Private View: The art of good criticism

With bloggers swamping the internet with opinions, arts editor Andrew Clarke fears that the professionalism of traditional critics is being over-looked in favour of the quick hit.

In this day and age of bloggers, tweeters and ranters, who needs critics? With bloggers busily trying to steal a march on professional critics by attending film sneak previews in the USA or theatregoers reviewing pre-first night tryouts in the West End, is the role of the professional critic becoming redundant?

Do we need critics? What good do they do? Surely everyone’s opinion is equally valid? Well... actually, no it isn’t and I believe that the role of the professional reviewer is more valuable now than it has ever been.

With the rise of the internet, everyone wants to give voice to their opinion – which is good up to a point. It has democratised arts reviewing, which has an important role to play, but it hasn’t necessarily increased the quality of the reviewing on offer.

Good critics have experience and communication skills on their side. Good criticism and good reviewing isn’t about sounding off and spreading your own prejudices, it’s about passing on your experience of a particular theatrical event and comparing it to other events, so your readers can make an informed choice about whether they wish to attend.

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First-look blogs can be useful if they are treated as genuine sneak peaks and not viewed as finished pieces of work. All too often once a blogger has ticked off a show or a film they rarely revisit it.

As we know, both films and theatre shows get tweaked, re-edited or even seriously re-written as a result of previews. Just look at Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s Phantom of the Opera sequel Love Never Dies. This has undergone extensive work over the past couple of months, so much so, that the initial blogs now have virtually no relevance to the show currently on stage.

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The other key feature of a critic’s job is to develop a relationship with his or her audience. The reader has to understand the critic’s own tastes and preferences.

The critic for their part has to be consistent – has to provide a reliable point of view to allow their readers to form their own opinions.

People don’t even need to agree with the reviewer for him to be of value.

The reaction: “If he hates it, I’ll love it” is just as useful as “If he loves it, I’ll love it”.

A critic provides a fixed position for you to judge your own likes and dislikes. This is why a good critic compares and contrasts new work with existing films, plays, music, so readers can make an educated judgement.

One of my reviewing mentors, Carol Carver, a respected theatrical legend if ever there was one, told me very early on (in no uncertain terms) there was no room for critics in local newspapers – but there was a desperate need for reviewers. She was right. A critic provides a more specialised, academic review. A reviewer is much more focused on the audience and what an audience expects to see.

As far as the EADT goes we are a paper that deals with a general readership. We are about communicating useful information to our readers not about clever turns of phrase or scoring academic points with other learned writers.

In these straitened times when both money and time are in short supply we need to know whether a play, film, concert, art exhibition is worth an evening of our time and a large chunk of our disposable income.

We need some indicator of what we can expect. We need someone to measure this new work against something we can relate to, something that we have previously experienced ourselves.

We need indications of quality, we need context. So much of arts reviewing is about context and experience which is why a good reviewer has seen so much of the art in their field.

Film reviewers need to be immersed in cinema, music reviewers must regard their local concert venues as second homes, theatre reviewers must live for the live theatrical experience.

You can’t be a critic or a reviewer and just go occasionally. If you are describing a film as the finest thriller you’ve ever seen, it begs the question just how many thrillers have you seen? A critic has to be able to make a case.

Reviewing is not a forum to be unnecessarily cruel. We all enjoy a well-turned phrase and it is always much easier to be witty when are putting something down but criticism needs to be informative and it needs to be constructive. Above all it needs to be honest.

No one is expected to like everything. In fact a reviewer who likes everything is not a reviewer at all but when pulling something apart, the good critic needs to be able to explain why something doesn’t work and once again, in order to articulate that argument, they need experience.

Theatres are quite happy to invite harsh critics providing they are honest because they know a good review from them is worth having.

It would be very wrong to tarnish all bloggers with the same brush. There are some very good, very well informed internet-based reviewers out there, but everyone has to stop and consider what a critic is for. It’s all about information and communication, not self-aggrandisement.

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