Opinion: The last generation of arts critics?

TheArtsDesk founder Jasper Rees on why we need professional arts journalism

Everyone is a critic now. Anyone can post their reviews online where anyone else can read them: books on Amazon, films on IMDB, plays on whatsonstage.com and elsewhere. And that’s leaving aside personal blogs and the myriad opportunities for opinionating supplied by social media.

Not only can you review films yourself but you can also review the reviews posted on the comments sections of online newspapers. The democratisation of the reviewing process might lead one to conclude that professional critics are no longer necessary. It’s certainly true that the Internet has devalued or at least undermined the concept of authority and expertise.

The newspaper industry increasingly seems to regard the critical fraternity as a luxury. In the recession, which has had us all in its grip for four years now, those writing on the arts pages were deemed to be an expensive luxury. If jobs didn’t go altogether – and in America they overwhelmingly have been reduced – they were downgraded and de-financed.

One well-known theatre critic of my acquaintance was recently heard to suggest that his will be the last generation of paid critics. How has it come to this? Well, it has so far proved devilishly hard for anyone to turn a profit in online publishing. As a rule, the generation now entering adulthood doesn’t read newspapers and has been trained by the Internet to expect information for free. The global downturn has merely accelerated a process that was already in hand.

This is where the story gets personal. In December 2008 a group of freelancers who write for the arts page of the UK’s Daily Telegraph received an email advising that the budget was to be halved from January 2009, from that point much less work would be available – and that work would be paid at half the previous rate.

I happened to be among those writers to receive the news and between us we proceeded to set up an online arts page. The website, founded on the ambition to give equal weight to major and increasingly marginalised areas of the arts, has been running for three years and makes enough money to pay its running costs, while it pays its writers in shares.

The website was always intended to sit somewhere between a speculation and an investment, and what no one can possibly dispute is that the product – supplying overnight reviews before the papers, in-depth Q&As and reports on the arts from all over the world – is exemplary.

But does the arts industry need theartsdesk, and indeed any form of professional criticism? Clearly we would like to think so. From the eagerness with which the likes of the English National Opera and the British Film Institute advertises on the site, the evidence would suggest that we are certainly reaching those readers that important arts institutions want as their customers.

We are regularly quoted alongside the national press critics in promotional material. Indeed, a great deal of the arts industry’s advertising and marketing is done through the arts pages of national newspapers and specialist publications. There’s a reason for that, and it’s simple. Readers may value the freedom afforded by the net to vent their own views, but they cannot seem to shake their allegiance to the final authority on the new film or standup comedian, the new play or opera or ballet, the opinion of the professional who can be trusted to know what he or she is talking about.

It holds for some art forms more than others – generally the more costly ones where sounding out the views of a pro is a wise precaution before shelling out for expensive tickets. For theatre in particular there is a robust reliance on the critical status quo. In film it may be less so, but even here the industry only rarely chooses to bypass the critocracy altogether.

The low budget UK film The Inbetweeners, for example, simply wasn’t screened to the press; the loyalty of fans was guaranteed, while the positive reception of critics was not. As always with the arts, the bottom line should not be allowed to become the only necessary measurement. Even politicians with no interest in the arts have to pay lip service to the idea that the arts are good for the spiritual health of a nation.

The function of arts journalism in this area is just as crucial. It is a forum through which art presents itself to its audience. The job of the arts pages is not just to interpret and evaluate, but also to be a kind of intelligent cheerleader, to have questions answered and generally offer a portal into the world via features, interviews and reports. That at least is how we see our role on theartsdesk. We are part of the picture.

This post originally appeared in IAM, August 2012

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