PASSING BY... Should we trust critics?
Antony Thorncroft, a former critic himself, wonders if reviews still have the authority they once had
Many people decide on their choice of play, movie, concert, art exhibition or what have you on the basis of a review that they have read or heard through the media. Critics are terribly important in the arts world - a bad review usually means financial disaster for the creators. (Although not always: Les Misérables was kicked by the critics at its opening night, and the musical Charlie’s Girl, famously canned, survived in the West End for years.) But in the main critics rule.
Critics are not as crucial as they once were, mainly because of the decline in the power of the media; in particular of newspapers, and the growth of the internet, which through opinionated blogs has made anyone a critic. But in certain areas, in particular the theatre and the cinema, a favourable review can lift a work by a novice writer or director from the obscurity of a room above a pub or a small film festival into the commercial limelight.
But should we trust critics? Many lovers of the arts make their own decisions second hand by identifying with a critic that they think shares their likes and dislikes. They know by experience that if Ms Sarcastic of the Daily Beast gives a play or film the thumbs up they will probably enjoy it too. It means they miss out on new experiences but they rarely waste their ticket money.
Over time it is not hard to discover what critics themselves really like just by reading their reviews. They cannot, and often will not, hide their personal prejudices whether it is for sci-fi movies or state of the nation plays. Often this means muted praise or opprobrium. It is no secret, at least among his fellows, that a leading drama critic of a national newspaper does not enjoy musicals. This does not mean that he or she will not recognise and recommend a good new musical, but that his or her enthusiasm will not be overwhelming. There is a film critic of another newspaper who favours experimental cinema over Hollywood pot-boilers and this also comes through in his critiques.
But this is minor stuff. What really matters is the integrity of critics: are they giving an honest opinion based on their knowledge of the art form or are they influenced by more dubious elements? Having spent most of my working life as a critic and arts editor I can confidently state that the great majority of critics are hard working enthusiasts for the arts and that they believe they make an important contribution to their survival. In many cases perhaps too committed, willing to overlook faults in the work under review in the interests of encouraging a fledgling writer, actor, or arts venue.
However not everything in the critical garden is lovely. Some years ago an art critic of a national daily was quickly replaced when it became known that he was receiving paintings from gallery owners in return for favourable reviews. Such dishonesty is very rare but critics are poorly paid - and the payments, especially to freelancers, have been in decline in recent years - so, given human nature, it is not surprising that on occasions a critic can be tempted to misuse her, or his, very real power.
Another area of concern also relates to human nature. In recent years the media has fallen in love with the star interview, which often takes up the space once given to reviews. So critics are more likely to meet and get to know the people they will be writing about. There was some contact in the past, most notably at award ceremonies or first night parties, but in the main critics kept their distance. Now they can get to know, and perhaps like, an actor or dancer or artist. It then becomes difficult to give them a bad review. Often a critic will fall in love with a performer’s acting style, or person - a distracting development.
This is especially true in minority art forms, where the emergence of a coterie of artistes, directors and critics is almost inevitable. Take dance for example, with just a handful of celebrity dancers and choreographers, and few professional companies and informed critics. Personal contact is inevitable. In dance, too, it is sometimes difficult for a critic to show the same admiration and understanding for both classical ballet and modern dance. Some critics will avoid performances by experimental companies because they know their reviews will be tainted with inbred scepticism about the work on show. But occasionally a critic, genuinely believing that a particular choreographer is a charlatan, will take the opportunity to put the boot in.
Another area that can be murky is the overseas trip. It is hard to resist an invitation to join a British theatre or dance troupe on a foreign tour or to preview a foreign company in their home country before they arrive for a UK tour. But it is equally hard to be totally objective when you are treated as a guest on a convivial jolly. I must hold my hand up. I had two delightful experiences, as the guest of the V & A, to Nancy and New York to discover more about the major exhibitions of art nouveau and art deco before they reached London. I don’t feel guilty about my coverage for it is hard to be too critical about these seminal art movements. But still...
International arts festivals are another potential hazard for impartial reporting. They are not as common as in the past, when certain cities saw arts festivals as a way of putting themselves on the global map. I sometimes wondered when reviewing a Polish theatre group in a remote Mexican city or a Chinese opera company in Hong Kong whether this is what readers actually wanted or needed. But many jobs have the occasional perk.
Perhaps the greatest concern about some of today’s critics is their knowledge of the art form they are commenting on. A generation ago newspapers employed experienced critics who knew their subjects backwards and over the years built up unrivalled knowledge. Now fewer such critics remain and when a newspaper selects a new theatre critic, for example, they often go for an established journalist with some reputation as a writer but no deep sympathy with drama. He, or she, is usually employed on other duties too, to save money. The celebrity critic should be approached with caution.
We still have many excellent critics in the arts world but their future is not guaranteed.