“I just think that the idea of a subsidised critic is the thin end of a dangerous wedge.” Michael Billington greeted the news that The Boston Globe was funding a classical music critic by appealing to non-profit musical organisations with a degree of surprise and caution that suggested he lives in a slightly different reality from my one, where the wedge has gone in pretty far already. [As a side-note, it’s also quite quaint that he thinks a subsidised critic would be “unduly rigorous” – like a schoolmistress who’s extra-harsh on her own children in the village school, lest she be accused of favouritism.]
Yes, an American newspaper is paying a classical music critic. But closer to home, Hiscox is already funding the Evening Standard’s arts coverage (look out for the logo by the byline). Sites like WhatsOnStage and Time Out rely on selling theatre tickets for their income. Nachtkritik is funded by adverts by big regional producing theatres it reviews. So, to a lesser extent, is Exeunt. Over in the live art world, people are starting to see embedded critics as part of the festival model: Spill and Steakhouse both offer paid writing programmes. The Sick of the Fringe used Wellcome Trust funding to pay for Edinburgh Fringe criticism (albeit packaged as a diagnostic project). And even the hallowed Guardian is asking for funding from its readers: the thin end of the wedge which ends with them being invited into the clubhouse, putting their feet under the table, and joining in the conversation.
Every single one of these relationships throws up problems about critical objectivity. None of them disastrously so. And a landscape without any of them would be a quiet, broadsheet-dominated one indeed. Like it or not, journalism’s transition from print to online is losing everyone involved a lot of money, and any way we can find to carry on paying arts critics is worth a try.
But although I disagree with the substance of Billington’s objection, I do like his caution towards “the tsunami of puffery that proceeds every major film, play, opera or art exhibition” – and his egalitarian recognition that it affects everyone, whether they’ve got a broadsheet byline or not. The sharing culture of online media encourages the spread of relentless positivity (or social politics related outrage) that’s far more influential than below-the-radar, unmentionable debts of gratitude to certain shows or theatres.
Sometimes as a critic you feel like no one wants your negativity. Your publication wants positive reviews – to act as recommendations as what to see, to satisfy the theatre shows that buy advertising, or even to directly sell tickets to its readers. And if you’re a blogger, a negative review can fall into a kind of pit of anonymity – you’ve pissed all over your party invite, and you won’t be allowed in next time. It’s weird watching the sea of baffled faces at a live art show turn out a few hundred words of polite, measured copy that reads like a reassembled press release. Conversely, it can be so beautiful when someone lets rip – gets away from the industry love-in and approaches a piece of work as a fearless outsider.
Tearing something down is an act of faith in the industry, a great big love letter to the world of theatre. It’s saying “I think you can be better”, or “I think you can take this”. A total stinker of a review can be a thing of beauty, like a pungent cheese that tastes like heaven, or one of those vast flowers in the Amazon that reeks of rotting meat.
Even at their most repugnant, they force you to read critically: you filter their criticisms through what you know of the writer, and their tastes. It’s a useful thing to be able to do, especially in 2016s much-criticised post or anti-expert climate. Years later, I’m still infuriated by the horrible reviews for Caroline Horton’s Islands. Or for Mr Burns. And maddened by the fact that they’re still hampering the reputation of two of the most exciting female voices in theatre, stopping them getting the revivals and repeat productions they deserve. But I don’t blame the individual critics for documenting their own feelings when faced with an open-ended clowning show in a shit-filled swimming pool – the problem was that the voices championing experimental work weren’t loud enough, or listened to enough.
One of the many reasons I love the author/artist Alisdair Grey is the way he takes ownership of the discussion around his work, relishing all views (positive and negative, illustrious and peripheral) and giving them an airing. As this article on his bizarre and badly received Kathy Acker-inspired bondage novel Something Leather points out, the back of the book was plastered with them. “What the critics say’. One column is labelled VERY FOR (e.g. ‘Brilliantly funny, beautifully observed, and shot through with irony’: Anne Smith, Literary Review) and the other NOT VERY FOR (e.g. ‘A confection of self-indulgent tripe’: Victoria Glendinning, The Times).” Oh, and he shoves some fictional ones in there for good measure, including a complaint from a disgruntled Sherlock Holmes, who presumably never thought he’d be called upon to review a leather fetish novella.
London is lucky to have a kind of critical flurry around new openings. Recent articles about the state of criticism in Canada and Australia show that much. Not to mention regional theatre scenes, which can be caught between bussed-in London critics and blindly enthusiastic local newspaper writers. But to help the conversation stay closer to ‘debate’ (and further away from ‘hype’) it needs support – to keep the dissenting voices in there and to save us from exactly the kind of puffery that Billington complains about. Because a small group of established broadsheet critics of similar ages and backgrounds all praising or condemning a work is puffery, too – it’s certainly not a true discussion.
When media outlets run low on cash, they slash away at their arts coverage as invisibly as possible. The Guardian wouldn’t be able to fire Billington to save some dough: in tough times, it’s the less well known writers that go, and disproportionately young and female voices are lost. So yes, we need to be cautious. But the wedge has gone in, and the door is open for new models of funding criticism. It’s too late to be precious. It’s keeping a conversation alive that matters.
Basically everyone I know is busy convincing themselves that their autumn sniffle is the start of something fatal: Spanish flu, tuberculosis, syphilis, you know the drill. Still Ill by Kandinsky is a hypochondriac’s nightmare of a show that might just help with that, a performance that looks at the psychology of illness. And if you convince yourself you’ll see out of the end of the year, then you can warm to the news that American Rep’s excellent Glass Menagerie is coming to London in January! Read Exeunt’s review of its Edinburgh International Festival run.
Also to file under ‘exciting prospects’: Comus at the Globe, Milton’s masque on chastity directed by Lucy Bailey as an investigation of gender and sexuality.
Andy Field’s Lookout is on at Contact, Manchester this weekend. Join hands with a child, look out over the city, and talk architectures past, present and future. Also in Manchester, a panel discussion about Berlin with speakers including Andrew Haydon. Is it really such a promised land for artists? Or simply a vortex for lost creatives? Does anyone who goes there come back?? Please someone go, and record the answers.
It feels weird that the show I’m telling everyone I bump into to book at the moment is Amadeus at the National Theatre, but it was just great and you should go at once – if you haven’t already. Chloe Lamford’s luxuriant design is like a riot in the V&A costume galleries (that’s meant to be a compliment) and Mozart’s wife Constanza’s fantastically vulgar get-ups are a wonderful example of costuming for character. They’re always just a bit too short, too bright – and when she comes in wearing a subdued gown and tattered wrap, it’s just as heartbreaking as her husband’s downfall.
Fuel are looking for a new administrator – and they’re based in Somerset House, home of Luxury Ice-Skating and Art as well as experimental theatre.
Three jobs are going at the Octagon Theatre, Bolton: artistic assistant, trainee assistant director and development manager
Get involved with the future of Fun Palaces at this part-time job at Sheffield Theatres
Got an opportunity that belongs here? Get in touch.