 3

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