What the critic said

9 July 2010 | Letter from the Editors

Illustration by Joan Barrás

Illustration by Joan Barrás

‘Pay no attention to what the critics say. A statue has never been erected in honour of a critic,’ said the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius.

No, probably not; but people still read what the critics write – and, sometimes, also what they wrote fifty or a hundred years ago.

An annual list of professions most highly valued by the public in Finland is always headed by surgeons. Shepherds generally feature at the bottom of the list. But critics fare none too well, either – a couple of years ago they were ranked between butchers and gravediggers. Which, of course, can be interpreted, in metaphorical terms, either as hilarious or tragicomical.

Things are not going too well for critics the world over: the position of traditional newspaper criticism is weakening as the column inches of the arts sections shrink and social media offer everyone who wishes the opportunity to be a ‘critic’. For example, the showbusiness magazine Variety recently fired its theatre and film critics. Who needs professional critics?

Theatres, for example, now prefer to quote comments from the public, not critics, on their websites; and no wonder, because in those comments details glisten, sparkle and dazzle like the shelves in a bathroom accessory shop: everything and anything is just brilliant, absolutely great, wonderful, super. But what did the performance mean? What was its issue, context, artistic, ethic, political value? Was everything really brilliant, super?

In the case of the theatre, what is left of this ethereal art form after the curtain finally falls? Personal memories, photographs, the odd video recording perhaps – and thus far, reviews in the media. The revered theatre critic of the UK’s Guardian newspaper, Michael Billington, pondering why critics matter, quotes (in the paper’s ‘Critic’s notebook) a Shakespeare professor: what the critics provide is ‘a hedge against amnesia for the next generation.’ Theatre criticism is written by people who specialise in the art and its meaning in society.

It is, incidentally, highly debatable whether a professional critic needs to ‘love’ the theatre – but he/she should love writing about it, because it’s his/her profession. Just as actors should love acting and singers singing, right?

Another quote, from the US newspaper Today: ‘Why should people listen to the 2000-word opinion of a film scholar and historian with years of experience when they can find out about “Lars and the Real Girl” from a high school geek writing on an iPhone?’

Yea, that’s the question. But surely there isn’t anyone truly interested in the arts – literature, cinema, theatre, fine arts or music – who doesn’t enjoy reading a well-written review – by a pro who can write. Simply: a review written with personal commitment, perception and passion is a joy to read.

And if I subscribe to a newspaper, on paper or online, I expect to get what I pay for: stuff thought out and written by professionals, whether about politics, society or culture.The British (Academy Award-winning) dramatist Christopher Hampton once said, ‘Asking a working writer what he thinks about critics is like asking a lamp post how it feels about dogs.’

This quote seems also to be attributed to Hampton’s colleague John Osborne – they both were arrogant young men of the theatre some fifty years ago. But largely thanks to their barking, leg-lifting contemporary critics, they’ve received plenty of fame, praise (available to posterity in the media archives) and awards. A good critic’s nose works, no matter how dimly the light shines.

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