In Defence of The Reviewer
Art critics get a bad rap – here's why bringing informed opinions to the public is a tougher gig than most would imagine
I hear the whispers, of course. 'There he is,' they hiss, 'The Reviewer. Swanning around with his free ticket, doling out plaudits or brickbats on a whim, and weighing up the careers of actors/artists/musicians (delete as appropriate) like the souls of the damned. No mere mortal man should have that much power. Will it corrupt him? Absolutely!'
And that’s why I got into this job. It wasn’t for the money and the glamour and the girls – those all came later - it was for the power, the power to make and break careers, to become a kingmaker, to crush mine enemies beneath the heel of mine sandal. I’m joking of course – I wouldn’t be seen dead in a pair of sandals. Nevertheless, I am joking. I became an arts reviewer for the most unselfish of reasons: to give the world the gift of my informed and sanguine opinion.
There is no getting away from it: reviewers, critics, cultural commentators are all egotists. Narcissism runs rampant through the genes of these people like a predisposition for male-pattern baldness or shoplifting. It is in many ways a noble profession, a calling, a vocation. It would have to be – the rewards are so few, the opportunities for looking a proper Charlie near infinite.
The image that you will project to those whom you review and those people who read the review – most of whom will deny that you were even at the same gig as them - is the near opposite of your reality. In fact you are a near powerless pawn in a larger game. You will arrive at the gig not knowing whether you are actually going to be on the list or if your guest is going to be given a ticket (that’s if you can find a guest – it’s surprisingly hard to find people who want to sit next to you as you scribble furtively in the darkness, snorting smugly when you get a reference).
All is flux and mutability, there is no fixed scheme. Some venues will treat you like minor royalty, they will send out a special envoy who actually knows your name to usher you behind the velvet rope and keep you plied with good-will wine in a bespoke press paddock. This is not, I repeat, not the norm. Generally you will stand pleading with the person in the box office that you are who you say you are while they leaf suspiciously through a box of tickets because your puckish editor has requested them under another name or because your sweaty demeanour is inherently shifty. Your guest will be standing at some distance, arms folded, pointed blowing the fringe out of their eyes while your big shot credentials gather in tatters around your ankles like so much spent confetti.
In terms of the reviews too you are far from master of your own destiny – you get what you’re given. You are free to pitch, of course, and often people will approach you saying 'My aunt’s theatre group is doing a production of Uncle Vanya set in a Belfast shipyard. Would you like to review it?' 'Well, I’ll try, you say,' But the editor, a capricious figure lying prone on a couch strewn with grape seeds [not strictly true!], gives it the thumbs down. And the next time that person sees you they know that you are the person that could not be bothered to help a fledgling theatre company. You have no power over this – you can only pitch and put up with. I’ve been pitching to review a slap-up feed in Ox since it opened. It has yet to happen.
You will also have to deal with the fallout from your reviews as well. The response to your work, when there is a response, is overwhelmingly negative. You do a good review and people think 'Nice review'. A bad one incites poorly spelled threats of violence or at the very least verbal abuse. After giving a comedian a middling notice, he posted it to his Facebook page with the note 'We all had a great time, pity about this guy.' There followed and unending screed of vitriol aimed at my person, wherein everything about me was called into question: my appearance, my dress sense, my ability to spell, my sexual preferences, my ability to fight people if I ventured into the wrong pub by mistake, all of which, like a tongue returning to a throbbing tooth, I couldn’t keep away from. 'I sat behind this "journalist",' said my favourite and, frankly, the only printable comment, 'and he looked like the grimmest man in the world.' She wasn’t wrong on that night. I’m thinking of getting that made into a t-shirt.
There is scant reward for your industry. Generally speaking if you’re reviewing and you have a drink at the bar and a taxi home you will be out of pocket. And it is a dying industry. As the film Killer’s Moon said of prostitution 'There’s no money in it any more. There are too many willing amateurs' (it was the seventies). And there are. Blogs are springing up all over the place offering bland praise for your show in return for a free ticket in. There is little scope for rigorous critique or a sense of placing the specific cultural event into some sort of context. It’s 'This happened, these were the people there, and this was the venue. Everyone was happy.' I don’t really see the point of this – it serves the writer and it serves the artist but it doesn’t actually perform any useful function for the people it purports to be for – the readers. The reviewer is supposed to tell you whether something is good or bad and give closely argued reasons why. That’s the job, that’s the contract. If everything is good, if every review looks like a subtle re-wording of a press release then what is the point of the critique at all? Print the flyer!
So, there we have it: the lot of a reviewer is not a happy one. But that art is just not going to appreciate itself. I’m going in.