The Art of Criticism: judgement in crisis?

Sunday 1 November, 1.45pm until 3.15pm, Upper Gulbenkian Gallery Keynote Controversies

Critics used to be feared and respected for their ability to make definitive judgements on everything from conceptual art to catwalk fashions. This mattered not just for the success – or failure – of the individuals being judged, but for shaping culture more generally. Critical acclaim for 18th-century actor David Garrick changed how we viewed Shakespeare as well as actors. Hazlitt was Romanticism’s critical muse, while Kenneth Tynan championed the post-war realism of plays like John Osborne’s Look Back In Anger. It could even be said that criticism makes us who we are, forming, as Roger Scruton puts it, ‘part of the great transition from youthful enjoyment to adult discrimination’. Today criticism can still – sometimes literally – define our tastes, with the Evening Standard’s Fay Maschler described as the ‘most feared and respected restaurant critic’ in London.

But society often seems to have disavowed its critics today, particularly where high culture is concerned. If anything, tough criticism is less associated with the arts than lifestyle journalism and light entertainment, from Fay Maschler to Simon Cowell. Some fear the dearth of in-depth critical writing reflects something deeper. With teachers wary of criticising students lest they damage their self-esteem, and professional journalism giving way to amateur blogging, are we the midst of a crisis of judgement? From politics to pop, some argue robust debate has collapsed to be replaced by a culture in which everybody’s opinions must be respected.

Are we no longer comfortable with criticism and authority today? Who needs a coterie of ‘official’ critics when anybody can publish a blog or write a reader’s review?  Is this a liberating democratisation, empowering the man and woman in the street? How can we refine our own judgement without a wider culture of criticism? Do we risk reducing critical clarity to a competing cacophony of unexamined prejudices? Isn’t a society that is afraid to make critical judgements one that surrenders to paralysis and puerility? What is the role of the critic and why should we listen?


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Speakers
Dr Ronan McDonald
senior lecturer, English, University of Reading; author, The Death of the Critic

Dr Munira Mirza
deputy mayor, education and culture, Greater London Authority; author, The Politics of Culture: the case for universalism

James Runcie
novelist, East Fortune; film-maker, Powerhouses and My Father; artistic director, Bath Literature Festival

Gabriella Swallow
cellist, broadcaster and arts commentator

Chair:
Dr Tiffany Jenkins
sociologist and cultural commentator


Produced by
Dr Tiffany Jenkins sociologist and cultural commentator
Recommended readings
Critical thinking

The decline of criticism is not democratising: it threatens the development of culture itself.

Tiffany Jenkins, Times Higher Education, 31 October 2009

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Lyn Gardner, Guardian Unlimited, 10 September 2009

Bird Brain

Is art criticism so easy that a pigeon can do it?

Morgan Meis, The Smart Set, 26 August 2009

Damning Mozart With Fervid Praise

Mindless, clichéd, indiscriminate cheerleading is the last thing classical music needs just now, as it finds itself increasingly challenged to prove its relevance in the multicultural, anti-elitist, pop-saturated arts climate of the 21st century.

James Oestreich, New York Times, 10 August 2009

Farewell to Judgment

The sciences aim to explain the world: they build theories that are tested through experiment, and which describe the workings of nature and the deep connections between cause and effect. Nothing like that is true of the humanities.

Roger Scruton, American Spectator, June 2009

The Death of the Critic

In an age of book clubs, celebrity endorsements and Internet bloggers, what role is there now for the professional critic as an arbiter of artistic value? Are literature and the arts only a question of personal taste?

Ronan McDonald, Continuum, 23 October 2008

Who Needs Critics?

The reviewer's trade has always enjoyed its teeth-baring and wound-licking moments of 'crisis', but this time there is real pain.

Nick James, Sight and Sound, 1 October 2008

Is it curtains for critics?

An army of arts bloggers is posting internet reviews on subjects from grand opera to soap opera - instant, global and free. US newspapers have begun to ditch their reviewers as digital alternatives flourish. Could it happen here?

Jay Rayner, Observer, 13 July 2008

The Death of the Critic reviewed

McDonald’s careful and engaged critique defends the idea of criticism through a historical discussion of the critics’ changing role, dealing on the way with the ‘democratisation’ of criticism aided by the internet, and its obscurantist elevation into self-reflection by post-structuralists.

Michael Savage, Culture Wars, 21 January 2008

What has happened to art criticism?

The critic is becoming a dandified copywriter, producing 'beautiful writing about beautiful objects and their beautiful makers’.

JJ Charlesworth, spiked, 1 February 2005

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