Newspapers have been shedding their arts reporting for decades, relegating reviews to dispensable supplements and buried middle-pages. Depressing reports such as last week’s piece in the Columbia Journalism Review on the disappearance of full-time arts staffers are a familiar sight. If the professional reviewer is an endangered species then the rise of the blogging geek and the entitled opinionators of social media are its Walter Palmers. The recent deaths of giants of the form, John Berger and A A Gill, seem spookily prescient. We are witnessing the passing of an era and it’s time to take stock of where we’re headed.
Should we lament the passing of the great cultural gatekeepers? Print media is locked in a budgetary straitjacket- in these circumstances having a fulltime ballet critic may be an unaffordable luxury. With the internet we no longer have a choice of 5 or 6 critical voices but thousands, each catering with expert knowledge and passion for niches that a selective newspaper wouldn’t deign to cover. In many ways this is a golden age for criticism- just as long as you have the time and energy to wade through the bottomless pit. For every AA Gill there’s a hundred Rush Limbaughs down there.
Now that our critics have been told to down pens what kind of replacement is the clickbait churn? If you have an event and want to invite the influencers who do you call? How is influence measured- is a writer of erudite medium blogs more or less important than someone with 20k instagram followers? The former may be informed but the latter has the reach. Once upon a time newspapers -and critics like Jack Tinker- had both. Caught in between is the reader/clicker who just wants to know what to do with their time. In a world where we speak in silos there is a five star review for everything and every masterpiece comes with an army trolls.
Some would say this is liberating. It’s about time we stopped relying on Oxbridge snobs to decide what is good for us. Who needs experts etc etc. Figures such Philip French -another recently departed giant of arts criticism- came from a different era. Their Third Programme-esque patricianism, often mistaken for elitism (it wasn’t), was the product of a time that was dominated by a single public broadcaster. Everyone tuned into the Home Service. Everyone read a paper. Everyone watched Brideshead. Critics spoke from on high but the cultural terrain below was common to all. Our moment is one of fragmentation. Culture is no longer a connective tissue among disparate subsets of the population. This has happened quickly; less than 20 years ago 40m people tuned into an episode of ER. Now TV is experienced via the cocooning embrace of a phone during the morning commute. It doesn’t bring a public together, it provides ways to escape from it. In this context the critic has no authority –or at least no more than @troll2017.
Philip French once wrote that the internet will unleash a plethora of bad criticism that will ultimately drive out the good. He was half right. There is an awful lot of bad out there. But thanks to the internet we also have instant access to a rich archive of wonderfully written and supremely well-judged criticism, much of it written by French. Nothing is ever entirely lost in those bottomless depths.