The Critical Condition: How to make a better viewer

In the second part of our week-long series on the culture of criticism, we consider what it means to be a television critic. What is the TV critic's role? What is his relationship with his subject? And what, ultimately, is his objective? By Thomas Sutcliffe

There are, in the human gut, numerous types of bacteria, an alien intestinal flora that has made a niche for itself in this dank, warm and fecund environment - a place where nutrition is all-encompassing and unavoidable, a kind of gastric weather. Little effort is required on the part of these organisms to secure their nourishment and they are completely, helplessly, dependent on this inside-out cornucopia for their continued existence.

Television critics are rather like those bacteria. Where the theatre critic or the art critic have to roam abroad to find their sustenance, television critics usually sit at home, taking what they need from the steady stream of fresh videos, arriving in peristaltic waves by courier and postman. And one of the things that is most conspicuous about this arrangement is the marked discrepancy of investment. Someone may have spent eight arduous months making a documentary, braving tropical disease and typhoon to do it, but for the television critic that odyssey may well be reduced to a morning's work.

This inalienable discrepancy of investment is the feature of criticism which causes most resentment and dismay for artists, and it is true that it is often a cruel disjunction. But it is also an unavoidable one - partly because it reflects the even greater cruelty of the viewer's perspective, but also because it takes less time accurately to point out faults than to create them in the first place. This has sometimes created a prejudice in favour of the original exertion, but it is an entirely false one; it would be absurd to value Michael Winner more than Pauline Kael because at least he "had a go", and because it is undeniably more difficult to finance and produce a motion picture than it is to file copy to a magazine that treasures you. If I were given a choice between saving Deathwish for posterity or saving Kael's review of the same film, I wouldn't need a second to decide.

Such discrepancy of investment is also a feature of most parasitic arrangements, of course, and this preamble is just another way of acknowledging that all critics are parasites, of one kind or another. Naturally they are - it hardly needs debating, really. The interesting question, though, is not whether critics are parasites or not, but what kind of parasites they are. For many artists this question is relatively easily answered; they would argue, I suppose, that the relationship that exists between makers and critics is what is technically known as a parasitoidal one - that is, an arrangement in which the parasite eventually kills off the host, often after a long period of slow and cruel debilitation. But there are other ways of thinking about such associations. Biologists also talk about commensalism - an arrangement in which the parasite benefits without either harming or benefiting the host. There are occasions, from the perspective of the television critic at least, when this seems as good an analogy as any. After all, what television executives wait for anxiously after transmission are not the overnight reviews but the overnight figures. And there are other reasons why television critics may feel less directly implicated in the fortunes of the medium they cover.

They carry less intellectual baggage than some of their colleagues, for one thing, because although the subject has been seized and carried into the academy in recent years, there isn't a long history of intellectual engagement with television. An art critic may well have Ruskin or Herbert Read at his back; a theatre critic, Tynan or even Dr Johnson. The hot breath on the back of a television critic's neck is most likely to be that of Clive James - the writer who really consolidated the idea that it was the first duty of the television critic to make readers laugh, with writing in which a kind of affectionate contempt was the prevailing tone. The success of this approach was not just to do with James's wit - but the fact that it perfectly matched the assured superiority of the audience in the face of this particular medium.

Television is both promiscuous and domestic - a whore in the living-room. It will turn virtually any trick you want at the touch of a button, and so it is hardly surprising that it is treated with a certain amount of condescension by its audiences. It is protected by none of the ritual deferences that hem other critical subjects around - the need to dress up and go out, to enter a space which is possessed of a sacral hush or an air of communal celebration. That laconic Brooklyn encapsulation of the universal fault-finding instinct - "Everyone's a critic" - is truer of television than it is of any other form precisely because so few people feel inhibited by its dignity or its pretensions.

What's more, the television critic almost always joins a conversation that has already begun, because unlike the case in most other forms of criticism, the review doesn't reach the reader before the thing reviewed. And yet television swims imperturbably along, apparently as indifferent to critical opinion as the shark is to the desires of the remora attached to its belly.

There is a third model for the unbreakable association of host and parasite, one that might get us a little closer to the truth of the connection between subject and critic in this field - and it is that of obligative mutualism. Biologists use this term to describe associations in which both parties are inextricably knitted together by mutual need - termites have an intestinal protozoan which they require to digest the wood they eat. Without the protozoan, the termite would starve, and without the termite the protozoan would also go hungry. This may seem a little counter- intuitive to the hard-working termites of television, who can be forgiven for thinking that they would suffer no ill-effects if critics were to disappear tomorrow. But, to bend the analogy a little closer to our own particular needs here, what benefits from the arrangement in the long run is less the individual termite itself than the termite mound - that remarkable and complex structure to which the intestinal protozoan makes its own crucial contribution without ever having any conscious ambition to do its bit for termite architecture.

I want to argue that good critics (and there are as many bad ones as there are bad artists) can be beneficial parasites - but I don't want to suggest that this operates by any direct regulatory mechanism. Critics aren't referees to which work should be submitted for some incontestable verdict of quality, nor are critics reliable arbiters of truth - the task is too personal and subjective for that, too heavily beset by prejudice and wishful thinking. In any case, critics always owe their first duty to their readers, not to some abstract notion of cultural value. That doesn't mean that the critic is nothing more than a kind of juggling dung beetle, entertaining the crowd by manipulating the productions of others. They do have an effect on the overall culture.

You could put it more bluntly like this. It is not a critic's task to make better art; it is the critic's task to make better audiences. Even this sounds a little too grandiose when written down, to be honest; but still, I think it's broadly true. Critics can't guarantee happiness for individual artists, but they can promote an ecology in which good art finds it easier to survive.

In television reviewing there are some ways in which this happens rather directly - it's unquestionably true that some programmes are broadcast partly because critical approbation exists to offset their limited success in terms of viewing figures. Critical opinion thus provides some balance for the considerable power of numbers, by amplifying the voice of that part of the audience which will never be able to make itself conspicuous through such statistics. Critics can speak for intensity of value rather than sheer volume.

But good critics should also change the audience, too, by refining their powers of discrimination and making the casual viewer a little less likely to pass over a subtlety or a refinement. In the long run - and it may be a very long run indeed - that is likely to do far more for a particular medium or an art form than any amount of local cheerleading for the mediocre, however well intentioned it may be.

I would settle for obligative mutualism, then. Obligative because the human instinct to pass comment is insuppressible. Whenever two or three are gathered together, two will disagree and the third will chip in to say they are both wrong. The mutualism arises out of the fact that both producer and critic benefit from a culture in which audiences are not just passive recipients of what artists want to tell us and what companies to sell us, but are also questioning and resistant.

The end result is a culture - a termite mound that results from no single act of will, but from the complex interaction of many different instincts. Critics may well look exploitative, indolent and self-interested. In many cases - even the best - they are. But take them away and the termite mound would suffer.

Tomorrow: Tom Lubbock on visual art criticism

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