24 Dec 2009

Where Have All The Arts Critics Gone?

By Ben Eltham
A thriving cultural sector needs lively critics, writes Ben Eltham, but you're unlikely to find them in the Australian print media
When The Australian's film writer Michael Bodey penned a long article this year about the state of the Australian film industry, he didn't mince words.

Questioning how Baz Luhrmann's big-budget epic Australia could somehow have missed out on an AFI nomination for Best Film, Bodey also took the opportunity to attack the local film industry.

"It is unlikely Australian screenwriters will study Luhrmann's film," he predicted, going on to write that "Australia's year out of the spotlight is a stark reminder of the disconnection between the film industry, and to a lesser extent, the media, and its audience."

Bashing the Australian screen industry is something of a national sport just now. And sometimes, the industry bashes back.

At last year's AFI Awards, winning screenwriter Jimmy Jack was so incensed at the criticism he'd received at the hands of The Age's Jim Schembri that he used his podium speech to shout obscenities at him — which only goes to show that talent is not always accompanied by good taste or good judgement. Schembri had written an incendiary series of articles attacking the low box office takes of Australian films, sheeting home the blame to their "dark" and "depressing" storylines.

In fact, as recent Screen Australia research demonstrates, Australian films punch above their weight in terms of box office takings, doing better on a screen-for-screen basis than most US and UK films. It's just that Australian audiences don't get to see many of them in the first place, because most Australian films are made on low budgets for the independent sector of the cinema marketplace — a small and shrinking slice of the pie. Very few Australian films are made with the production and marketing budget of Australia, let alone the Hollywood behemoths like Transformers, Pirates of the Caribbean or Avatar.

Yet, if you listen to most Australian critics, it's somehow the fault of Australia's screenwriters and directors that their films are not picked up by mainstream distributors, end up showing on only a few screens and therefore take in tiny sums at the box office.

The criticism by newspaper reviewers like Bodey and Schembri is all the more ironic when one considers the state of their own craft. The Australian newspaper arts critic is a dying breed. Readers of newspapers are vanishing far faster than audiences for Australian films, and publishers and proprietors, who have never made much of a profit from arts pages, are responding by slashing the amount and quality of their arts coverage.

As noted British music critic Norman Lebrecht recently observed, "In a borderless realm where anyone can tweet an uninformed response, reasoned criticism is under threat and undervalued. The arts are the first casualty of newspapers in retreat. Many US papers have sacked critics and abolished book sections."

In Australia, there hasn't been much in the way of reasoned criticism for some time. When I first started as a theatre and arts critic for Brisbane's Courier-Mail in 2001, that paper sustained a surprisingly serious commitment to the arts that belied its bucolic reputation. The paper gave regular work to a number of intelligent and well-qualified reviewers, corralled by an agile and feisty arts editor in Rosemary Sorensen. There was scope to write long features on important trends in contemporary culture, like the growth of turntables as a musical instrument or the popular success of electronic music.

A glance at what passes for the arts section in today's bowdlerised tabloid Courier-Mail shows the extent of the cultural regress. Sorensen has moved on to greener pastures at The Australian, and her replacement, Suzanna Clarke, is more of an arts reporter, penning friendly but only marginally critical feature articles and employing a dwindling band of specialist reviewers to judge the vibrant culture of Australia's third-largest city.

At the Fairfax newspapers, a similar story can be told. Although The Age's A2 section retains a certain commitment to surveying local books and literature, truly critical articles and reviews are hard to find. As with most newspaper arts coverage, the sycophantic interview and the PR puff piece are by-and-large the order of the day.

Drill down below the level of the daily newspapers, and specialist arts media are also in trouble. Free music "street press" publications like Beat, Inpress, Time Off and Drum Media gave up on actual reviewing work sometime in the 1990s. You will search high and low in their pages before you might find a negative review or a critical discussion of a popular artist.

Visual arts magazines are also suffering from the advertising downturn — although here the problems may be compounded by the impenetrable prose of the average university-trained visual arts critic. Critical writing about industrial arts like design and architecture is equally hard to find.

There is, of course, no point in mourning the demise of the arts section of printed newspapers, a form of cultural conversation that will soon go the way of the feuilleton as an historical artefact.

Other forms of cultural expression have emerged to fill the gap. Cultural and critical blogging, once an obscure curio, has grown to the stage where the reigning recipient of the Pascall Prize, Australia's only prize for criticism, is Melbourne's Alison Croggon, whose Theatre Notes is the best-known performing arts blog in the country. Similarly, in visual arts, Andrew Frost, co-founder and editor of artlife, has developed a prominent voice, and there are many others of note, particularly in contemporary music. Blogs like Theatre Notes actually matter: a stinging or singing review from Croggon is serious business for a new play opening in Melbourne.

Of course, blogs remain largely amateur endeavours. At the heart of the problem of arts criticism in this country is that it is almost impossible to do it full-time. Getting paid to review and criticise in Australia in 2009 is chiefly a freelance, casual, bits-and-pieces affair. There is almost no professional recognition for critics, no real industry body, little in the way of university or TAFE training — and little understanding from the practitioners about whom critics write.

On one level, this is not surprising: good critics criticise, and this can often generate anxiety, hostility and even hatred from the scorned performer or author. But, on another level, it's a problem for the entire cultural sector, because without skilled communicators and interpreters of local culture, it becomes all the more difficult to convince audiences to see, read or listen to it. Great critics of the stature of Neville Cardus, Kenneth Tynan or (in his prime) Robert Hughes, were adept not just at explaining culture but building audiences for it.

If it's difficult to identify an iconic Australian critic just now, perhaps that's because we're looking for the wrong thing. Instead of a movement-coining colossus like Clement Greenberg, what we have instead are a thicket of bloggers and commentators, all happily exploring Australia's cultural undergrowth with considerable craft and application.

It's easy to point to Robert Forster's music columns in The Monthly as a fine example of serious writing about contemporary music, but this obscures the contribution of as fine a writer as former Mess + Noise writer Ben Gook. Likewise, look a little further afield and you can uncover younger critics and cultural essayists like The Enthusiast's Mel Campbell, Frankie's Benjamin Law, The Lifted Brow's Ronnie Scott, Crikey's Literary Minded blogger Angela Meyer, the Australian Book Review's Mark Gomes — not to mention our colleague and newmatilda.com alumnus Rachel Hills. And there are many more.

And then, of course, almost in his own category, there's Guy Rundle. This quixotic, savage, shambolic literary provocateur may be the only remaining representative of that dying breed, the Australian belletrist. A truly erudite critic — who nonetheless finds the time to rant almost daily in Crikey — Rundle has stayed engaged with both culture and politics, an all-too-rare combination for critics and arts writers in Australia. While his prose can be wilful, flabby and erroneous, it can also be pointed, incisive and frequently hilarious. Most importantly, he's never, ever dull.

It's instructive that Rundle and the others I mentioned all work outside the dwindling "mainstream" of Australian newspaper criticism. While cultural agencies and much of the Australian arts sector have turned their back on digital culture and independent publishing over the past 10 years, that's where the future of Australian criticism and letters has been incubating. If you're prepared to seek them out, you are likely to be richly rewarded by the insight and energy of these younger voices.

So go out and buy yourself a Meanjin or a Lifted Brow. Go on, do it now.

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adamaitken
Posted Thursday, December 24, 2009 - 14:04

The last and only review I did for The Australian was a mere 1000 concentrated words, which was then cut to 800 a few hours before deadline. Since it was a review of four poetry books, no-one except a poetry reading audience, me and the authors concerned would mind. I am probalby right to assume Shelly Gare would not have minded a loss of 200 words on poetry. It's the sort of thing papers do to relatively unknown writers, I know, but how does a critic have faith in the art of crafting a thoughtful, critical review when he/she has to expects some sub-editor to cut by more than 20 percent? What encouragement is there to put the time and effort in for 50 cents a word?

Joanna
Posted Thursday, December 24, 2009 - 14:55

Visual arts writing, especially in the small magazines, is in a livelier position than Ben suggests. Take a look at the latest <strong>Artlink</strong> http://www.artlink.com.au/issues/2940/changing-climates-in-arts-publishing/ that includes the published papers from a CAL sponsored conference on this very question. [Disclaimer: I wrote the keynote address].
Ben also claims that: "There is almost no professional recognition for critics, no real industry body, little in the way of university or TAFE training". This is not true. The university of Melbourne has been teaching critical writing for some years now, and at the College of Fine Arts UNSW (where I teach) writing has been a core course in the Master of Art Administration since 1996 and has been an option for undergraduates since 1992. Artwrite, the magazine of student art writing (including criticism) has been published since that year and is now avialable at http://blogs.cofa.unsw.edu.au/artwrite. Older incarnations can be accessed at http://web.archive.org/web/*/http://www.artwrite.cofa.unsw.edu.au

However I do agree that Andrew Frost is easily the liveliest voice to emerge in visual arts criticism in the last decade – and the beauty of his work is that he is on the web, in print, and on television.

Alison C
Posted Thursday, December 24, 2009 - 15:32

Hi Ben - Thanks for the mention and the link. I feel I ought to mention that I also review for the Australian, so actually straddle print and web.

One big issue is simply space - if there are only 400 words (or less) in which to review a show, the ideas available for public play are similarly truncated. This has all sorts of implications, perhaps the most serious of which is that the arts culture ends up being more sophisticated, by several dimensions, than its criticism. Which is bad for both of them. If criticism is a major means of mediation between culture and audience, which I believe it is, it also leads to a major disconnect between art and a potential audience. Interesting to see how major art galleries overseas, for instance, take great care to provide contextualisations for contemporary art that allow audiences to approach it without feeling intimidated. Sometimes all that is needed is an invitation.

The Australian recently went against the trend and <i>extended</i> the space for its arts pages. I now occasionally get to write reviews of 800 words, which was the last the case when I was reviewing as a tyro critic for the Bulletin in the early 1990s. But it still has nothing on the space available on a blog.

<a href="http://theatrenotes.blogspot.com">Theatre Notes</a>

Alison C
Posted Thursday, December 24, 2009 - 15:32

Hi Ben - Thanks for the mention and the link. I feel I ought to mention that I also review for the Australian, so actually straddle print and web.

One big issue is simply space - if there are only 400 words (or less) in which to review a show, the ideas available for public play are similarly truncated. This has all sorts of implications, perhaps the most serious of which is that the arts culture ends up being more sophisticated, by several dimensions, than its criticism. Which is bad for both of them. If criticism is a major means of mediation between culture and audience, which I believe it is, it also leads to a major disconnect between art and a potential audience. Interesting to see how major art galleries overseas, for instance, take great care to provide contextualisations for contemporary art that allow audiences to approach it without feeling intimidated. Sometimes all that is needed is an invitation.

The Australian recently went against the trend and <i>extended</i> the space for its arts pages. I now occasionally get to write reviews of 800 words, which was the last the case when I was reviewing as a tyro critic for the Bulletin in the early 1990s. But it still has nothing on the space available on a blog.

<a href="http://theatrenotes.blogspot.com">Theatre Notes</a>

nanks
Posted Thursday, December 24, 2009 - 20:53

I'll put a plug in for Realtime http://www.realtimearts.net/
I've been writing for them for years and always reading with interest. A lot of first rate people writing for them. But I am sympathetic to mass media critics - a tough job under those time and space constraints. (I'd be happy to take it on though :) )

andrewfrost
Posted Saturday, December 26, 2009 - 18:21

Hi Ben,

Thanks for the kind mention in this illustrious company. While there are a number of very fine art critics and writers on culture in specialist magazines, your article accurately describes the paucity of critical voices in the mainstream press. I think this has a lot to do with the way media is now spread across numerous outlets. The difficulty that new writers experience as they attempt to gain a foothold in drastically reduced Old Media is coupled with a fragmented career path as writers try to find niches for their work on blogs, websites, online zines as well as through work for the specialist press. The freelance lifestyle has its advantages, but having a soap box on a newspaper is still the best vantage point from which to create a voice and find an audience. Hopefully, as time passes, and better sites like New Matilda grow, this will slowly change.

cheers,

Andrew Frost

stealth
Posted Tuesday, December 29, 2009 - 01:27

I agree with Joanna when she writes that visual arts criticism isn't in such a bad way as we might think. Compare our art criticism now to what was in existence in the 1960s, for instance. Australia didn't have a dedicated visual arts journal til 1963, and when it did arrive 'Art and Australia' wasn't nearly as 'critical' as it is today. Less than 50 years later, we now have a significant range of journals dedicated to the visual arts in Australia, from the free Realtime to the topically themed Artlink.

However, I agree that many of the newspapers, especially the local ones (the Tasmanian Mercury, which is my local, is particularly appalling), need to improve on their arts reporting.

It was an interesting article, thanks.

This user is a New Matilda supporter. daviddon
Posted Wednesday, January 6, 2010 - 17:50

Simply, it is true that few people now can write plainly and interestingly. Adelaide's Rip-It-Up street paper rarely is less than favorable to its subject, but the range of favor is wide and the expression crisp and clear. Rip-It-Up is not subsidised, makes its own way on the street.

Reel Time (Nanks, above) is absurd impenetrability by apparent show-offs. Artlink similarly (Joanna, above, cannot tell her which from her that). Both papers are subsidised by taxpayers.

The mainstream press - just a loss now, whether Murdoch, Fairfax or other, so lets not fuss about. Lets coalesce support on the alternatives.

(Advocate for SA-born J.P.McGowan, a Pioneer of Silent Cinema)

peteranderson
Posted Wednesday, January 20, 2010 - 14:46

One key point that comments above skim over is the economics of critical writing. While Adam ponders the response of a writer to a 20% edit of 1000 words at 50c a word, most of the art magazines mentioned are still stuck at 30c. Perhaps that's why there are so few full-time freelance art critics out there. Most art critics write in addition to, or as part of, another job in the arts don't they Joanna?

For freelance writers reduced word lengths at low rates make the economics even harder.

To earn the base academic salary (a little over $50,000) would require almost 180,000 published words a year if you wrote at 30c a word ... or over 400 400 word reviews. Lively the art magazines might be, but career as a full-time critic in that market is just not sustainable.