Tag Archives: critics

What is a critic?

There is some confusion in the public and artists about the role of a critic. One confusion, that even exists amongst critics, is that they have power to influence the opinions of people. This is very unlikely, critics are amongst the most least powerful people in the art world, the music world and other areas that critics write about. (Number 9 on Hyperallergic’s 20 Most Powerless People in Art World.)

Another confusion occurs about what the critic chooses to write about. Reviewers rate and critics write. (Unlike film reviews you don’t see art reviews even with star ratings for even art reviewers like to think of themselves as art critics.) Criticism is writing about the subject and everything else. It is about thinking hard to see the connections between the subject and everything else.

Art, tv, museums, food vans are all aspects of our culture and therefore appropriate subjects for critiques. There are no-unworthy subjects for criticism, this is not to argue  for cultural relativism any more than the claim that all minds can be psychologically examined is an indication that all minds are relatively equal.

On the subject of what critics write about conservative commentators scoff at the idea of studying popular culture. The study of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer is often mocked, as it is a commercial television series aimed at a youth audience. Yet it is, according to Elana Levine and Lisa Parks, “the most studied television series in the medium’s history” Undead TV, Essays on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, edited by Elana Levine and Lisa Parks (Duke University Press, 2007, Durham) (p.10) and point out the multiple critical issues in the series, “including the construction of a youth audience, teen stardom, generic hybridity, television narrative, media conglomeration, gender, sexual, racial and ethnic representation, and the nature of television criticism itself.” (p.11)

The critic acknowledges the appeal but doesn’t lose their analytical perspective. In Anelie Hastie’s “The Epistemological Stakes of Buffy the Vampire Slayers: Television Criticism and Marketing Demands” she argues that television criticism can attempt to resist market logics only by being fully cognisant of them. Hastie writes: “To be just another ancillary text would make scholarly studies complicit in a primarily consumerist economy rather than an epistemological one”. (p.91)

Hastie points out that “criticism does not have to exist in the same self-enclosed world of either the Buffy texts or television more broadly. In the context of Buffy’s own logic, this might mean that criticism can see alternative ‘dimensions’ to the world of Buffy as not inherently threatening.” (p.93) It is worth pointing the non-threat that critics pose to out to everyone who find critics threatening.

It is not just the role of the critic that can be confusing but who is the intended or implied reader of the critic. Critics are writing for the artist, they are not writing to change the artist, it is not personal. Critics, unlike reviewers are not advertising the product, the critic is discussing a product that the audience is already consumed. I wouldn’t be reading Undead TV if I hadn’t watched and enjoyed Buffy.

New Media More Critics

The gatekeepers in contemporary culture, the publishers, the curators etc. have proved themselves avaricious and irresponsible. The print media’s art section is full of puff pieces copied without acknowledgement from media releases before often the exhibition even starts. The first thing that I learnt about the print media, it is that is mostly cut and pasted from the media release. The arts sections of the print media are tuned into the media management system and know that there job is essentially promotion; so many publications print articles in conjunction with marketing campaigns. There are many more problems with conventional mainstream media’s art journalism, for example, Melbourne’s Herald Sun newspaper dropped it entire Arts section in mid 2010. (See The Age‘s report on this.)

In this environment bloggers writing reviews about the arts and culture are increasingly being read and recognized as a real alternative to mainstream media reviews. Further threatening the diminishing revenue of newspapers. When the content of bloggers are approved of they the mainstream media describes us as “citizen journalists”. When we are simply competition bloggers are accused of spreading rumours (when the source of these rumours is most often the mainstream media), defamation or that bloggers lack accuracy in their reporting. Blogging is not just being a citizen journalist but a citizen photojournalist with a digital camera and a notepad. I do not write about exhibitions that I haven’t seen for myself and then I check my facts. (Even then, I have made mistakes most frequently over the gender of an artist – I always make corrections and keep the comment noting the error up.)

Against this background Cameron Woodhead has written: “If you’re a critic on the internet everyone can hear you scream.” (The Age Thursday September 23, 2010) Well there is a bit more background, a flame war between Woodhead and theatre blogger Alison Croggon (Theatre Notes). In the article Woodhead repeats the usual accusations against bloggers – lack of fact checking, lack of by lines and defamation. According to Woodhead: “With no editor to rein you in, the responsibility that comes with online criticism is terrifying.” I don’t find this responsibility terrifying any more than the responsibility of acting ethically when not directly policed (as if the police/editors/gods etc. are guarantors of ethical behaviour). Authority does not flow from obligations as Woodhead claims; authority comes from an audience who have accepted the reliability writing of an author and that audience maybe impressed with displays of power, they may seriously deluded or an ignorant mob (remember that the Bible was once regarded as authoritative).

I don’t need an editor but I wish that I had a copy-editor then I wood knot make the kind errors that the spellchecker doesn’t pick up. It would also be good to have the contacts that working in a larger publication would provide. And online critics aren’t forming their own networks. I was only aware of this particular debate (flame war) because I had attended the Critical Failure Unconference at the Wheeler Centre where I met other online critics in Melbourne. Thanks to George Dunford and Trampoline for organizing the event and to all the participants Alison Croggon, Lisa Dempster, Estelle Tang, Angela Meyer, Mel Campbell, Ben Eltham, Nikita Vanderbyl, WH Chong, Richard Watts, Daniel Wood, George Dunford and Pat Allan. This is not a report on the Unconference as I’m still mulling over about all the ideas that were discussed.

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