A Parasitic But Necessary Art: Simon Price On The Role Of The Critic
, October 18th, 2013 08:03
Mr Simon Price questions Will Self's attack on the critic in the internet age
I already know what my next tattoo is going to be. In the most dramatically angular Vorticist font I can find, three words: 'USELESS AND DANGEROUS'.
Connoisseurs of short-lived early 20th Century artistic/political movements - and fans of the Manic Street Preachers - will already know the source: the vow from the Manifesto of the Futurist Painters (Umberto Boccioni et al, 1910) to "Regard art critics as useless and dangerous".
The meaning of this minor act of inked detournement will be twofold. The "dangerous" part is mere knowing self-flattery, but the "useless" bit bleeds a bitter truth. Last month, a major British newspaper also decided that art critics were useless. In a move which caused a deluge of dismay among readers and made headlines across the world, the Independent On Sunday, for whom I'd spent twelve years as Rock & Pop critic, dispensed not only with my services, but with those of their experts on art, theatre, dance, film, television, the lot. Instead, the paper proposed to run a digest summarising the views of other newspapers (rather making a mockery of the 'Independent' part of its name). As Muscovite mini-Murdochs the Lebedevs frantically tried to keep their little empire afloat, targeting mostly-freelance arts critics may have appeared an attractive way to cut corners, but to the rest of the world, it looked a lot like a white flag of surrender.
Even the most bullish arts critic would concede that what we do isn't as socially-vital as nurses or teachers. But that doesn't mean that it doesn't have significant cultural importance. The question of "Who needs critics anyway?" came to the fore again this week with the publication of Hatchet Job: Love Movies, Hate Critics, the latest book by Mark Kermode, esteemed film critic for the BBC and The Observer. The book was given a somewhat sniffy and ultimately pessimistic review by Will Self, in typically loquacious and lugubrious style, in The Guardian itself. I won't spend too long reviewing the review, as within the piece Self admits that "to write a book about film criticism is in the first place a little too much, but to critique such a work strikes me as altogether surplus to requirements", in which case a critique of a critique of a book about criticism is definitely too many layers of heavy-meta. Furthermore, I ought to state that I haven't yet read the book (it's on order as we speak), but I should also state that I am a committed Kermodist who believes that Mark exemplifies all that is good and necessary about the critic's art. In summary, it appears that Kermode makes a hearty defence of the role of the critic, while Self contends that, in an era when anyone can hear or watch pretty much anything at the click of a mouse or the prod of a touchscreen, that role is being rendered obsolete. It strikes me as likely that they're talking at cross-purposes, and that both men have a point. Self is right that the bell probably is tolling for criticism, Kermode is right that this isn't a desirable state of affairs.
In the modern, digitised, instant-access world, Self writes, "the role of the critic becomes not to help us to discriminate between 'better' and 'worse' or 'higher' and 'lower' monetised cultural forms, but only to tell us if our precious time will be wasted – and for this task the group amateur mind is indeed far more effective than the unitary perception of an individual critic". I disagree, doubly. While it's true that we are no longer gatekeepers, the idea that critics are merely humble consumer guides has already led to a culture of "if-you-liked-that-then-you'll-like-this" reviewing, where most music magazines might as well rename themselves Which CD?, with fatal consequences for readership figures. And the argument that the amateur masses will fill the gap left by the scrapheap-bound professionals is laughable. You only need to look at last week's much-mocked column on reggae by The Independent's editor Amol Rajan in the Evening Standard to see what happens when you get rid of music critics who actually know what they're talking about.
In 2000, a minor scandal caused titters in the world of cinema when it emerged that Columbia Pictures had been using invented quotes from a fictional film critic, one David Manning, allegedly from (real) Connecticut newspaper The Ridgefield Press, on their posters. These days, Columbia wouldn't need to bother, as it is becoming the norm for movie posters to be adorned with uncritically gushing 140-character endorsements culled from Twitter accounts of unprovable provenance. In the era of 'citizen journalism', everyone is a critic, at least potentially. But, just as punk rock's ethos of anyone-can-do-it showed, in reality anyone can't. There are, of course, many excellent review blogs out there. Indeed, the amateurs' freedom from industry pressure means that they're immune, at least in theory, to the catastrophic loss of nerve which has afflicted the professional music press, wherein distinctive voices have been sacrificed for homogeneity and "house style", and a vicious slagging of a major album is so rare that when it actually happens (see NME vs Tom Odell), it makes national headlines. But in any medium, the critic has to earn the right to the respect of their readership. Any bum can look up the facts on Google or Wikipedia, but it takes skill to analyse and contextualise.
Two evergreen quotes about music criticism come up time and time again. One, often attributed to Frank Zappa but most convincingly credited to American actor-comedian Martin Mull, is that "writing about music is like dancing about architecture". The other is from David Lee Roth: "Music journalists like Elvis Costello because music journalists look like Elvis Costello". The latter is a cracker (and not without truth), but the former has always struck me as moronically reductive. Quite apart from the fact that I wouldn't mind seeing Michael Clark have a stab at a ballet about Art Deco, you could, after all, make the same claim of any representative form where Piece Of Art X describes Thing Y. 'Singing about love', for example.
Because, while writing about semiquavers and bass frequencies is impossibly dry, there is almost endless mileage in expressing how a piece of music makes you feel. What a good critic provides, therefore, is a kind of informed subjectivity. (Let's nuke, once and for all, the idea that a review should be 'objective'. Any response to art is personal by definition, and anyone who claims to write with a detached, oracular, objective, all-seeing all-knowing authority is a pompous, arrogant ass.)
At its best, I'm a believer that criticism is an art in itself (albeit a parasitic one). When I'm lecturing students about the life of a critic - and believe me, I'm alive to the irony of telling others how to make a living from music journalism when I'm struggling myself - I tell them to aim for three things: be entertaining, be good and have a point. When it hits those three marks it makes for some of the greatest writing you could hope to read on any subject, a thing of value in and of itself.
Historically, criticism has also had a crucial role in honing and refining the art it describes. An ongoing dialogue existed between critic and artist, even if the latter was invariably loath to admit it. To put it bluntly, in the past, bands knew they could not get away with releasing the same lazy shit over and over without someone calling them on it. Furthermore, by championing uncommercial but innovative music, critics have often pointed to the art's next step forward in a way which the industry could not. (Indeed, to do so was usually directly against the industry's interests.) If critics are taken out of the equation, and bad art goes unchallenged, ask yourself: who wins? Follow the money for the answer. It won't be the readers. It won't be the art. Only the major entertainment corporations.
You're not going to get through this without a quote from Oscar Wilde. "The moment criticism exercises any influence", he once told an interviewer in a characteristically paradoxical Moebius Strip of logic, "it ceases to be criticism". If he's right about that, then criticism - its stock at a perilously low ebb - has never been in ruder health.
And if Will Self is right, and the likes of Mark Kermode are a dying breed, know this. A world with uncriticised art gets the art it deserves.