Marcus Westbury, in yesterday’s Age (or at least the online bit—who knows whether they actually put anything in the paper these days), wrote a piece about the death of art criticism … as we know it:
The art form critic that we’re familiar with is neither natural nor inevitable. It is as much a construct of the needs and demands of the media industries, academia and funding systems as it is an irresistible way to interrogate and understand art.
That’s the sort of thing, of course, that people have regularly been saying about the ‘review’ form since at least Critique et verité, and probably since well before.
As a form, the newspaper review—and I speak particularly of the newspaper theatre review—is not without its charm. I’m not sure I find it irresistible, but I definitely find it cute, especially the way it structurally mimics the dramatic archetype of thesis (the abstract: the history, the text, the author, the context, the hype), antithesis (the mediated: the performances, the direction, the stage), synthesis (the critical judgment), repeating in a reduced way the event it critiques. It is a form that allows the reviewer to convey something of the sensual experience of the play itself.
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But it is a problematic form. Not the least of all because pulling off the trick of sensual translation requires a writer of especial talent (and endurance), and there aren’t many of those willing to dedicate themselves to a professional life of opening nights, inevitable vituperation, hackwork deadlines and much cringing.
Another problem is the absolute priority that the review form gives to judgment, good or bad, something that many—especially artists—regard as unhelpful, to say the least.
Westbury is probably right that the typical form of a review, as it now exists, in newspapers &c., will eventually, one day, become an artifact of the past. I expect that future archaeologists of literary form, looking back on the newspaper review, will rank it, as literature, somewhere below Scottish flyting and somewhere above the Regency riddle, related laterally to the newspaper advertorial, which is what its ‘death’ all comes down to, really: advertising.
Westbury writes that:
Word of mouth–long the holy grail of marketing people everywhere–has become massively amplified by Twitter, Facebook, and other social media. We’re all critics the moment we see a show, read a book, watch a film and share our reactions to it. Many of us are creating our own criticism, commentary and feedback without thinking about it.
Is that what we’re doing? Critiquing? Or is it only advertising? Are we making ‘art form critics’ redundant? Or only advertisers? As an arts festival curator, Westbury can be forgiven for interesting himself more with the creation of ‘buzz’ and less with whatever artistic contribution an ‘art form critic’ might offer. But saying that the newspaper review is doomed is not at all the same as saying the ‘art form critic’ is doomed.
‘Art form critics’ still flourish, on blogs and internet magazines. Free from the constraint of the old print media, the review form is able to reinvent itself and emphasise stylistic qualities that were previously censored by the imperative of always seeming authoritative (which is to say, brief). Things as basic as being entertaining, or developing a personal rapport with readers, or offering left-of-centre insights, or slanting commentary toward a particular academic discipline. A new media review need not even concern itself with whether the art under review is good or bad.
It’s not necessarily about burrowing into a niche and preaching to the converted, your FB friends or Twitter followers, as Westbury appears to advise Critics of the Future. It is rather about critics establishing themselves as artists in their own right, applying to their own practice the same principles by which artists build a devoted audience: authenticity and honesty.
One day, someone might even get paid. But that was ever unlikely.