Do we really need the critics?

Channel 4's series Critical Condition has little good to say about reviewers, but it paints a dishonest picture.
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The Independent Culture
Jon Ronson, an erstwhile print journalist much given to criticising, has recently turned himself into a documentary-maker. His series Critical Condition is set up as an open-minded investigation into the increasingly thorny question of arts criticism, but in fact there's an agenda. That's fine in theory, but when the agenda is both hidden and so far from the stated intent - and, presumably from what Ronson told those taking part - a not-so-faint odour of dishonesty pervades the finished product.

Like everything aboard the current raft of workplace documentaries, the focus is on personalities. You can almost hear the sales pitch: "You gloried in Maureen in Driving School, you giggled at Jeremy from Aeroflot in Airport, now look at the pompous twits who opine about art in the press".

What the first three programmes of Critical Condition really show us is the difference between being in front of and behind the lens. Following on from last week's scrutiny of comedy critic Ian Shuttleworth leaping over the footlights to perform at the Edinburgh Festival, this week's programme goes to the opera.

Martin Hoyle, the critic for the London listings magazine, Time Out, remarks of his peers that unlike him, "they're not all witty, soigne, charming, debonair polymaths". It is perfectly clear from his wince to camera that he is attempting to be ironic. But we don't see it like that because Hoyle was not in control of the editing. Ronson asks few questions, the camera rolls and Hoyle in his unhappy ignorance proceeds to shoot himself in the foot. He may have believed himself to be the subject of the programme but he is, in fact, the object. Ronson naively wonders if the melodramatic world of opera plots has infected those who write about it and his opera film spends its time with critics whose outsize personalities are not matched by their sphere of influence.

Whatever you think of them, structuring an opera programme around commentators from Time Out and the Daily Express is hardly representative. It's like making a documentary about the Government and not speaking to anyone in the Cabinet. The core of this debate should be an analysis of the role and function of criticism, yet either by accident or, worse, design, the programmes fail to engage with this. Edward Seckerson, this paper's opera critic, addressed the issue when hauled unexpectedly in front of the camera on an opening night - but his contribution has been excised.

By extrapolating from the carefully edited remarks of those taking part, Ronson implies that virtually all critics are preening, arrogant and self- serving. Meanwhile, his own arrogance leads him to a state of apparent surprise that so many are unwilling to appear on screen. When Hoyle withdraws from the programme due to an appendicitis, Ronson enlists the voluble Tom Sutcliffe of the London Evening Standard (not to be confused with our own television critic) to do his dirty work for him. When Sutcliffe fails to get Rodney Milnes of the Times to dish the dirt at the interval of a production, the implication is set up that Milnes is being secretive and difficult. Actually, Milnes is holding firm to his principle that he wishes to consider his own thoughts in private, rather than writing up a mish-mash of opinions culled from half-time croneyism. This is not some quaint idiosyncracy, it's the mark of professionalism.

Next week's programme moves to theatre. It purports to be investigating the vexed relationship between the critics and the wider theatre world but only manages to highlight theatre's fear and distrust of the critical fraternity. Again, what you don't see is more significant than what you do. Where is the discussion about what good reviews can do for a production and/or its personnel? It is notable that artists much given to sneering at critics are rarely slow to accept awards from the critics' circle. Why is there no talk about pressure on the critics when at least one broadsheet newspaper demands that reviews should be either wildly positive or virulently against?

Instead we watch the business of an overnight review via Nicholas de Jongh of the Evening Standard. At best, his experience is unrepresentative. His deadline is hours later than all other daily papers, whose journalists have to file their copy in little more than an hour because producers refuse to allow critics to see previews. This practice leads to snap judgements, which further inflames the division between what are unhelpfully regarded as opposing camps. Is any of this dealt with in the programme? What do you think?

Attacking critics is part of a cultural drift towards philistinism. Taking art seriously is frowned upon and serious art - as distinct from over- hyped commercial product - is sneered at as being shockingly elitist. A critic's specialised knowledge is regarded as deeply suspect, and in an age of fashionable cynicism, enthusiasm for one's subject is seen as frankly unmanly. (There are still very few female critics). Compare that with sports commentators, who perform a similar function but escape the term "critic". They are expected to know everything there is to know about who scored which goal where and when from the dawn of Association Football.

In most specialist fields of journalism, encyclopaedic knowledge and intimate understanding of a subject is seen as being essential. Merely having money in my pocket doesn't entitle me to write about finance. Yet anyone who has seen a play is regarded by some editors as a potential theatre critic. It's true that you don't have to be a hen to know how good an omelette tastes, but knowing that heating the pan fiercely before adding the eggs will stop it going leathery informs your judgement.

By ducking the crucial issues, Ronson's series ends up aligning itself with the modish, intellectually lazy, anti-critical faction, but the logical extension of that argument is frankly dangerous. Banish critics and you're left with the proliferation of ill-informed commentary by non-specialists who have nothing to declare but their ignorance. It also ignores the fact that loyal readers grow to understand the taste and viewpoint of a regular critic, allowing them to read reviews in the light of that knowledge. Worst of all, without critics, audiences are left to the mercy of advertising.

As a critic, I, of course, would hotly contest the notion that we are all a bunch of antediluvian parasites, but it must be conceded that genuinely good criticism is, sadly, rare. However, suggesting that it is all worthless because some people do the job badly is absurd. Criticism is one of the links between a work of art and its potential audience. Writing passionately about its emotional and intellectual effects can promote a greater understanding in the reader. On occasion, it even sells tickets. I'm sorry if I sound overly defensive, but as someone who cares about the arts, I happen to think such things are important.

`Critical Condition' is on Channel 4 at 11pm on Wednesday

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