On Criticism

Tom Sutcliffe reflects on the nature of the task that lies before him

t will be the centenary of the Critics’ Circle in 2013, and I shall become President of that body this month (dv), and so will have to plan how we celebrate 100 years of theatre, music, dance, film, and art and architecture criticism in the British Isles. The Circle exists to stand up for the unpopular job of being a critic and to try and make critics treat each other better than they otherwise would (referred to in the Rules as providing “opportunities for social intercourse”).

Like clergy, critics love to gossip and are obsessed with the importance of what they do. The public, shall we say, is sceptical about both trades, perhaps more amused than bemused by both. In fact, what critics (like clergy) are selling is expertise in fields where most people doubt that objectivity is possible, and are perfectly well able (they think) to know what they like or what they believe. And it is indeed hard to detect in the ongoing relationship between culture and religion where one stops and the other begins.

Do critics have pastoral responsibilities? They may develop more sense of how they serve in the German-speaking world – where critics often work as dramaturgs for some of their career, and where professional expertise is generally more cleanly defined. (Plumbers have certificates to show you, and theatre critics will have studied Theaterwissenschaft.) In Britain some of our music critics are musicologists, but many have no practical or professional experience of performing. Most Critics’ Circle members are not people who can “do” what they are writing about, or have professional experience in theatre or the film industry.

They are employed primarily because they can write well as journalists, and be persuasive about their judgments. And these days editors of newspapers are suspicious of writers about culture who are “tainted by experience” as a result of which they may know more than the average reader – and therefore be less accessible. Kirsty Wark and her fellow debaters on the Friday evening BBC2 Arts Review seldom include professional published critics.

My distant cousin Charles Acton was chief music critic of the Irish Times for 33 years, and is often quoted – in a fine substantial biography that’s just been published by The Lilliput Press about him (Charles by Richard Pine, ISBN 978 1 84351 165 6) – explaining how he felt about the role. “There is no such thing as an objective value judgment of a performance. All criticism is a matter of opinion and it is for opinion that a critic is paid.” But he was consciously pastoral, recognising the small scale of the local musical community. It was awkward “writing about the performances of people who are teachers”, because finding fault would diminish the teacher in the eyes of his pupils. Critics are part of the context, and do not want to make a hard job harder.

The public naturally have a financial interest in enjoying themselves: whereas a critic feels compelled to try and tell it how it is. Generally, our whole response to performance has been distorted by the mechanisation of memory – including by the effects of “editing” recordings and films so they feel or sound error-free. Yet, ironically, we use these enormously sophisticated mechanical means to privatise the public experience so in practice we can enjoy a much less intense association with the performing arts than we needed to have when our lack of attention would deprive us of any value whatsoever from the performance experience. And the industry that sells us films, television, radio, and recordings cannot be trusted to tell us the truth, because they want us above all to buy their products.

That’s also why in the modern world everything seems to involve the winning of prizes, a prostitution of the critical process that is thereby fostering what is actually a spurious and thoroughly questionable sense of excellence. People have come to expect and want the best immediately. They are impatient to enjoy paradise now.

The idea that there may not be much to choose between different more or less competent executants, and that only the judgment of history (or eternity) will really establish who are the geniuses and saints, is far too downbeat (and realistic) to satisfy the needs of the rampant market. The various sections of the Critics Circle have each now got (or are setting up) prizes of one sort or another. Partly to keep the members involved in a mutual project, partly to help the role of critics in bulk to get a higher profile.

Charles Acton was a modest, careful and sensitive listener with a past as a practical musician. He also came from an Anglo-Irish Wicklow family of 17th-century settlers and had inherited land including a declining 1693 mansion at Kilmacurragh – with a 19th-century arboretum that is now rated of international importance. He had knocked around in Palestine in the 1930s and music criticism was a late vocation.

The life story that Richard Pine and his daughter Dr Emilie Pine relay concerns much more than whether Dublin performances are raved about: Charles’s response to music and opera and theatre was part of his witness to the changing circumstances of a native country in which he was not entirely accepted. Dublin is a metropolis but its musical culture is fragile. Charles stuck to his views and made his points. He also got to travel and taste some festival fare in Britain and Europe. I would often probably have dissented from what he wrote, just as I often disagree with London-based colleagues.

But criticism is under threat – not least because of the shrinking of newspapers and the change in the standing and availability of live performance. Music criticism is not what it was because editors feel there is no reason to give space to reviews of performances of standard repertoire classical music that are one-off events. The skills of singing art-song or playing string quartets have migrated on to CD. Opera is available as a telecast from the Met or Covent Garden to your local cinema: industrialised, standardised, no longer subject to debate, mass-marketed, something you can simply try for yourself and do not need to read about. The wordage of most reviews in the tabloidised Guardian and Times is 350 maximum. But opera is an artform that has so many corners and factors (and performers at various levels) – not to mention the ideas with which most great operas are concerned – that there is just too much to discuss to cram into that sort of space.

I was incredibly lucky to have the chance to write for and later to edit a music magazine called Music and Musicians between when I was 24 and 30. My wife was a music critic on a national newspaper in Australia when she was still studying music at Sydney University. For 30 issues between 1971 and 1973 we worked together with a number of friends who all had a vision of why we were writing about music and what mattered about performance and new composition. No doubt we were wrong in our judgments. I remember hearing many new pieces from Eastern Europe when the ISCM (International Society for Contemporary Music) had its meeting and concerts in London.

The failure of modernism to deliver what the public needed was clear enough. But there was much to discuss too about opera and baroque music and the newfound fetish for “authenticity”. We never worried about how many of us there were who really cared about music, or how many copies we sold. That was a kind of bliss. Things are not like that for anybody now.

My conclusion now (as then) is that criticism is not about praising great performances or promoting the idea that a work of art or a performance is profoundly good – though many may well be that. In a way, the critic’s most pressing job today is to help the public enjoy the material and use it or digest it by means of their imaginative response – whatever the quality. The motto that matters to me more than 40 years after I started writing about music and opera and theatre (and, while at Oxford, film) is what Shakespeare put into Theseus’s mouth in A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

“The best in this kind are but shadows, and the worst are no worse if imagination amend them.” ND