Earlier this month, Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas ran a series of public discussions in conjunction with Radio National called ‘Critical Failure’. The series brought critics together across four different artforms: film, books, theatre and visual arts to answer the question “why Australian arts criticism is failing us all.”

It is an important discussion. Criticism is one of the most important aspects of the arts and culture, but sadly one of the least understood. It’s also amongst the hardest of professions to make a living in, as many of the panelists confirmed.

The handful of professional critics and reviewers lucky enough to get paid regularly to cast their eye over Australian culture are a misunderstood bunch. The best work of a critic is sometimes the most unpopular, and critics can quickly find themselves resented for the honest, unflinching assessments artists say they want. I know: I used to be one.

Critics are also victims of the same collapsing business model that afflicts writers in print everywhere. Once upon a time, powerful critics like Robert Hughes or Clement Greenberg bestrode high modern culture like collossi. They wrote for daily newspapers or respected journals of ideas like The New Yorker, and they exercised enormous influence on popular judgments of taste and artistic merit. Australia never enjoyed quite the same rich critical culture as our cousins in Britain and America, but there are still highly respected critics like Peter Craven writing in Australian newspapers and literary magazines today.

But all that’s changing. In the new world, armies of bloggers and online critics have diluted that power — but also democratised and decentralised critical culture globally. On the internet, everyone’s a critic — or can at least try. As a result, the old verities are being challenged, and print critics are increasingly finding themselves marginalised in their own publications.

You can catch a glimpse of this transition in the videos of Critical Failure. Much of the discussion across the four panels was taken up by working critics reflecting rather sadly on the vanishing opportunities in Australian newspapers. Some, like The Age‘s theatre reviewer Cameron Woodhead, even went as far as to attack (rather hysterically) the blogosphere. Others, like veteran film critic and academic Adrian Martin, argued that quality criticism has always been a marginal endeavour anyway.

In response, one of Australia’s best-known online critics, Melbourne theatre blogger Alison Croggon, has penned a thoughtful piece for the ABC’s The Drum. “Once upon a time,” she writes, “it was enough to work for an august masthead like The Age or The Australian to ensure a certain status. It didn’t matter if your work was relentlessly mediocre.”

Those old status distinctions are breaking down, and what’s replacing them is a rich ecosystem of amateur but often highly informed online critical writing. It’s therefore no surprise that Critical Failure has been covered extensively across Australia’s fertile cultural blogosphere — see here, here, here, here, and here.

Indeed, one of the best bits of Critical Failure was the “unconference” for Melbourne’s cultural bloggers, which featured Croggon, Daniel Wood, Richard Watts, Mel Campbell, Mark Holsworth, Nikita Vanderbyl as well as myself and Crikey‘s own Angela Meyer and W.H. Chong.

So, while the head prefects of the old school like Craven are still earning a crust working in print, a new world is coming. If anything, the story of Melbourne theatre over the past five years has been all about the renaissance in audiences, driven in no small part by the many theatre blogs that have sprung up.

It’s a story familiar to Crikey readers in news journalism: while the bastions of print are crumbling before our eyes, online criticism and debate is flourishing in Australia like never before.

Peter Fray

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