Tiffany Jenkins: Bring back arbiters of taste

Punters are more likely to turn to the bloggersphere for opinions rather than the professionals
Punters are more likely to turn to the bloggersphere for opinions rather than the professionals
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WITHOUT the professional critics to convince us that what is new but unfamiliar may be brilliant, we may miss the next Beckett, Osborne or Turner.

Here we go again. Four major arts festivals, and a few extras, crammed into just over three weeks in one small city. It is impossible to walk up Princes Street without sidestepping a dance troupe; down the Royal Mile without bumping into a mime artist; or past the McEwan Hall without hearing the cackle of comics. The Edinburgh festivals have taken over.

Unlike the Olympics, however, amidst this cultural cacophony there is no clear winner. There is no gold for the best piece of theatre, silver for the almost greatest musical rendition, or bronze for an above-average choreographer. So how do we know what is better than all the rest and worthy of our attention? How can we tell if one production instead of another has triumphed or is ground-breaking?

Before you shrug that it doesn’t really matter, that everyone’s opinion counts because the arts are far more subjective than sport, I want make a case for bringing back the authority of the professional critic, spelling out how we all lose in their absence. Working out what is world class in arts isn’t a science, it isn’t something that can be timed or measured, but it is more than just a point of view.

Critics who are experienced and knowledgeable can play a role here; someone like the Australian art critic Robert Hughes, who sadly died this week.

You may quibble that there remain reviewers in the newspapers (brilliant ones in this one, of course) and on television, and various star systems and awards, but note that criticism is increasingly curtailed in the popular press, and in broadcasting. When it can be found, those enlisted to opine, more often than not, are some kind of celebrity rather than someone who has spent their life steeped in art, literature, theatre or music, constantly thinking about them, comparing them – the basis of expertise.

This makes for pundits who are unlikely to know what they are talking about and more open to the PR spin. They have plenty of views, but not many that are worth listening to. Few are like Hughes – genuinely critical and prepared to go against the grain. Hughes was never afraid to offend, to say what was unfashionable, and his acerbic commentary spoke plainly – but with elegance – to a broad audience.

Of course, critics have always been derided and disliked. “Critics are like eunuchs in a harem; they know how it’s done, they’ve seen it done every day, but they’re unable to do it themselves,” the Irish poet and playwright Brendan Behan once said.

But the derision has increased in the past few decades, threatening their very existence. The very idea of a professional critic is ridiculed as impossible, portrayed – as in The Muppets – as old, white blokes who moan a lot, and who only like “their” sort of work, imposing “their” world view on the rest of us.

While the critics of old may have been white and male, and many are now dead, they played an essential role in shaping culture. Although they are often caricatured as conservative and hostile to what is new and experimental, it is the opposite that is true. Critics have placed an important role in convincing audiences that what is new but unfamiliar can be brilliant.

Take, for example, Samuel Beckett. He was a man with so little time for criticism he once described it as “hysterectomies with a trowel”, but it was critics who meant he was taken seriously. Initial responses in the daily papers to the play Waiting for Godot were hostile. When it opened to the London stage in 1955, half the audience walked out and others booed. But when the prominent critics of the Sunday papers – people like Harold Hobson and Kenneth Tynan – praised it, the play came to be recognised as the important work that it is. They convinced people to take a second look.

Indeed, Tynan shaped the British stage, championing the new postwar realism found in plays such as John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, fanning an emerging wave of theatrical talent. Similarly, the painter William Turner won the heart of the public in part due to John Ruskin, and critical acclaim of David Garrick, the 18th-century Shakespearean actor, made him a legendary name in theatre, changing how society views and judges Shakespeare.

As the old-timers fade into obscurity, there are consequences. With the proliferation of banal opinions in their place, we see the side-lining of serious discussion. Publishers and booksellers promote a narrower range of tastes, and a smaller selection of material gets reviewed, pandering to obvious and conservative views. In that context, good art could be created without being seen and appreciated, as it just slips out of the way of our attention. We could miss the next Beckett, Osborne or Turner.

Common explanations when commenting on this trend have tended to highlight the rise of the internet and social media. But this state of affairs did not simply come about because of an online revolution. Changes in technology and communication in the past enabled artists and critics to find a new space for their art, such as the European avant-garde in the 20th century, who showed their work in new magazines, posters and print, instead of through the traditional form of the exhibition. As they did, they created a new, authoritative, space. That could be possible online.

In his book The Death of the Critic, Rónán McDonald analyses the decline of the critic, dealing not only with the bloggosphere, but also the significant influence of changes within the university since the 1960s, and the humanities in particular. He points one finger of blame at the obscurantism of some of the theorists, especially post-structuralists.

The demise of the critic has also come about, McDonald suggests, not just because of the internet, but because the academic study of the arts has become much more inward, specialised and esoteric. It has moved away from musing on aesthetic value – McDonald points to how literature departments study Jane Austin through the prism of contemporary political questions: race relations, gender and so forth, instead of asking: is it good and explaining why.

The Cambridge don F R Leavis was a leading British literary critic of the 20th century, who – like Robert Hughes – sought to reach a wide audience. They stand out in stark contrast to those academics today who only speak to each other in obscure jargon in small circulation journals, and who should leave their ivories towers, speak plainly, and converse with us. For we need professional critics and the public in dialogue. Working out what is excellent requires experts in the know and audiences in robust discussion.

The critics should be reinstated in their rightful place as arbiters of taste and we should compare our thoughts with those who have done serious, long-term work, for is not possible to define and refine our own judgment without a wider culture of criticism. There will be disagreement, of course, but that is also crucial in working out what is worth the prize of our acclaim.