Critical thinking

The decline of criticism is not democratising: it threatens the development of culture itself, argues Tiffany Jenkins

October 30, 2009

I spend every August in Edinburgh, immersed in the seven festivals that all take place in one month. Literature, theatre, comedy, music and art are all on show. But although one is presented with a feast of cultural riches, one question is left unanswered every year: what is exceptional and why?

There are the newspaper reviews, of course, the star system of the broadsheets and quick-fire fisking on the blogs. But much of it is short and simplistic, often nothing more than PR puff.

A good critical article – one that does more than repeat the story or deconstruct its meaning and reflects more broadly on artistic merit – is hard to find. That’s a problem, both for audiences who want recommendations, but also for a wider assessment of the works on show and their contribution to culture.

Critics are an endangered species. There are only occasional sightings. Lifestyle puff pieces push them off the broadsheet pages. Book reviews are being scaled back. Articles on film are being turned down. It is hard to find thoughtful columns on classical music or pieces on poetry.

Yes, the blogs have exploded. There are more opinions and responses to wade through than ever before. But in this sea of postings and snarky comments, the experts are rarely glimpsed. A good number have disappeared from view.

In most fields, respect for expertise has collapsed in the face of a culture where everybody’s ideas and opinions must be respected, where the rigorous appraisal of those viewpoints is seen as arrogant and dangerous.

That this is a common complaint doesn’t mean it should be dismissed. What is neglected in most complaints, however, is the role of the gatekeepers in a process that has seen the demise of critical authority.

Conventional explanations point towards the rise of the internet, bloggers and the end of deference. But this state of affairs is not just down to the external pressures on critics.

In his book The Death of the Critic, Rónán McDonald, senior lecturer in the University of Reading’s department of English and American literature, defends the idea of criticism. His analysis starts with a historical discussion of the critic’s changing role, dealing not only with the so-called “democratisation” of criticism, but also the significant influence of changes within the humanities, specifically the obscurantism of the post-structuralists.

What is important – but under-recognised – in the demise of the critic is not just the changes to their position, but also the fact that at the same time the academic study of the arts has become much more specialised and esoteric, shying away from musing on aesthetic value.

This insight, which recognises a more complicated dynamic by identifying internal as well as external influences, chimes with my sociological research on the shifting role of the gatekeepers of museum institutions. In recent times, their own self-criticism and attempts to re-legitimise their role by outsourcing authority have contributed to significant contestation of these institutions’ cultural authority.

It is said that the demotion of the experts is democratising, empowering the ordinary man in the street; we all get a chance to say our bit, to argue our corner and state our case. But this misses the crucial role of criticism and the opportunities it opens up to us.

Critical judgment is important, not just for the success – or failure – of the work being assessed, but also for shaping culture. Artistic and cultural movements have been informed by critical writing.

Contemporary critical acclaim of David Garrick, the 18th-century Shakespearean actor, made him a legendary name in theatre to this day. It also changed how society views and judges Shakespeare’s work and acting.

William Hazlitt was Romanticism’s critical muse, and in the 20th century, the theatre critic Kenneth Tynan shaped the British stage, championing the new postwar realism found in plays such as John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger.

The trend to stop listening to those in the know and to only opine ourselves is not liberating. We cannot define and refine our individual judgment without a wider culture of criticism. We should compare our thoughts with those who have done serious, long-term work.

The decline of professional criticism has coincided with the promotion of a narrower range of popular bestsellers by publishers and booksellers pandering to obvious and conservative tastes. If we want something better and more challenging, we need to regain our respect for expertise.

Taking culture seriously means questioning and arguing, recognising our own ignorance and listening to those who know more than we do. Let’s applaud the critics of the future and let them take centre stage for the second act.

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