marcus westbury

my life. on the internets.

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Everyone’s a critic

July 1st, 2009 by marcus

EVERYONE is fast becoming a critic. On the internet, curating, selecting, recommending and critiquing have evolved from the most rare of skills to something we do every day. Everyone is commenting and critiquing. Meanwhile, traditional cultural criticism is in danger of being swamped by the proliferation of hybrid art forms and the whole notion of the flagship authoritative expert is under attack from an armada of alternative voices.

It might even be a good thing.

The rapid evolution of creative disciplines is tricky for artists, critics and audiences. Visual artists are working in performance, video makers are trained in theatre, theatre directors are putting on shows without actors, computer programmers are collaborating with dancers, sound artists are working in video or occasionally dabbling in astronomy.

Is it even possible to critique them all without proliferating into hundreds of constantly splintering sub-categories? Are critics somehow in need of expertise in film and visual art and performance and anything else that may arise? Should newspapers such as this one send multiple critics to every show? Or is criticism becoming less a function of the form and more about the cultures and ideas the work is created for?

It can be a festival director’s nightmare finding laneways for exhibitions, shop windows for dance projects, hairdressers for theatre performances, planetariums for music gigs or shipping containers for galleries.

It could sound very avant-garde or try-hard cool, but artists inevitably try to use the full set of tools and techniques available to them. Why wouldn’t a theatre director pick up a video camera and use it when everyone else is?

The anything-goes approach doesn’t make life easy for critics.

Traditionally, critics have tended to work within strict artform definitions and within the boundaries that many artists are wilfully or inadvertently breaking down.

Smart critics aren’t oblivious to the challenges, but that doesn’t mean they’re good at it either. A good critic can know that they’re often not the right person to comment or pass judgement on what they have in front of them. Often they have to do it anyway.

Meanwhile, the internet is encouraging a proliferation of both critical and congratulatory voices. An abundance of commentary is coming not from artform critics but from organic communities built around things that sometimes have nothing to with the form of the work. Everyone from game geeks, to hip-hop lovers, urban fashionistas, guerilla gardeners, street artists, sports fans, retro musicians, knitting housewives, craft lovers, suburban fathers, and online bookclubs are forming and sharing their cultural interests. They’re swapping notes on gigs, books, exhibitions, plays, events and interventions with little regard to the boundaries of form. Their defining interests are occasionally around artforms but can slip and wander easily to anywhere within the interests and experiences of their own communities.

I read scores of online publications that tip me off about exhibitions, books, performances, blogs, films and all manner of unclassified things. Criticism and commentary comes from everywhere.

It could be anything from the dense tech and theory-heavy cultural commentary of the nettime mailing list, to the arts and culture section of the news-ranking sites such as, to facebook forums from my home town, and the snapshot pop-culture-meets-hipster cool of Lost at E Minor or Three Thousand. Cultural communities are forming around ethnicity, geography or hobbies far more than artforms. Shane Warne the Musical is as likely to be reviewed on a cricket forum as a theatre one and what it lacks in knowledge of theatre may be more than compensated for by the connection of reviewer to the expectations of the audience.

As the authority of the artform expert becomes just one of many ways by which we filter cultural experiences, a whole new set of issues arise: incestuous and interconnected networks have always been a problem in creative communities and become more so among cliques commenting on themselves; rigorous technical assessments are easily lost on the non-specialist; an even larger danger is that we become a series of communities talking about and to ourselves.

For all the fears and issues, there is no doubt that the rigid hierarchies of form and criticism are breaking down. For all the value of the history and traditions of a given form, new patterns of commentary and communication are emerging. It is fast becoming more important to get the joke, have lived the life experience, or intuitively understand the cultural reference points than to even try to keep up with the constantly changing and merging mediums.

Originally published in The Age.

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