Chewing up the critics

Chewing up the critics


norman lebrecht

December 07, 2009

One lunchtime last week as I masticated a lonely calory, BBC Radio 4 announced a discussion on the role of the critic. Ears pricked and finger on the button (they usually have game shows at this time), I attended with the appropriate acuity – only to find that the lineup consisted of a non-specialist critic, a book blogger and a tenured academic. I’d heard enough in ten minutes to switch off, walk upstairs and finish a book.

I’m past getting angry with the triviality of public media and would have forgotten the matter entirely had a facebook friend, a published author, not popped up later that day with a plug for the prog, triggering a discussion that drew in several well-scarred professionals. You may catch the programme here.

OK, let’s separate some issues: 

1 The crisis in criticism is not a simple equation of pro vs am. Bloggers have not usurped the role of print critic; at best – and some are pretty good – they have forced the professionals to work harder at their craft, which is no bad thing.

2 The crisis in criticism is a function of identity confusion. Who are critics? What are their standards? What should we expect of them? These criteria are rarely analysed, either in media or academia, and the result is that the critics we appoint in newspapers is often the one with the best one-liner.

3 In a shrinking media industry, critics are under increased pressures to see more, do more, think less. The resultant superficiality accelerates the existing crisis.

4 The internet demands ever-faster responses. That, too, is bad for reasoned criticism.

5 Pay for critics had dwindled to a pittance. Two UK national pay as little as £40 ($60) for a concert review. The correlation between remuneration and simians holds true.

What is needed in these circumstances is more public converasation and a great deal more clarity about the role of the professional critic. I have just kicked off a week of this kind of debate in Australia, which you can read here.

There is an inbuilt media reluctance to engage in navel gazing, a refusal to self-reflect which we justify by saying readers won’t be interested. But unless we strengthen and reinvent the critical function, an important check and balance on creative progress will be killed off and the arts future will be homogenised.

Have your say now, or lose another strand of freedom. 


  • Helen O'Brien says:

    It is rather ironic that the diatribe ‘against’ – or was it ‘for’ critics (?) – has been launched in a Melbourne newspaper. I say this not from a print media perspective but from an understanding that music aesthetics has been a strong feature of various music departments in Melbourne. Whilst in this blog you identify the first crisis as being one between print and social (online) media, I would contend that the role of print newspaper criticism has been down-graded for a considerable period into that of reviewer or previewer. The progression to social media as a promotional device has been natural and its results waiver between the useful and the insidious.
    The critics in this country (Australia) tend to emerge in specialist Journals. Perhaps this specialization is the core problem – those capable of criticism may not be able to transfer these ideas into digestible daily media. But I doubt that this is an identity problem, but one of writing skills. As an editor for an in-house association publication, ideas aside, I notice those willing to write are not necessarily the best equipped in writing skills.
    Your last 3 points, I would not dispute. Good criticism is the result of not only a willing media outlet, but of individuals who are well versed in aesthetics, especially in these days of often mangled postmodernist ideologies, who can express critical ideas as opposed to individual opinions, positively and coherently.

    “Today’s music critic is no longer a gatekeeper, but a community manager.”
    To an extent, it’s the same problem musicians face.

  • David Karlin says:

    My response in full on my blog on Bachtrack – too long to put in line here!
    The one line summary of a long article: professional critics should be able to beat the amateurs by providing well written, knowledgeable comment suitable for intelligent newspaper readers. But the jury’s out as to whether they do this well enough to support the newspapers’ commercial models.

  • JohnofOz says:

    And what will the critics say about the Opera
    Australia canning of Benedict Andrew’s Figaro? Too expensive , says the Opera Australia Board. Really? Or were bookings a little slow? It is a real worry if boards cannot assess the likely cost of new productions before they start their marketing. Let us see how much media coverage this “minor” matter gets. I fear there will be next to none. The critics may be there, but the editors hold sway.
    Poor old Terracino. A few weeks into his artistic director role and the board is laying down the law already.