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.