Who needs critics?

They are despised by artists (`Professional eunuchs') and distrusted by the public (`Why are they always so negative?'). To launch a major series on the Critical Condition, we begin, as they so often do, with a question ...
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One of the funnier sketches in Mel Brooks's spoof epic, The History of the World: Part One, shows mankind's first artist daubing a prehistoric mammoth on the wall of a cave. He stands back to admire his work. Along comes mankind's first critic, who unzips his animal skin and pisses on it.

There is a large grain of truth in Brooks's joke. One of the origins of modern newspaper reviewing - the cuttingest edge of criticism - are the "Zoilists" of the late-16th century. The name derives from Zoilus, the malignant critic of Homer. Zoilus was the man who dared say that the author of the Odyssey wasn't all that he was cracked up to be. It was the role of Zoilists (lovely word) to "carp" (another lovely word). Like their modern version, "flyters" (traders in literary insult), they had only one mission in critical life: to piss on the work of art. The only qualifications for the job were a full bladder and a brass neck.

Do we need these professional nay-sayers, lice on the locks of literature and art that they are? Yes, we certainly do. The rise of reviewing 300 years ago coincided with the birth of modern capitalism and the commodification of the work of art. We don't just read novels, watch films, scrutinise pictures, listen to records. We buy them. Commercial literature, theatre, art, film swamp the market with many more than we can buy. They want us not just to consume, but to over-consume: to spend, spend, spend until, like Monsieur Creosote in the Monty Python sketch, we explode in a shower of banknotes. If you believed the advertisements in the Review Section of The Independent, for example, you'd be watching 20 movies and reading 50 novels a week. Reviewing's main task is to cull the vast surplus of creative products in the marketplace to manageable proportions, to help us spend our time and money well. We need these modern-day Zoilists to piss on the latest offerings as an antidote to all that sunshine which the advertising industry, with all its millions, is blowing in our faces in order to get its hands on our billions.

Negative reviewing can, in fact, be constructive, if we take a long enough view on it. Kenneth Tynan made his name in the early Fifties as the London theatre critic on The Observer in that paper's pioneering Review section (the first to bundle together all the week's arts commentary). Tynan made his name by dumping, with magnificent sarcasm, on all the sacred cows of English theatre (his most famous barb was his two-word critique of Orson Welles's 1952 Othello: "Citizen Coon"). At the time Tynan looked like a smartypants on the make fresh out of Oxford, and nothing more.

With historical hindsight we can see that what he was doing was the equivalent of demolition. His broadside negativity was clearing the theatrical ground for the revolution that arrived at the Royal Court in 1957, with John Osborne's Look Back in Anger. Everyone remembers Osborne. Harold Pinter is still going strong and so is Tom Stoppard. Their place in cultural history is secure. Tynan, regrettably, is already forgotten. No one, as they say, ever built a statue to a critic.

Zoilism - negative criticism - has always been resented by writers and artists. Those practitioners, that is, who feel the sharpness of the cutting edge on their throats and in their wallets. It's painful (not to say ruinous) if you have spent two years writing a novel, a year making a film, or six months mounting a West End production, exhibition or concert, to have some swine devastate it in 500 words (and know that your friends are sniggering about it behind your back - everyone loves a hatchet job as long as it's not their own neck on the block).

The rage of criticised artists is legendary. Ken Russell would appear on television with the Evening Standard's film critic, Alexander Walker, only if he (Russell) could bring a stick with him. Walker, as I recall, wisely declined the invitation - but he was right about Russell's movies. I daresay Damien Hirst fantasises about humanely (or perhaps not) slaughtering Brian Sewell and putting him on display in a vat of formaldehyde. In Waiting for Godot the two characters, Vladimir and Estragon, fall into a furious argument. They accuse each other of everything from mopery through to buggery. Finally Estragon brings out the ultimate insult: "Critic!" No one can cap that.

The allegation against reviewers is threefold: first, that so much of their criticism is so negative. Secondly, where innovation is concerned critics are routinely wrong. Picasso, they told us, was a fraud; James Joyce was another; and Samuel Beckett was the biggest fraud of all. Who is to say that in 50 years' time everyone won't be painting with elephant turds and wrapping the Sphinx up in tin-foil as if it were a Christmas turkey?

The third allegation is that critics are eunuchs. Those who can, create literature and art. Those who can't create literature and art, criticise those who can. There's an element of truth in the charge. One of the most imaginative experiments in higher education is that currently being introduced in the literature department at Warwick University, under Jeremy Treglown (a man who, before he turned professor, was editor of the Times Literary Supplement - a veritable tsar of criticism). Students following the new course will be required not just to criticise, but to make literature. Before pronouncing in all their sophomoric wisdom on, say, Shakespeare's sonnets, they will be required to write a half-decent Shakespearean sonnet. Or novels and plays. It goes back to that stern rule of TS Eliot's, that the only criticism which is any good is that written by artists themselves. To get the course off the ground, Treglown's department has recruited well beyond the usual academic suspects (including Germaine Greer, no female eunuch she).

In a larger sense, we can see that late-20th-century divisions between creativity and criticism - what you might call the pissing distance - have widened to the dimensions of a gulf. It can be measured by going into any bookshop, for instance the new Borders in Oxford Street, flagship of yet another American invasion of our high streets.

Borders thinks big; none bigger. Saunter through its portals, wafted in by carefully chosen Muzak, and you can buy a newspaper, a magazine, a coffee and Danish, and lots of books. Prominent are "classics" - good books. You can, for example, buy all of Jane Austen in any of five different, attractively packaged reprint lines, all costing less than pounds 5. An armful of the best fiction written in our language will cost you less than a bottle of single malt whisky.

Look, however, for the books about Jane Austen. Even in Borders, with its hundreds of thousands of titles in stock, all you'll find are biographies (notably those written by David Nokes and Claire Tomalin). But critical books on the author of Emma? Forget it. Yet there is a thriving Austen industry in the universities. It produces a score of monographs and scores of learned articles every year. Who reads them? The authors of those monographs and articles, and their mothers. Jane Austen is selling at least a million copies of her six major novels a year in the UK. The Hermeneutics of Austen's Fiction, by Professor Brainstorm, Oxbridge University Press, 45, will do well to sell 250 copies - all to libraries, where the professor's erudition will lie undisturbed on the shelves.

It's not that critics and creators don't have interesting things to say to each other. In the pages of this paper's sister publication, The Independent on Sunday, there was - a couple of weeks ago - a fascinating dispute. Andrew Davies disagreed with the literary adviser on the TV adaptation of Vanity Fair, DJ Taylor. The issue was one of central critical importance. Davies, as adapter, had taken liberties with Thackeray's text. Sensing that his fellow artist had been inhibited by the decencies of Victorian middle-class society, Davies inserted a Hogarthian vein of realism into his adaptation (Mrs Tinker's farts; George's remark to Jos, "Women piss, just like us, you know"). The critic, DJ Taylor, defended the sanctity of the text. You cannot take liberties with a classic such as Thackeray's novel, he felt.

It was, as I say, fascinating. Moreover it illustrated the necessity of the two functions: the creative risk-taking impulse and critical correction. As in all good quarrels about art, it's not easy to take sides. Taylor and Davies were both right. It was right, too, that they should be at odds. If I could institute one big reform in our literary and artistic world, it would be that we should have more of this dialogue (or pissing- match, if you will): artists and critics not just talking to each other, but creatively quarrelling with each other.

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