How critics make up their minds

How critics make up their minds


norman lebrecht

March 05, 2010

Coming out of a premiere at the Young Vic last night, I overheard the following exchange between two of the attending critics, one of them a recent appointment.

Critic A: I know we shouldn’t share, but what did you think?

Critic B: You’re right, we shouldn’t.

Critic A: Still, what did you think?

Critic B: Magnificent.

This is not the first time I have heard critics confer during or just after a performance, but the blatant naivety of the inquiry struck a doomsday chord. The young man – I won’t name him, he knows who he is – was committing fraud, never a victimless crime. His victims were the editor who gave him the job, his readers and the venerable profession of criticism which has been rendered more vulnerable than ever in London by recent appointments. This man was being paid to form an independent opinion but, fearing he might step out of line, he stole one.

His naivety was inexcusable. The play was Arthur Schnitzler’s Liebelei (Sweet Nothings) which has been doing the rounds since 1895. It is not a difficult or enigmatic work. The production was by Luc Bondy, who splits opinion wherever he goes. And the cast was made up mostly of ingenus. It should not have been beyond the wit even of a fledgeling critic to judge the show on the evidence of eyes and ears, not to mention the historic record. My own essay on the background can be read on the Young Vic website.

But we have reached a point where editors care so little about the function of criticism that they appoint general writers and amateurs to key posts. This morning, The Times launched a new arts section of irreproachable Hollywoodish dumbness. If the public trust in newspapers is falling, that may be because newspapers can no longer be trusted to think for themselves.

My latest instalment on the state of criticism appeared this week in the New Statesman under the perceptive headline, Notes on a Scandal. It is too soon to write an epitaph for arts criticism, but standards are sinking like toy boats. 


  • May I quote Jean Sibelius? “Pay no attention to what the critics say. No statue has ever been put up of a critic.”
    A little extreme, perhaps, but even the unconquerable J.M.Barry never wanted to know what the papers had to say – they can destroy creativity as much as elevate mediocrity!
    At times, a handful of public criticisms (both +ve and -ve) have been influential on my career, but not my performing art. My true critics are the paying audience: if they buy tickets I look to see what I did right. If they don’t, I’ll look to see what was wrong (and much of it isn’t related to me or the orchestra I was working with!).
    Your experience above simply adds value to the [awfully generalized] mistrust of newspaper journalists. Add to that the amount of incorrect facts and misquotes that still occur, and your point is well-understood. Shame.

  • RB says:

    “Pay no attention to what the critics say. No statue has ever been put up of a critic.”
    It’s an awful old chestnut, and as Alex Ross and others have pointed out, not even true – there are statues to Saint-Beuve and Stasov (I’d add Berlioz and Bernard Shaw to that list – yes, I know what people will say, but I’d argue that both were far better critics than they were composers / playwrights!)
    In my professional experience, I’ve noticed that – while resistant to even the most carefully-qualified negative criticism – many performing artists are nonetheless quite happy to surround themselves with sycophantic followers and tame jornalists. With the result that they come, genuinely, to believe that their own exorbitant fees represent an objective market value for their work, and symphony orchestras that struggle to meet their staff and players’ wages end up spending five-figure sums on limousines and hotels for Maestro.
    I’d go on, but I seem to recall that someone once wrote a book about this sort of thing..!

  • RB says:

    Just one comment on your generally excellent New Statesman piece; true, music criticism in the Midlands has taken a savage battering in terms of frequency (with the Birmingham Post going weekly and Metro axing original regional content altogether) but it certainly hasn’t gone “downmarket”.
    The same long-serving classical music writers at the Post are still fulfilling their traditional role, with the same values and to the same standards. This is despite laughable fees and a kamikaze editorial policy. But they haven’t given up the ship, and standards remain high.