When Mary Beard’s new BBC documentary series Shock of the Nude began last month, I had high hopes. A new censoriousness is abroad both in the art world, and in our wider culture, and I hoped that she might have something to say about this: something clear, clever and non-prurient. But alas, it was not to be. I disliked her approach to marble fig leaves and the male gaze, and in the New Statesman, where I am the television critic, I said so, calling the series out for what I regarded as its superficiality and modish solipsism. “She is the star,” I wrote. “And Michaelangelo, Courbet and all the rest of them can go hang.”
I did not expect her to like this, but neither did I expect to hear that she didn’t like it. Beard, a Cambridge don, is smart and successful. I assumed she would rise above it; given that I once gave a book of hers a rave review, she would know, moreover, that it wasn’t personal. But again, I was wrong. A few days later, Beard devoted the blog she writes for the Times Literary Supplement to TV criticism, having taken exception not only to my review, but to several others too. In it, she ticked each of us off individually. (Had I, she wanted to know, ever considered how few TV minutes in the past had been devoted to Zoffany’s Tribuna?) She then called for a total rethink of TV criticism. It seems that Beard wants new, better TV critics, who will take a new, better approach to television. The inference is that what she really wants are TV critics who will universally praise everything that she does.
Beard’s blog infuriated me, not for anything she had to say about my review (she’s entitled to disagree with me), but for the suggestion – one she appeared to reiterate later on social media – that I do not take TV seriously. This, of course, is a perennial problem for critics, particularly those who try to write entertainingly; the criticised seem unaccountably to feel that if the critic has the temerity to make light of anything at all, they’re unworthy of the job, and idiotic to boot. In my case, however, the accusation could not be further from the truth. If I love television now – and I do – this is as nothing compared to how I felt about it when I was younger. Growing up, it was the principal means, apart from novels borrowed from the library, by which I educated myself: about art, culture, science, nature and, yes, human behaviour. I believe that those who discount television, who are patronising or snobbish about it, are telling you far more about themselves than they are about the medium itself.
There are several things that qualify someone to be a critic. They require some expertise; they must be able to write; they should have taste (reviews have everything to do with taste – and nothing). But the most vital qualification is that they should love whatever it is that they write about. As the late AA Gill put it: “If you don’t love it, why will you care if somebody does it badly?” What I felt most of all when I watched Beard’s show was a sense of amazement that she and the BBC had together used our money, in the form of the licence fee, to make something so inert, so contentless, so strangely (for a programme about art) unbeautiful and ordinary. And so, like the boy in the fairy tale, I pointed at what I was watching – in this case, not a naked emperor, but a naked professor of classics (I mean this both literally and metaphorically, since Beard posed for a life drawing in the series) – and I laughed. Personally, I don’t believe you have to agree with me to think that I was right to do so. What is the point of a critic if not to tell the truth as they see it?
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I’ve written about Beard not to stir a feud, but because it illustrates so perfectly the current moment when it comes to criticism. In the 21st century, critics write in an environment where those who disagree with them, whether makers or consumers, can respond immediately and directly. Artists now quite often use social media to encourage their fans to diss the so-called experts, urging them on by telling them that they are right, not the critic. Beard doesn’t have the kind of groupies – assuming she has groupies at all – who go in for trolling, but many artists do, and when stirred, whether the incitement is deliberate or not, things can get out of control pretty quickly. Think of Samuel L Jackson, who in 2012 asked his Twitter followers if they could help the film critic AO Scott to find a new job, “one he can actually do” (Scott, of the New York Times, had been disobliging about Avengers Assemble, in which Jackson stars). Or think of Lana Del Rey, who last year tweeted her displeasure at Ann Powers’s review of her new album to her 9.5 million followers. The subsequent pile-on included calls for Del Rey to “end” Powers.
You have to be quite tough – or at any rate, cool-headed – to put up with this kind of thing. But then, to be a critic, you have to be tough generally these days. Jobs are thin on the ground. For the past decade, newspapers, their budgets under threat and their determination to build online traffic driving their priorities in terms of copy, have been laying off large numbers of critics. Who will forget the day, in 2013, that the ill-fated Independent on Sunday sacked its entire team? Some art forms have been affected by this situation more than others: as Alex Ross, the New Yorker’s music writer, pointed out in a melancholy piece in 2017, fewer than a dozen American newspapers now have a full-time classical critic. And the realms of film and theatre are hardly immune. To take one example, in 2019, the Evening Standard, a newspaper cited “necessary cost-cutting” when laying off both of its long-standing theatre critics in favour of two writers with other roles on the paper.
It being hard to make ends meet, the critical ecosystem grows ever more fragile. Many book critics, for instance, rely more and more on chairing events and running literary festivals for income, something that can – and does – take its effect on their reviews. Who is going to be negative about a book by a writer with whom they’ll shortly share a green room? Writers do tend to know one another; their air kisses have long graced the literary pages. But the muffled sound of punches being pulled now emanates not only from, say, novelists who occasionally review, but from jobbing writers who make the majority of their income from criticism. Hatchet jobs still get written. These days, however, you’re more likely to find a perfectly ordinary book acclaimed as a “masterpiece”. Critical inflation is rife, and pity the innocent reader, about to rush out and buy a new hardback.
And then there is the pressure that comes from places it shouldn’t. Editors who insist not only on star ratings, but who prefer one-star or five-star reviews (Mark Shenton, former theatre critic of the Sunday Express, claimed that he was once asked to “amend” his). Publishers and publicists who bear a grudge (a negative review for one writer may mean that you will not be given, say, an interview with another one from the same stable, irrespective of your enthusiasm for their work). Individuals who attempt what we might call news management (Time Out’s arts editor, Eddy Frankel, recently revealed that one artist would not provide the magazine with images unless he or she was given copy approval of a review prior to publication). Organisations that have decided to go along with the notion that expertise counts for nothing. (Last year, English National Opera stopped giving critics a second ticket for performances in order to make more seats available to novice bloggers: “Opera can be seen as a closed art form, and we think people should be able to review it more emotionally... The question is: did it make you cry, did it make you happy?” said its chief executive, Stuart Murphy, of this decision.) How to work in such an environment, let alone to make a living? How to remain independent and free-thinking, passionate and engaged? It’s enough to make even the best of us give up.
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That, though, is the last thing we should do – give up, I mean. Criticism is important, and the critic has a vital role to play in our culture. Some things never change. We will always need something to push against. As Julian Barnes, once the TV critic of the Observer, puts it: “Apart from anything else, criticism is a standard against which to judge our own ideas.” But given the general din, the assumption that everyone is a critic now, the flummery and fake news, the sheer speed at which our world moves, perhaps the work of the critic is becoming more important than ever. The hot-take economy is blithely indifferent to lasting value, to working out what a work of art means, and what it might tell us about ourselves. “To me, the work of criticism is the work of close reading,” says Simran Hans, the Observer film critic, and a writer young enough to have come of age online. For her, as for me, criticism isn’t just an opinion. It’s a historical document: a record of a time, a place, a particular sensibility. “I don’t think art exists in a vacuum,” she says. “I think criticism should be a work of record that is able to distil what an artwork is saying about the world in which it was made. James Baldwin’s The Devil Finds Work [a 1976 critique of the racial politics of American cinema] is my gold standard for this.”
I don’t agree with those who assert that critics are simply those who can’t write a book, shoot a film, or paint a picture themselves, and that this therefore disqualifies them from the job (the singer Lizzo once claimed only musicians should be allowed to review albums). Yes, there are dance critics who used to be members of a ballet corps, and architecture critics who were trained to design buildings; these people bring reserves of knowledge and experience. But when I published a book after years of having written about other people’s, it didn’t make me a better critic, nor even a more sympathetic one (in fact, I’m less tolerant now than before of books that are lazy or glib). Not being able to do something oneself is no guide at all to a person’s skills as a critic; to their ability to notice what matters. “A critic is a man who knows the way, but can’t drive the car,” as the Observer’s great theatre critic, Kenneth Tynan, once put it.
Nor do I think it matters if the critics and the public disagree – as happened with Taika Waititi’s Oscar-winning second world war story, Jojo Rabbit (the critics mainly loathed it; the public absolutely loved it). Consensus is a growing problem in our culture. It is inescapably the case that some artists, like some kinds of art, are deemed to be beyond criticism – something that, in my view, stifles debate every bit as much as cancel culture (it also makes life very bland and boring). Lone voices, if their disagreement is based on knowledge and insight, are crucial, and when you hear such a cry in the dark, it’s often with a sense of relief. I felt this recently when I read the only review of the late Deborah Orr’s memoir Motherwell – by the journalist Janice Turner – that expressed any reservation at all about it (Turner pointed out that Orr’s obsession in the book with narcissism is completely bewildering unless you know – and how could you know? – that she is really writing about her ex-husband, Will Self).
You will say that I have a vested interest in all this, and it’s true: I do. But there are lots of people, not only readers, but artists, too, who would miss critics if they were to disappear. “It completes the circle,” says Richard Eyre, the theatre and film director. “It’s good to have a dialogue between the work and a person who is assessing it. That is valuable.” When he ran the National Theatre in the 90s, he had to read a pile of cuttings every day. How much anxiety did this cause him? “A lot,” he says. “It was quite painful.” Did a review ever make him change his mind? “I think so, yes. The ones who write and argue in the context of what you’ve tried to do – you do listen, and sometimes you think: ‘Yes, of course; I hadn’t realised it could be seen like that, but I do now.’”
David Eldridge, the playwright, agrees. “I do read reviews. It would seem perverse not to. After all the work of writing the play, the love and the thought, and then the company pulling it together, it would be odd to avoid what people are saying about it. At their best, the critics can really share something of an evening in the theatre with their readers – and they can keep artists honest. But I tend to think reviews are most useful months after the play has closed, when you can be more reflective and thoughtful. I think they’re good at picking up something being amiss, even if their diagnosis as to the cause is wrong.” Reviews have made a real difference to his career – in both directions. Jack Tinker in the Daily Mail turned his first play, Serving It Up, into a hot ticket; the New York Times helped to close Festen on Broadway after only four weeks when it “poured a cup of cold sick” over it: “I felt very hurt.” But a writer’s relationship with critics can be about more than bums on seats. He believes that the best critics helped to inform his “sense of self as a writer and artist” by spotting his early promise and then, later, suggesting that he’d fulfilled it.
Richard Eyre grew up reading, in the Observer, the film critic Penelope Gilliatt, and Ken Tynan – “You had to see what their view was, because it mattered” – and he believes that, at its highest level, criticism can be a work of art in its own right. Which brings us back to where we started: with my jokes about Mary Beard and her nudes. In the end, it’s the job of the critic not only to inform, to challenge, to try to put something down for posterity, but to entertain; to use words to dazzle the reader with a sense of exactitude; to cause a feeling of rightness and sudden conviction to fall on them like – to pinch from Philip Larkin – an enormous yes (Larkin, by the way, was a brilliant critic). Criticism that can do these things is not disposable. It’s as timeless, sometimes, as the thing it describes.
When I finish talking to Eyre, I carry out a small experiment, opening at random a copy of Tynan Left & Right, a collection of his work from 1967. The first thing I see is a review of a play that was, until recently, on at the Almeida theatre in London: The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster. Naturally, the actors who were then appearing in it at the Aldwych – Peggy Ashcroft and Eric Porter – are both long dead; his thoughts about their performances don’t really interest me. But every word of what he says about Webster – to which he devotes most of his review – is so thrillingly veracious as to be almost preposterous. (“Ideally, one feels, he would have had all his characters drowned in a sea of cold sweat,” Tynan writes of the playwright’s horrible way with his own creations.) Here was a review that felt brand new: as alive to me in 2020 as it must have been to the subeditor who received it late one night in 1960 and, realising in an instant it was pure gold, treated himself to another cigarette.
Rachel Cooke is a feature writer and book critic for the Observer