Time for papers to review dying art of the critic
t’s 7.30pm last Saturday evening. Over on BBC1, millions are wallowing in the spangles of Strictly. But here on BBC2 you wonder how many are similarly glued as the professor of American Literature at London University and a former ICA director debate the wonders of the Basquiat exhibition. It’s good that Front Row has made it to television. It’s good that the arts have a weekend niche. But (as numerous critics cry) is there any fresh thinking on display? Professor Sarah Churchill and Ekow Eshun were staples of the old Friday Newsnight Review before it was axed for lack of interest. Yet where is their special expertise to judge theatre, cinema, music, art? Where is the expertise of specific professional critics?
Thus, suddenly, a much broader theme surfaces, for the role of those selfsame critics has been shrinking – and disappearing – over years. One recent American survey found staff newspaper critics have virtually ceased to exist, once you leave the east coast. Editors in a financial bind have wielded the axe of least resistance.
Critics who know their stuff have two main jobs. One, by far the most dominant, is to guide readers to what to buy tickets for, consumer advice with added sensibility. That applies to films, plays, art shows, and so on. Anything readers can go to see for themselves. The other task is to reflect knowledgeably on events that will never be precisely repeated: say a particular symphony orchestra concert. There, telling the audience who sat through it what you made of the performance and, perhaps, opening new windows on the world of Wagner or Brahms.
Both roles belong on a printed page or screen as part of a newsroom service. Both add an extra dimension that goes with a fuller life. Both are vanishing.
Chris Tookey, for many years the Daily Mail’s film critic, reflects on this phenomenon in a new book Better Criticism: Ten Commandments for a Dying Art (Arena £17.99).
“The old professional critical elite had its merits,” Tookey insists. “It was never a closed shop and became increasingly egalitarian. It did adhere to standards of justice and veracity. It was subject to quality control by editors. Though there have always been lazy or inept professional critics, most really do know a lot about the fields they cover.”
So what’s going wrong? A belief, in the internet age, that “everyone’s a critic”. A deluge of blogs that, too often, have to find advertising to exist and compromise to keep that ad stream flowing. A breed of editor-newsmen who push the arts to the peripheries of coverage. And an audience flitting back and forth across the net who don’t buy tickets in any numbers as the result of one good review. There are no butchers left on Broadway.
James Warren of the Poynter Institute expands that point. Deep “in the mix of industry decline, commercial marketing machines and social media” is the curse of celebrity. “Having sweated blood, some authors might prefer a recommendation via tweet by Taylor Swift... to praise in The New York Review of Books.” And Tookey gets equally glum when he looks at the celebrity roster of critics in Britain – “stars” such as Johnny Vaughan, Jonathan Ross and Steve Wright.
Now, of course, Tookey himself is not above criticism. His book (in description-packed Tookeyspeak) is chaotic, slightly pompous and plaintive, as well as entertaining, thoughtprovoking and a rich compendium of anecdotes. But there are absolutely solid arguments to quarry here. And the one that resounds for me is what editors themselves do in extremis.
If a film critic, say, has real value, then it’s in the build-up of recognition and trust between them and the reader. Week by week, you share the critic’s views and check them against your own cinema-going experience. One star for Mother! in the Times, five stars in the Guardian . You need trusted help to decide what to see. It’s a truly valuable service.
Yet observe how little editors value that personal relationship. Tookey tells how he’d stood up bravely against demands from on high at the Mail to condemn or laud films as required. Goodbye Chris, without a word of explanation in the paper. Exit, clutching his arts reviewer of the year award. But he is not alone, by any means.
In recent years, we’ve said abrupt goodbyes on the film front to Anthony Quinn from the Indie, Nicholas Barber from the Sindie, Cosmo Landesman from the Sunday Times, Derek Malcolm from the Evening Standard, Jenny McCartney from the Sunday Telegraph and Kate Muir from the Times. It’s a rather pointless catalogue of change. Muir, for instance, had settled in sensibly after a stiff transition from feature writing, become someone you could relate to. But then she’s gone.
Major newspapers still have the resources to develop critical mass. Their eye on the arts, day by day and week by week, adds richness and information to the mix. They have the possibility of authority that blogs or compilations in the Rotten Tomatoes style lack. They have the gift of trust – and one-to-one communication.
Maybe they can’t shift bundles of tickets any longer (though I’m not sure that applies to some food and theatre critics). But their learning, their wit and their judgment can bring something beyond the kerching of cash registers. I think that, in small but important ways, critics help civilise journalism. And, golly, they’re needed now more than ever. In the Front Row and beyond.
One star or five? Mother!, starring Jennifer Lawrence, was awarded both.