Despite having a fraction of the population, Canberrans consume art like a major city. I’d heard the statistic before — Andrew Leigh uses it to make a fascinating argument about the value of community — but this time I was hearing it in a different context: Jack Waterford, editor-at-large of the Canberra Times, was framing a conversation about the role of the critic. If Canberra has such an appetite for the arts, where are the critics? What is their role? How do they link artists to audiences? And — perhaps most strangely — why does Canberra lose its critics to the larger cities, Melbourne and Sydney?
If you ever get the chance to hear Waterford talk, take up the opportunity. Even when he’s dead wrong, he’s engaging and thought-provoking. I’m still mulling over ideas and it’s now several hours since I saw him talk as part of a panel hosted by the Childers Forum here in Canberra: The Role of the Critic.
With eleventy million people on the panel and an audience of greybeards who all seemed to know each other, the event quickly turned into a powerhouse of anecdotes about art and arts criticism spanning at least three decades. Absorbing that much information is, of course, enormously fun and valuable (Canberra really is a city of storytellers), but it still left me wondering about the current state of arts criticism.
Once upon a time — according to ancient myth — Canberra had legendary arts critics. They’d pen little essays for the local arts magazine. They’d host shows on the local radio station. They’d even sketch notes for the Canberra Times.
But it wasn’t to last. The legendary arts critics got jobs elsewhere, or just got old. Then the local arts magazine closed up shop, the local radio station stopped broadcasting, and the Canberra Times scaled back its operations.
A technological revolution came quickly to fill the void. The cost of publication reduced, allowing everybody to get a blog and become an arts critic. But would anybody take the blogging arts critic seriously? And who would pay all these writers? Would they do it for free because they loved writing about the arts? But how could the traditional media outlets compete with this unpaid horde of blogger-critics?
This story should look familiar. It’s the same tale told by an idiot regarding modern political commentary. Everybody has an opinion about politics, I’m told. Traditional media can’t compete, they say. It is about time that we got away with the notion of the ‘professional’ opinion writer, it is said.
Amid the anecdotes being told by the panellists and audience, I kept coming back to wonder about the parallels in other disciplines. Why was the arts community trying to solve a problem in isolation from others who were facing the same problem?
Over the past decade, there has been an emergence in analysis of the ‘media problem’. Using the language of barbarians makes it easier to describe the situation: there’s an audience desperate to consume cultural goods and reduced costs of production have increased the number of producers. In a perfect market, the audience would find the producers and everybody would praise the efficiency of the Invisible Hand.
But in the real world (in which libertarianism is fantasy nonsense), there are so many producers that the audience has no idea where to look for the good stuff. Thus, they turn back to the vendors they know: the traditional media outlets. That’s the power of the traditional media — people know about it.
In political commentary, we’re seeing the rise of group-blogging such as AusOpinion (edit July 2019: now defunct, but my point remains solid). People who have better established audiences reach out to lesser-known writers whom they like. As well as increasing the amount of quality content, it’s also an act of audience-sharing. After you’ve found one writer, you’re more likely to find their collaborators.
But these group blogs are still not competing with traditional media in terms of audience. An article of mine was picked up by SBS, who then distributed it to their Reddit and Facebook followers. The chin-scratching of one of Australia’s few non-partisan conservatives goes from having a few hundred views to having a few thousand views.
Next step: get paid…
I don’t know of any Canberra-based group-blogs for arts critics. I simply don’t know how to find other Canberra-based arts bloggers. Yet when I was sitting in a room full of greybeards who were trying to work out why their blogs weren’t causing a Renaissance of arts criticism in Australia, nobody thought of saying: ‘Hey, why don’t we get people’s details and form a group-blog?’
There are a few peak bodies for the arts in Canberra, yet most of them concentrate (perhaps rightly) on the production of art rather than supporting the critics. At the same time, these peak bodies — like the Childers Forum — are the best people to link critics with other critics, critics with artists, and critics with audiences. But with the arts industry trying to recreate its own wheel, narrowly looking inwards to find a solution, we don’t appreciate the options that are available to us.
And this is what fascinated me most about the conversation that took place: its narrowness. Though deep and interesting, the conversation looked at the critic as if they were disconnected from every other realm of life apart from the arts. Thus there was a preoccupation with the ‘disinterestedness’ of the critic in the context of Canberra (where everybody in the arts scene seems to know each other… or, at the very least, knows my housemate), and to what extent artists need to protect their self-esteem from the Evil Critics (a conversation which made zero sense to me — but that could be because my style of critique isn’t really about ripping people apart).
Canberra, of all places, is a great environment to find the interdisciplinary critic. I critique art from the perspective of legal theory and political philosophy, looking for the way the arts rely on (and reinforce) our intuitions of how the world is supposed to be structured, ordered, and controlled. I wonder if somebody down the road with a background in environment policy is writing about the presentation of nature and natural disasters in art. It’s entirely possible that somebody a few blocks away is fascinated by technology policy and gets giddy when she sees depictions of emerging tech in films. Despite living in such close proximity, there is very little chance that we’ll ever know of each others’ blogs.
Instead, we’re still thinking of the critic in terms more at home in the 1980s. The critic-hedgehog who knows only one thing: is the thing I’m looking at good art/dance/film/theatre/music? The critic-Caesar who gives their authoritative thumbs up or thumbs down as if they were watching gladiatorial combat. The critic-prophet who has some privileged access to the Platonic Heaven of Pure Art.
Does that critic have any place in the modern world? Do I really care if Marc Fennell liked a film or not? Do I really care how many half-stars out of five the Canberra Times gave a film? I have a degree in classics and live in an ivory tower. Elegantiae arbiter sum, Holmes.
But this was the dominant view of the critic being discussed by the previous generation of critics. 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.
- Joshua Decter, art critic, offers students insight on art curation (digitalbullpen.com)
- Quick Post: Should TEDxCanberra pay its staff? (Ping @trib) #Canberra (onlythesangfroid.wordpress.com)
- Restructure at The Canberra Times newspaper (abc.net.au)
- Touching the Sky(whale) (guidetonothing.wordpress.com)