Situation Critical

The Sky Is Falling

Photo by Keturah Stickann and John Menier — Creative Commons License Some Rights Reserved

It’s déjà vu all over again.

Two years ago, in our Critical USA post, we covered Michael Riedel of the New York Post lamenting the cutbacks of two daily newspaper’s theatre critics in New Jersey. Riedel wrote, “they’re newspaper drama critics, those once all-powerful arbiters who, with a vicious turn of phrase, could close a show, humiliate an actor, bankrupt an investor.” Isn’t that amazing? Really, has there ever been a better description of critics and their arrogance of self-importance? What better way to link Aristotle, Diderot, Lessing, Kierkegaard, Shaw and Esslin to today’s American low achievers.

Now there’s another round of rallying to the critics’ aid. The industry newspaper, Variety, has let go both their film and theatre critics. The “breaking entertainment news” publication will still publish reviews, but from freelancers, not paid staff. As posted in this week’s KadmusArts Culture News (OMG: Can There Be Art Without Critics?!?), David Cote in the Guardian takes to the ramparts on behalf of critics everywhere — well, everywhere but online, in the audience, in academia, and in literature. It’s the loss of the daily scorecard that seems to get him most exercised:

You’ve seen the books speculating on what our cities would look like if humans vanished and nature were allowed to spread unchecked. Let’s imagine a world without critics… So we’ll turn to the blogosphere, or those we follow on Twitter and other social networking sites, to find a consensus. But there will be no consensus, just a pullulating buzz of artists promoting shows, audiences offering their opinion, badly written amateur reviews, friends promoting friends, and maybe –- just maybe –- a few informed theatre going bloggers whom we trust…

Is the world really coming to an end?!?

I confess that I am a daily newspaper junkie, including all the reviews. Moreover, I, too, am concerned about the downgrading of arts and culture reporting across all media.

However, wouldn’t it be fair to ask the same thing of critics that we ask of artists? When artists create a show that is badly received, we are quick to point out that the production did not connect with an audience. Maybe that is what has happened to the daily critics Cole misses: they don’t connect with an audience.

How often have you learned something from a review? Did you learn about the history of the production? Did you learn about the production’s influences? Did you learn the creator’s intention? Did you learn how to place this work in the context of others — both past and current? Did you learn what worked and what didn’t, and why?

Maybe, just maybe, the problem is that critics are doing a bad job.

No wonder their show is closing.

- Bill Reichblum

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