It isn’t easy, but much of the time I try not to think about critics. However, next month I won’t have any choice. I’ve just been asked to chair a debate during “How the Light gets in” – the philosophy and music festival in Hay on Wye at the beginning of June. The subject is “I know what I like – is the critic a dying voice in our culture?” And today I’m asking myself whether I have the necessary credentials for the task.
For most of my professional life I’ve been a poacher rather than a gamekeeper. As a television producer and an arts executive, for thirty years I was firmly on the side of the creators rather than the judges. Yet in my youth I sometimes wore a gamekeeper’s deerstalker and sat in judgement over others’ creative efforts. I can recall writing dismissive op-ed pieces about the Proms in the 1970s and the Royal Opera House a decade later. Then to my embarrassment at the BBC in the 1980s and 1990s, when I took on responsibility for televising the Proms and operas from Covent Garden, I had to hang up my gamekeeper’s hat. Even when I returned to writing and broadcasting, free at last to be as severe as I wished, I still couldn’t work out which side I was on. Perhaps that’s the ideal position from which to ask “whether the critic is a dying voice.”
I’m certainly still confused on the subject. There’s a new reason for my confusion which also happens to be the springboard for the debate – the exponential growth in online criticism over the past decade and the parallel decline of the print media. My friends who are critics (yes, I have a few) are all pretty desperate about the influence of the blogosphere. It’s not just the dilution of judgement when the internet allows everyone to set themselves up as judge, jury and executioner. For the professional critic, online competition hits the wallet as well as the reputation. The amount of paid space in the serious press devoted to criticism has almost halved since the turn of the millennium. This means that salaried critics are now an endangered species. One former broadsheet reviewer who regularly hauled me over the coals when I was at English National Opera recently begged my sympathy because he no longer has a regular by-line. I can’t say that I’m brushing away the tears but the general critical climate worries me.
Forget the arts for a moment and consider the impact of online criticism on the hospitality industry. TripAdvisor has actually faced legal action over anonymous reviews of hotels and restaurants. When serious money is at stake, unattributed criticism is more than an irritant – it’s a financial threat. It’s not quite the same in the performing arts. At ENO I was surprised and delighted to discover that the elusive force known as “word of mouth” can overcome even the most savage press reactions. More than one show panned by the press still played to full houses and put two fingers up to its detractors. But these days rumblings on the net spread even faster than word of mouth. In the age of social media and 4G phones a show can die while the performers are still on stage singing or acting their hearts out. Viral opinion can kill as well as promote. Which drives me back to the single question: what is criticism actually for?
For consumer websites the answer is obvious. They are there to help punters choose in an overcrowded market. A trusted site can warn you off a lousy dinner or a grim hotel bedroom. But what engenders that trust? Is it simply finding a critic whose tastes you share? In that case anonymity isn’t very helpful. And what about criticism of one-off unrepeated events – a concert or a television programme? This was my own problem thirty years ago and remains so today. I remember arguing with one distinguished arts editor about the way in which TV columnists had turned into up-market court jesters. And that was in the days when celebrated playwrights and novelists like Dennis Potter, Martin Amis and Julian Barnes regularly reviewed for the New Stateman. It wasn’t that their reviews were superficial or unfair. They weren’t. But their flippant style encouraged a climate of opinion which dismissed all television as trivial and ephemeral. As a producer of serious arts programmes I was worried that it threatened the genre as a whole. Thirty years later, this prophesy seems to have been fulfilled. When some critics complained last week that challenging arts documentaries were being jostled off the screen by programmes like Maestro at the Opera, you might say that they only have themselves to blame.
Isn’t there another role for the critic beyond awarding points? The greatest critics of the past certainly thought so. Shaw and Granville-Barker considered themselves responsible for the future of the art form itself. But of course they were poachers and gamekeepers combined. So were Potter, Amis and Barnes whenever their reviews engaged with serious issues. And this is not just nostalgia for times long past. In our own time, Tom Sutcliffe in the Independent and Miranda Sawyer in The Observer both maintain the highest standards even though they know that creative broadcasting dissolves into the ether within days. But they are honourable exceptions. Even if broadcast criticism survives the online onslaught other genres are much more vulnerable. When the broadsheets devote four times as much space to commercial pop as they do to classical music it’s as demoralising for the critics as the creators. How does it feel being jointly marginalized by the internet and shifting taste? I hope that the session at Hay on June 5th (http://howthelightgetsin.org) will be about more than just the future of criticism in a multi-platform world. It should really be about our collective responsibility for the future of the arts themselves and who guards the guardians. If you happen to find yourself in the Welsh marches at the beginning of June, come along and argue the toss.