marcus westbury

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Now everyone’s a critic, who’s a critic now?

August 3rd, 2010 by marcus

ARE critics a dying breed? Are the art critics that we’ve come to know (and, occasionally, love) soon to become things of the past? Last month, I joined a panel at the Australia Council’s annual arts marketing summit in Brisbane, asking “Who’s the critic now?” The audience was made up of directors and marketing people from cultural institutions big and small. I’m not sure how it went down but the consensus from our panel of writers, critics, broadcasters and arts marketing people was emphatic and a little startling. Who’s the critic now? We all are.

The art form critic that we’re familiar with is neither natural nor inevitable. It is as much a construct of the needs and demands of the media industries, academia and funding systems as it is an irresistible way to interrogate and understand art.

Take a critic for a newspaper or radio station with the brief to review local visual arts, music or theatre. It can be a powerful gig. For a long time the opinion of such people — myself occasionally, and many of my friends and colleagues — held an enormous amount of sway over whether a show was seen or sunk without a trace.

It wasn’t just their expertise that was important, though. The critic has long had control over a vital and rare conduit — the media — between an artist and their potential audiences. For presenters and promoters, convincing a critic to review a show was the essential way to make sure people found out about it. When it came to ticket sales, a positive review and the sense of buzz that came with it went a long way towards ensuring you broke even.

Today, a lot of that has started to unravel. As much as those of us in the media might like to think otherwise, TV, newspaper and radio aren’t the only conduits any more. The internet has created a plethora of blogs, email lists, social networking, and marketing strategies that are cheap, easy to access, and bypass the traditional critic entirely. Word of mouth — long the holy grail of marketing people everywhere — has become massively amplified by Twitter, Facebook, and other social media. We’re all critics the moment we see a show, read a book, watch a film and share our reactions to it. Many of us are creating our own criticism, commentary and feedback without thinking about it.

This commentary is often less informed than that of an art form expert but in some ways it can be far more valuable. We may know nothing about 19th century painting but social media compensates for that. We know our audience better than any critic can. Study after study has shown people take a recommendation or a warning far more seriously from someone they know than from someone they don’t — no matter what their expertise.

Many artists have realised this. Over years of directing festivals, for mostly younger artists, I’ve been fascinated by their reactions to critics. I’ve met many an artist who has built a reasonably successful practice while consciously avoiding mainstream critics. Many ask not to be publicised to them. Their assumption, rightly or wrongly, is that they have much better conduits for establishing a reputation or building an audience and they don’t need the “authoritative” attention of someone who isn’t their audience and may not understand their work.

As media becomes more niche, the role of the popular critic may change with it. It’s becoming less about being an expert to a mass audience and more about becoming the reconnaissance party for a niche one. Perhaps the next generation of critics will know more about the communities of interest they represent than the art forms they’re reviewing. In a world of fragmented audiences, knowing what will interest someone — whether it’s a warehouse gig, a gallery show, a pub performance, an online video or a major institution — may be more important than being the expert in theatre, visual arts or dance.

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