Clive James wizzed in and out of the country earlier this month, and since he was lauded by Salient (and the Listener) as being “one of the greatest critics ever,” it’s probably worth looking behind the scenes of the art pages. Everyone’s a critic, but only reviewers get to broadcast their opinions beyond earshot.
John Ralston Saul has a fair idea about what defines a good critic. They are “delightful people. Perceptive. Fair. Disinterested. Even-handed. Charming.”
Bad critics, on the other hand, “are drunks, don’t drink but should, didn’t have time to read the book or, worst of all, review for money. Reviewing is paid less than Third World factory labour and any reliance on it for income may unbalance the mind.”
There is no cash-money to be made from reviewing in these pages and this means Saul would either see student arts reviewers as either uncorrupted and sane or, more likely, completely off their rocker.
While there’s no money, there is a treasure trove of contra – aka ‘free stuff’. This is one of the main reasons people wander into an editor’s office and volunteer their time. Want to write for the music pages? Your name’s on the door. Films? Free tickets to the premier. Books? Cut up your library card. (Incidentally this explains why so few people volunteer to write news – who wants free access to a public meeting? But more on this in another column.)
With all this free stuff comes a certain moral quandary: what happens if you diss your subject? The contra can dry up, and a critics’ ability to review is effectively squashed. Observing the mainstream media, you should note a predominance of positive reviews. This is not just because of the sick symbiotic relationship between artist and critic, but more to do with what an ideal review should achieve.
Reviews that are mostly negative are either due to a hideous piece of art that’s injurious to the public good, or a critic who uncritically projects gut feeling – a projection of personal biases and preferences. (It’s also worth noting that it’s easier to write a damning review than an effusive one.)
The best reviews will give insight to a reader who is already a fan, as well as providing some education to someone who is not. The very best reviews are enjoyed equally by die-hard fans and abject detractors.
The problems with reviewing are best illustrated in the music pages. You may notice certain genres of music receive far more coverage than others. It’s usually ooonst over brrrzzzt (electronic over rock), or vice versa. The best tonic for this ailment if you feel your preferred crowd is being slighted? Volunteer your time. If you know the scene, its history and recent developments, you’ve got the potential to be a good critic. Just keep off the drink until after you’ve filed.