Criticism Now

Between the rise of new media and the shrinking of the old, arts criticism is evolving fast.

While blogs and online forums have opened the conversation to anyone with a keyboard and an internet connection, professional critics fiercely guard their status as informed arbiters of art. What’s the difference between opinion and criticism? Does it really matter?

The Wheeler Centre and Melbourne Festival are bringing criticism off the page (and screen) and onto the stage, with a dynamic events series that brings together some of Australia’s finest creative writers, a cast of international critics — and you.

Together, we’re hosting a morning series of ‘live criticism’ cafe events on selected Melbourne Festival shows, and an expert panel on the future of criticism itself. And we’ve enlisted some of Australia’s most creative writers – Malcolm Knox, Amanda Lohrey, Melissa Lucashenko, Chloe Hooper and Shane Maloney – to craft personal responses to the Festival’s shows.

You’ll see their writing posted here throughout (and beyond) the Festival. But most of all, we want you to chime in and engage with these discussions, shows and issues.

Who benefits from criticism – and what does its future hold?

Discuss your ideas about arts criticism here.

Events from this series

Hero image for The Morning After - PUSH

The Morning After - PUSH

A breathtaking, multi-award-winning collaboration between two of contemporary dance’s brightest stars – Sylvie Guillem and Russell Maliphant.

At last, Melbourne Festival is proud to present the Melbourne premiere of PUSH, a production of four dance works by acclaimed UK choreographer, Russell Maliphant. Across three solos and one duet, the…

Hero image for The Morning After - Quartets at Sunset

The Morning After - Quartets at Sunset

Reviving Melbourne Festival’s tradition of sunset chamber music, this series sees acclaimed local and international quartets performing in the acoustically delightful surrounds of the Collins Street Baptist Church. In this series some of Australia’s and the world’s preeminent string quartets play the master’s revered works, along with compositions inspired by…

Hero image for Criticism in the Digital Age

Criticism in the Digital Age

A passionate panel of international and local arts critics debate the nature – and future – of arts criticism, right now.

While we find new ways to respond to the art around us, what’s happening to formal criticism? As the digital world sees traditional publications dwindle, and self-published opinions proliferate…

Hero image for The Morning After - Making Models: The Collaborative Art of Wendy Ewald, The Somali Peace Band and Disarm

The Morning After - Making Models: The Collaborative Art of Wendy Ewald, The Somali Peace Band and Disarm

Explore three amazing visual art exhibitions: Making Models: The Collaborative Art of Wendy Ewald, by the award-winning American photographer, The Somali Peace Band, a remarkable chronicle of a musical collaboration that reaches across the Indian Ocean, presented by Australian artist Royce Ng, and Disarm, Pedro Reyes’ uplifting…

Hero image for The Morning After - Minsk, 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker

The Morning After - Minsk, 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker

Belarus Free Theatre is a company in exile. Banned from performing in its homeland, its members have resorted to staging their inventive, incendiary productions in secret in Belarus. But the rest of the world has rallied around this revolutionary theatre company; ardent supporters from Tom Stoppard to Kevin Spacey have…

Hero image for The Morning After - The Shadow King

The Morning After - The Shadow King

From the seeds of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy, King Lear, emerges an explosive Indigenous reinterpretation – the tale of a community divided by greed, pride and ambition.

One of Shakespeare’s most powerful works, King Lear is an unmatched epic of kinship, country, justice and despair. Now in the hands of…

On criticism

If critics are taken out of the equation, and bad art goes unchallenged, ask yourself: who wins? Follow the money for the answer. It won’t be the readers. It won’t be the art.

With a few exceptions, the critics I most trust are artists, because they write about art with the rigour and insight of practice.

Try Baudelaire on Edgar Alan Poe or Delacroix, Yves Bonnefoy on Giacometti, Frank O'Hara on Jackson Pollock, Osip Mandelstam on Dante, Rilke on Cézanne, Samuel Taylor Coleridge on Shakespeare … Critics and artists who obsess about ‘bias’ rather than understanding, as if art is some kind of competition, don’t take art seriously enough.

My view is that music critics must have ‘done it’ to really know what it’s like to perform in front of an audience. You will never get rid of bias, but at least a critic should know what it feels like to get a bad review as a performer.

All ‘criticism’ should be constructive.

Critics ideally should be peers of the artists they write about, or as close to that as feasible. Otherwise, it’s ‘I don’t know anything about art but I know what I like’. In that case, taking up column space is presumptuous.

Unlike a positive review, a negative one implies authority, and authority has become something ambiguous in our age of quick, teeming Internet response, where all the old critical standards and parameters are in the process of vanishing and being reinvented.

Without artists, critics have nothing to criticise. But artists need audiences, and although it may not always feel like it, critics are artists' most dedicated audiences. They listen, they watch, they think about what they have seen, they respond. And often, they love.

The practice of ranking performances on a five star rating system is unproductive and inhibits trust in reviewers.

Why is it then, that we as artists so rarely post our opinions of our own work or the work of others? Why is it that we rely on others to critique the art form we have spent decades working in? Are we scared of being wrong? If we are going to see an explosion of opinions through the internet, shouldn’t practising artists also have our voices heard?

Critics are there for the long haul; for the health of the culture at large rather than any individual or company. There are effective industry cheer squads in the form of financial backers, marketing gurus, public relations experts, those inside the business and their families and friends. The critic is the referee, if you will, close to the fray but standing apart from it.

I’m reminded of Graham Greene’s notion that a writer has to have a chip of ice in his or her heart. I think he meant the ability to be alert, aware, disinterested and unswayed by sentiment. Sounds like a good critic to me.

Obviously, the principle of criticism is to react to the artistic work; to judge, compare, study, explain and contextualise. Without the work, there is nothing to which criticism can be applied, of course - but while the critic’s existence is in response to the artist, the artist, too, needs the critic. It may be romantic to consider an artwork as an essential, genius-enriched object that exists out of time - but, let’s be fair, to truly believe that is pompous and narcissistic. The artistic object, like all human endeavour, is as a contribution to an ongoing discourse of what it means to be human, and the significance of the artwork is evaluated within a broader context than merely its own arrival: criticism exists to examine the artwork within the parameters of not only its broader society, but its historical moment, its inheritance, antecedence, synthesis.

There is little music criticism worthy of the name, but when there is a line or two in the media, it assumes the role of cheer leading or simply commercial promotion with very little disguise. Sitting at your computer in order to find alternative opinions online doesn’t change the status quo: criticism demands public debate for any change to become real.

And when was the last time you heard a rigorous public debate on music? Once a year we have the Peggy Glanville-Hicks Address, I think that’s about it.

If you’re desperate for advertising dollars, as most websites are, will you say what you really think?

If film criticism is to have any value it has to be attributed, and the person who is offering the criticism has to have something to lose. Otherwise it isn’t worth anything.

If art criticism is going to have a place in the world of tomorrow, it’s going to have to re-imagine itself. The future is interdisciplinary and collaborative: what we need is the old guard to give us a leg up.

In my working lifetime I’ve already seen the status accorded to book and film reviews undergo a tremendous decline – not, I hasten to add, because there aren’t good reviews being written … but because the media they are reviewing and the medium by which they themselves are delivered are both in a state of flux.

There is a weirdness, however, in bemoaning the problems with book reviewing, given that reviews, at worst, are simply a form of indirect marketing, and, at best, are a sort of informed consumer recommendation.

I don’t mean to suggest that the blog format will necessarily produce more sophisticated literary criticism than the print format; I mean only that it is more conducive to producing such criticism than is the print format because it allows critics to do what print does not.

[T]here is nothing lonelier than a true critical response. Whether calling out a dud novel by a writer of reputation or trying to drag an overlooked work of merit from the swamp of mediocrity, the critic is doing their job to the degree that they achieve separation from massed opinion.

[G]raphic novels/comics have inspired very little criticism of any value, and it makes the field barely navigable.

Big words do not a critic make. Clarity is everything. ‘Should I go or not?’ is the bottom line.

Not every artist has the objectivity (or generosity) to be a critic. But much of the best musical criticism has been written by musicians, from Robert Schumann to Charles Rosen. Being a critic exclusively only risks imbalance. You earn credit for criticism through creation.

The quiet, protective silo of the newsroom is gone. It’s a jungle of individuals out there and the meek are at a great disadvantage. We see writers becoming their own publicists, tweeting that a review has been posted (guilty again). It’s best if there is a zinging phrase that can fit into 140 characters.

…while we’re in the grip of a recession, it is easy to submit to crisis-thinking. The situation could just as well improve as decline. Twenty years ago there was a “crisis of new writing” in Britain.

I think for early career reviewers the biggest risk is feeling internal pressure to be more positive than you might privately feel about a book – ie to sail close to writing a “bad good review”, particularly if you feel the author’s reputation is significant.

In an era of unprecedented flow of diverse sources of information we more than ever need guidance in making choices. Unfortunately, too many critics regard it as their role to judge, to hold up a scorecard. A good critic is there to enrich our response to a work, which means explaining its context, its ambitions and the degree to which, in the critic’s opinion, those ambitions succeed or fail.

An interesting failure can be more worthy of the price/ticket of admission than a conventional and complacent success and a critic can alert us to this fact … But only the individual reader/viewer can declare on whether a work succeeds for him or her; the critic is there to signpost and to ask interesting questions. A good review is always a conversation with a phantom reader, not a judgement from the judicial bench.

Milan Kundera mournfully predicted that, in an imagined age of universal writing, a ‘universal deafness’ will descend upon the world, where we will all be far too busy scribbling our own genius to listen what the others have to offer. Yet surely a civilised exchange of ideas is underpinned by many specialised skill sets continually interacting: skill at creating, skill at listening and critiquing, and skill at interpreting both of these. Accessible criticism (that which meets Churchill’s test - never use a long word when a short word will do) offers the chance for improvement in all three.

This requires artists like myself to periodically swallow our egos and actually hear what critics argue; it also needs audiences who are invited into the world of art by criticism which speaks to them, in plain language, of what the artist has achieved or failed to achieve. Great criticism emboldens ordinary citizens to enjoy and know art. Bad criticism does the opposite.

Since no one can read every book, it’s worth having critics around to be honest about which ones are worth our time, and to help explain their larger importance, even if doing so makes those critics occasionally sound mean.

Good critics realise that people engage with their work to learn about the art at hand, rather than to learn about the author.

In setting a base point of excellence, the actual critic assumes that the sector (not market – such an abhorrent term) has capacity to deliver said excellence.

In a democratising age where a blogger can claim the mantle of critic, it is important to distinguish between mere opinion and true criticism. The former is built on immediate sensation and empty relativist response; the latter distinguishes itself through a demonstrative engagement with broader discourse.

When we say that criticism is in crisis, what we really mean is that criticism as we’ve always known it is on last legs. The only crisis is that we’re standing vigil by its bedside … We have to stop talking about what criticism once was and ask what it could become. Anything else is just nostalgia.

The good critic’s job hasn’t changed. It’s knowledge transfer.

We need them because their role doesn’t lie primarily in moulding our views to match theirs, but in giving us access to our own opinions.

It would seem that some critics/interviewers see themselves as the hero of an article, particularly with more famous subjects. How difficult will the artist be? Will it be a clash or best friends? Just how nice is this famous person? The work of the artist is somehow characterised as background material for these psychological profiles.

Mainstream critics and bloggers are not in competition with each other; they are all part of a widening and lively conversation in which artists frequently write like critics, and critics sometimes curate and think and write about work more like artists. The possibilities for co-creation are exciting.

The Internet is alive and kicking harder than any print journalism right now. If there’s any one critical failure to speak of, it might be the inability for some members of the critical elite to see that.

Because I’m accustomed to life-as-a-personal-blogger I tend to let too much of ‘me’ seep into my reviews, although I guess I’d write them differently if they were for a publication.

Good criticism opens dialogue and contributes new vistas of understanding towards heritage and contemporary arts. The idea that criticism is negative is perhaps a short coming of our largely underdeveloped critical capacities - and I mean this in the mainstream media (we have wonderful niche writing and academics).

We need good minds, provoking and expanding our discourse.

@JodiMcA once had an artist ask “how do we know what to believe if critics don’t all agree?” She wanted objective consensus! #criticismnow

Perhaps the title ‘critic’ should be dropped, although I appreciate that it has acquired standing over time. ‘Reviewer’ is less abrasive. Other options are arts commentators, writers or bloggers.

Despite advances in technology opening up the possibilities of criticism, it remains very conservative. Largely, it hasn’t changed or expanded form, method or purpose in the transition from print newspapers to online platforms.

If we ask for - and witness - arts that push boundaries and forms but our responses to that art doesn’t, then the record of art left by criticism will be much more conservative than the art itself.

Criticism, when done well, creates a record that artists can continue to build on. If criticism isn’t building an accurate portrait of the most exciting contemporary art, and the strongest records are left of work that is most conservative, where does that leave anyone?

[T]here’s little incentive for sticking one’s neck out, for actually taking a position, for arguing that a book is bad, or sloppy, or stupid, or two or three iterations short of finished – an affliction staggeringly common among Australian books. Who needs the aggravation?

Popular opinion determines popularity and can be measured by numbers. Criticism asks different questions, in language less tangible than dollars, about what the work of art might mean not only at this moment to today’s audience but also at other times, past and future, and to other eyes and ears.

Criticism is about imagining possibilities for art – not boxing it into a profit and loss statement.

Publicly funded arts organisations rely on intelligent arts criticism and critical appraisals of their exhibitions and events not only to attract audiences, but also for their funding applications and to attract sponsors and donors.

At one level it is the gig guide to life’s diversions. At another it is the way we set about registering and memorialising those representations of human life that have supreme significance for us.

With the plethora of new opinions reaching more and more people online the potency of the few is diminishing. A multiplicity of informed opinion is good for all of us. Criticism makes us all reflect with a little more focus and intensity. That’s surely good for us all, as practitioners and as audience.