Time for pa­pers to re­view dy­ing art of the critic

The Observer - - BUSINESS / MEDIA - Peter Pre­ston

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.

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