Where Have All The Arts Critics Gone?


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 Enthusiasts 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.

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.