THE BLOG

In Defence of the Critic

13/09/2013 14:02 | Updated 12 November 2013

Nearly 50 years after Barthes proclaimed the death of the author, it is with great sadness and accompanying X Factor contestant departure music that I announce the death of the critic. Or if not the death, at least the inexorable decline. The critic is - wait for it - on the critical list.

Now that I've wowed you with my punning, let me explain. The Independent on Sunday recently axed its arts section, The Critics, and with it long-standing, highly respected reviewers like Kate Bassett, Charles Darwent, Tom Sutcliffe, Simon Price and Nicholas Barber.

Sadly, print-journalism redundancies are now about as common as Daily Mail articles condemning the sexualisation of our children while splashing pictures of Hollywood tweens "flaunting their bikini bodies", but these losses got my spider senses tingling - and not just because criticism is one of my "Get rich quick through writing!" schemes. (It's a work in progress.)

Why? Because they're part of a worrying pattern. In 2008, American theatre reviewer Michael Riedel compared being a member of the New York Drama Critics' Circle to "being in a revival of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None", a concern supported by Variety's rundown of critical departures. This isn't just a local problem; it's a global crisis.

"Jeez, pipe down, Granny!" you might be thinking, if you were a somewhat uncouth youth in the Beano. "Who needs critics? Just go on Twitter and ask whether David Baddiel's new show is bringing the LOLs."

Well, uncouth youth has a point: the internet has democratised criticism. Word of mouth has always been key; now, vox populi wields serious power. Fifty Shades of Grey shrugged off critical savaging on its way to smashing publishing records, and (like it or not) the film is now dominating cultural conversation, while on the small screen, critically adored Parade's End was flattened by the Downton juggernaut.

Public reaction in the form of strong social media presence is now a huge step towards a TV series getting re-commissioned, with viewers dictating what they want to watch, rather than critics lecturing them to eat their greens/endure a three-hour experimental dance show about genital mutilation. The public have invaded the tree house - and isn't that a good thing?

Rather than a chosen few selecting their highlights at the expense of a number of fringe projects - for example, reviewing perhaps 10% of the Edinburgh Festival - we have dedicated bloggers and Tweeters offering alternative views and, between them, covering a staggering range. There's less reliance on breaking into the inner critical circle, which perhaps in turn means more creative freedom.

But before we break out the bunting, m'lud, let me present Exhibit A: ITV's top-trending Tom Daley-soft-porn-fest Splash! Millions (hate-)watched Splash! Millions Tweeted about Splash! Does that mean Splash! deserves multiple series, at the expense of, say, a lower-trending original drama?

Three years ago, if the BBC had surveyed the population asking about their interest level in home baking or 1950s home births and allowed that to dictate policy, we might never have seen The Great British Bake-Off or Call the Midwife, now huge successes. Art isn't always bathed in public adoration in its conception, or even at birth; sometimes, it should be counter-intuitive, strange, shocking, challenging, forward-thinking.

We can ask creatives and producers to be real leaders and innovators, or we can ask them to be like the French radical who watched a crowd run past and said: "There go my people. I must find out where they're going so I can lead them." Creativity doesn't always spell instant success (Blackadder Series 1, anyone?), but the most perceptive critics will spot the potential in a new, risky venture, and encourage the elements that could make it compelling, important, moving, worthy of our attention.

Of course, one of the sad consequences of Murdoch-gate is that journalists are currently considered about as trustworthy as Starbucks' tax returns. Now, I'm not going to claim all critics are infallible and unbiased and public opinion has no value, but if Fearne Cotton asks a Union Jack-clad passer-by for a bon mot, it's unlikely to rival Dorothy Parker.

Conversely, whether in print or online, critics with experience, expertise and a sense of responsibility should be championed. Those guiding voices make an essential contribution, with respected critical approbation translating into financial backing for many institutions and projects, and new voices handed a megaphone.

It would be naïve to hope that the old regime remains intact after this media revolution, but surely there's a middle ground. A democracy does, after all, have a hierarchy of elected officials, and by supporting the critics we appreciate and respect, in national papers and local press or on websites, blogs and social media, we can ensure their survival.

Though we may seem natural enemies, critics and creatives have a great deal in common: we're both passionate about the arts, and we both have people telling us to get a real job. So, please join me in hoping the critic makes a miraculous recovery.