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The Golden Age

Ben Brooker is a recipient of a 2016 SRB-CA Emerging Critics Fellowship. This is the third of three essays by Brooker to appear on the Sydney Review of Books, alongside essays by other fellowship recipients, Ali Jane Smith and James Halford. Read all the essays here

The words ‘critic’ and ‘crisis’ draw their roots from the Ancient Greek krinein: to separate, to judge. The Proto-Indo-European root word, krei-, means to sift, discriminate or distinguish. One of the critic’s main tasks is thus etymologically bound to a word that describes the turning point in the progress of a disease, a word that is more commonly understood to denote a moment of heightened danger or difficulty. It’s clear that many Australian critics believe their profession is experiencing such a moment of difficulty. In a October 2016 essay for The Monthly, ‘Culture Crisis’, Alison Croggon argued that arts workers in Australia were in a more perilous position than they had been in a generation. ‘This year,’ Croggon wrote, ‘as if to emphasise the wider malaise, Australian arts coverage also hit crisis point, as collateral damage in the collapse of traditional media in the digital age.’

That collapse has been striking. According to the latest Audit Bureau of Circulation Figures, between June 2010 and November 2015 the Herald Sun, Australia’s most widely circulated newspaper, saw a fall from 515,500 to 335,235 (a decrease of 35 per cent); the Sydney Morning Herald from 207,013 to 104,833 (49 per cent); The Age from 197,500 to 97,014 (51 per cent); and The Australian from 135,115 to 101,040 (25 per cent). Across the big four newspaper publishers – News Corp, Fairfax Media, West Australian Newspapers, and APN News and Media – vital advertising revenues have shrunk by 40 per cent in the last five years. When, in May 2016, Fairfax made around 100 journalists redundant, including the respected film critic from The Age, Philippa Hawker, the sense of crisis sharpened. In the same month CEO Greg Hywood underlined the writing on the wall: sooner rather than later Fairfax and News Corp would stop printing newspapers on weekdays and, ultimately, altogether.

In such a cultural environment – one in which Hywood can claim, with no trace of irony, that swingeing cuts to editorial staff are ‘necessary to sustain high-quality journalism’ – what hope do arts journalists have? The extent and prominence of theatre criticism appearing under the masthead of the major dailies is ever diminishing. These dailies now publish an average of just one to two performance reviews of around 300 words per week. Some are as short as 150 words, the longest no more than 600. At such lengths, and with star ratings near ubiquitous, it is little wonder that newspaper arts coverage has been partly or wholly subsumed into lifestyle sections. It is similarly unsurprising that the thin threads of criticism are often the first to be cut when managers seek new savings and ‘efficiencies’.

Philippa Hawker’s sacking seemed to epitomise the wider problem for newspaper critics: insecure employment, poor remuneration, and little space in the paper. But it is also the case that the criticism appearing in daily large circulation newspapers – especially if we take that to mean not just reviews but essays and other forms of arts commentary too – was in freefall long before the encroachment of digital media. In her essay, Croggon notes that as early as the mid-1990s word limits for reviews at The Bulletin were reduced from 800 to 350. And employment was no less precarious: ‘I know of at least three critics,’ Croggon wrote, ‘who were quietly sacked by their editors after major companies took exception to their reviews.’ Freelance contributors outnumbered in-house writers even in the 1970s, a trend that, despite the prevalence of staff and tenured reviewers in the 1990s, continues upwards. Fulltime theatre critics have never been a feature of Australia’s critical landscape.

There was no golden age. If Australian theatre criticism is in crisis then it has been a long – and capricious – one. Every turn for the worse is followed by an improvement in the patient’s health, and vice versa. Witness, for example, the recent reduction from two weekday arts pages in The Age to one – bringing it in line with the Sydney Morning Herald and matching the cuts made at Melbourne’s Herald-Sun in 2010. At the same time theatre reviews in The Age are now longer, well up from their all-time low in the mid-2000s. Hawker, meanwhile, was rehired to write about film for The Australian almost immediately.

Mainstream media reviews were at their briefest just as the first theatre review blogs began to appear in Australia: Alison Croggon’s Theatre Notes and Richard Watts’ Man About Town in 2004, and Chris Boyd’s The Morning After and Nicholas Pickard’s Sydney Arts Journo in 2005 (the latter is no longer accessible). Observers registered a shift from closed and authoritative modes of criticism in print to democratic and conversational modes online. Most of these early bloggers had prior or parallel careers in the print media and it was not just a lack of space that they were pushing back against. It was also the tenor of the mainstream media’s discourse around theatre – in Croggon’s words, ‘a snoozefest of trite conservative opinion’.

Theatre Notes and, later, other blogs such as Jana Perkovic’s Guerilla Semiotics, were at the heart of a conversation that held in it all the promise of the kind of discursive, horizontal criticism described by US critic Andy Horwitz as ‘a continuation of a dialogue initiated by the artist[s]’. These conversations drew in not only the artists themselves, but also audience members and other critics. At their best, reviews were followed by long comment threads in which new insights about the productions in question were collectively thrashed out. In the process, they helped to redefine the place of the theatre critic at the beginning of the digital age: in UK critic Mark Brown’s words, as ‘an initiator of public discussion (rather than an all-powerful arbiter)’.

The conversations begun by the likes of Croggon, Perkovic, and James Waites fizzled out under the pressures of time, effort and money (nobody was getting paid, after all) or fragmented into individual Facebook and Twitter feeds. In 2012, Croggon retired Theatre Notes – ‘I was tired,’ she tweeted last year by way of explanation, ‘& this was taking up so much of my time and energy. And money began to be an issue’. For other critics such as Waites, however, Facebook had already surpassed the blogs as a platform for immediate connection between critic and reader. Some of these conversations also drifted into Twitter, but that platform worked more as an extension of word-of-mouth commentary – a spilling over of the usual welter of post-show chitchat – than a place for methodical criticism.

‘There is no period so remote,’ goes a line in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, ‘as the recent past.’ It is dead ground. But, looking back, it seems to me that the blogosphere’s real boons for critics were not its absence of editorial controls nor its potential for formal experimentation – reviews written in emojis and the like – but its easy facilitation of dialogue between writer and reader, and, especially, the theoretically limitless space that allowed for expansive criticism. The doors were opened to a range of new critical voices, and not all of them were old and male.

The blogosphere wasn’t cordoned off from the mainstream media. Websites like Guardian Australia and Crikey’s Daily Review (formerly the Curtain Call blog) were established and they reasserted the newspaper conventions – word limits, star ratings and so on. And, notwithstanding an early controversy at Daily Review, they also offered payment for reviews. The major dailies, meanwhile, have yet to take full advantage of the freedoms of publishing online. Some, most notably the Herald Sun and The Age, post slightly longer versions of reviews online, but they are in the minority.

In a September 2014 blog post titled ‘The crisis in theatre criticism is critics saying there’s a crisis’, the Canadian academic and theatre critic Karen Fricker wrote:

I believe that quality criticism can happen for free and is happening for free. I believe that by applying innovation and hard work new models can be fashioned through which critics can make money from their work and/or support themselves through related work in order to maintain their commitment to writing quality criticism. And I believe that it is the responsibility of those of us who believe in quality criticism to apply ourselves passionately and positively towards creating such innovative solutions, rather than just repeating over and over again that the end of the world is nigh.

There is little evidence that desirable new models – ones that see writers adequately paid to produce criticism that is informed, stylish, expansive, and independent – are on their way. Recent trials of ‘embedded criticism’ in the UK have shown the name to be a misnomer – interesting stuff to be sure, but closer in form and function to reportage and, in some cases, dramaturgy than reviewing. In the US last year the Boston Globe began a program to subsidise a classical music critic with funding from a consortium of nonprofit groups. The newspaper promised the maintenance of complete editorial control but the New York Times – which has also produced journalism with the aid of non-profits – noted that the ‘arrangement raises journalistic questions, since some of the nonprofits that will help foot the bill for its critic come from the very music world [the critic] will assess.’

In a recent blog post, arts and cultural policy journalist Ben Eltham mooted a new arts organisation that would pay writers by offering a series of fulltime, three-year fellowships including a wage and entitlements. Calls for such a scheme have been made before. In an October 2016 article for Kill Your Darlings, Samantha Forge asked us to:

Imagine the poetry we could create in this country if we invested in literature to even half the extent that we invest in the performing arts. Imagine if everyone involved in the production of literature – the editors, the interns, the designers, the proofreaders and yes, even the writers – were paid a living wage for the work that they do. Imagine if our literary magazines were able to pay even the minimum MEAA-approved freelance rates to developing writers of all backgrounds, and as a consequence those writers were able to practise their scales every day, not just on weekends and public holidays. Imagine what kind of intellectual freedom we could unleash. To most working in the literary sector this feels like a pipe dream – but why should it be? If we fully support an orchestra employing 90 full-time musicians in the service of art, then why should we not also employ 90 full-time writers?

At present, the Australia Council for the Arts provides the next best thing we have: two-year fellowships of $80,000 for established artists working in the area of literature. It is also through the Australia Council that some Australian literary journals (including the Sydney Review of Books) receive part of their funding. However, in 2015-16, literature received just 2.7 per cent of the funds administered by the Australia Council, as against 13.7 per cent for opera and 32.3 per cent for symphony orchestras. Critics earn their living as they have always done – by working other jobs while cobbling together a barely five-digit income from one-off fees, usually well below MEAA rates, in an increasingly revenue-starved, content-saturated environment.

Meanwhile, the websites that are the source of an increasing proportion of this income need hits. Many have a close interest in selling advertising space and will only commission and publish arts criticism if there’s a demonstrated audience for it. ‘The trouble is,’ as music critic Alex Ross has written,

once you accept the proposition that popularity corresponds to value, the game is over for the performing arts. There is no longer any justification for giving space to classical music, jazz, dance, or any other artistic activity that fails to ignite mass enthusiasm. In a cultural-Darwinist world where only the buzziest survive, the arts section would consist solely of superhero-movie reviews, TV-show recaps, and instant-reaction think pieces about pop superstars.

As Andrew Keen noted in The Internet Is Not the Answer (2015), for all the talk of the internet’s innovation and disruptiveness, its predominant business model remains hitched to the same revenue source as that of the newspapers it is slowly replacing: advertising. (According to the business magazine Fortune, 99 per cent of online advertising profit now flows to just two companies, Google and Facebook.) Many online publishers continue to view the under- and non-payment of writers as the simplest way of monetising online content. So while Fricker’s claim that quality criticism is happening for free might be technically true, it is also hard to stomach.

Nevertheless, I find Fricker’s optimism both persuasive and refreshing. By focussing on advocacy and craft, her writings on the subject of theatre criticism lay bare the limitations of what critic Ben Etherington has dubbed the ‘decline polemic’ – a genre which holds that one or another form of criticism is in dangerously poor health. Fricker’s suggestion that critics do something constructive towards reinforcing their profession every time they feel the urge to declare its imminent demise, for example by reading an online critic’s work and responding to it or by putting in a good word with an editor for an inexperienced reviewer with potential, is an immensely appealing antidote to the defeatism of the decline polemic. Failing, wilfully or otherwise, to recognise the structural problems that currently face journalistic criticism can only hasten its demise ­– but critics also need to advocate for the significance of their work, both in relation to art and to society. As Mark Brown writes: ‘It is by better understanding the role of the critic and the nature of her craft, rather than speculating anxiously about the future of the printed page and the internet, that we best defend the cultural position of criticism’.

In 1995, freelance curator and New York Times art critic Michael Brenson gave an address at the New York Studio School of Painting and Sculpture titled ‘Resisting the Dangerous Journey: The Crisis in Journalistic Criticism’ (those two words again). By this time, according to Brenson, the culture section of The Times had become, indicatively, ‘an adornment for the most important, the only real parts of the paper, the hard news sections.’ Brenson’s speech has contemporary resonance.

Its original context was a public debate about the role of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). An NEA-supported exhibition by photographer Robert Mapplethorpe at the Corcoran Museum of Art had been pulled, and grants awarded to performance artists Karen Finley, Tim Miller, John Fleck, and Holly Hughes vetoed by NEA chairman John Frohnmayer. The NEA had already survived attempts by the Reagan administration to halve its budget, or to abolish it altogether. The case of the so-called ‘NEA Four’ now reinscribed the fault lines of arts funding in the US. The artist boycott of the 2014 Sydney Biennale had the same effect in this country. Conservatives were maddened and some see the 2015 cuts to arts funding as retaliation for the boycott.

In his speech, Brenson linked arts funding and criticism in this way: ‘Less money lavished on art means less respect and space for it in daily and weekly publications.’ The relationship is not only dialogic – that is, governments do not just find it easier to reduce funding to the arts when they are not being spoken about in the public sphere – but also concrete, in that the less money arts companies have the less will flow to publishers through advertising revenues and the like. It is a situation that cuts both ways. ‘Journalistic criticism,’ Brenson noted, ‘has an essential role to play in the artistic and cultural life of [a nation]’. When it is weakened, so too are the arts as a whole. ‘Suspicion of art and criticism,’ wrote Brenson, ‘of the kind that has been unmistakable in government… snowballs’.

As Ben Eltham convincingly argued in his Platform Paper When the Goal Posts Move (2016), the gutting of the Australia Council by former Arts Minister George Brandis was made possible, in part, by an artistic community that failed to address the importance of its role in society, especially in non-monetarist terms. ‘The arts,’ Eltham wrote, ‘are an end in themselves. They are not a way station on the path to the greater good. They are the good—the good in and of itself.’ The same can, and should, be argued of journalistic criticism. It is not merely parasitic or functional – an accounting of this or that show, one artist or another. Rather, it is a craft that, unlike much academic and specialist criticism, is wrought from the language of experience.

If, for artists, the answer to the question of what they are good for often shades into the economic and utilitarian – the culture industries employ more people than mining, art museums draw larger crowds than football stadiums, and so on – then critics, on the rare occasions the question even arises, are likely to be just as timid. Most theatre critics, I suspect, would be uncomfortable with the suggestion that their role is akin to that of an Amazon reviewer, directing potential consumers towards or away from a particular product. And yet, just as artists tend to counter funding cuts by arguing for art’s measurable usefulness rather than its intrinsic value, the opposition to newspapers reducing or eliminating the role of critics is often mounted in terms that do not assert criticism’s reason for being, its telos.

At its best, on account of its wide reach, journalistic criticism both reflects and shapes the ways in which the public experiences art. For all its limitations – the imposition of restrictive word counts and deadlines, yes, but its unexamined or undeclared assumptions about art too – this above all is why criticism in mass-media publications, whether in print or online, still matters. While the idea of the critic as tastemaker or, in cultural historian Maurice Berger’s phrase, ‘aesthetic mentor’ no longer holds, with its air of stifling condescension, the sense nevertheless remains that the critical reception of a work of art joins up a loop in which artist and audience, and other stakeholders, are also present. As UK theatre critic Irving Wardle observed in Theatre Criticism (1992): ‘There is something incomplete about a work, written, rehearsed and opened to the theatre-going public until its existence also extends to the reading public.’

In their guidelines for statements given to the press, the UK’s National Health Service recommends the following phrases be used to describe the condition of a patient: deceased, critical, critical but stable, stable, satisfactory, comfortable, progressing well, discharged. Which of these terms would we use to describe the health of our critical culture? What would a vigorous one look like, and how would we know if it existed? The signs, once again, are mixed.

The Geraldine Pascall Prize for Australian Critic of the Year, established in 1988, has only been awarded to two theatre critics – John McCallum in 1995 and Alison Croggon in 2009. The Pascall hasn’t been awarded since 2014 (though an inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award was given to film critic Evan Williams in 2015). I contacted the organisers to find out why and was told that as the Foundation was running out of money the Prize was being absorbed by the Walkleys. That’s not inappropriate, as Geraldine Pascall herself was a journalist, and so too are many of the critics who have been recognized by the award. There’s never been a stand-alone category for arts journalism at the Walkleys — but at this year’s ceremony the Pascall Prize will be awarded again to an outstanding arts journalist or critic. According to the Foundation’s website (currently inaccessible), the Pascall seeks to acknowledge Australian critics whose work meets the following criteria:

• stimulates interest in the subject
• expands knowledge about the subject;
• arouses debate;
• creates a vital, engaging voice in the culture through the expression of strong, considered opinion(s); has intrinsic creative merit.

This is, effectively, a set of guidelines for a kind of critical best practice. My hope is that, while we get on with the messy, hard, necessary business of meeting them, the revival of the Pascall Prize at the Walkleys will correct a longstanding oversight in the discourse around, and recognition of, Australia’s critical culture. That is, it is a living culture, constituted moment-to-moment by many interdependent parts, the decline of which has been exaggerated. As such, it is, in the words of Isak Dinesen, ‘without hope and without despair’ that we must tend to the patient, suturing with craft and care, too busy to cry crisis while she still draws breath.

Postscript, 7 April: In this essay I described Australia’s critical culture as a living one, ‘constituted moment-to-moment’. On the day after it was published, Fairfax Media announced that it will cut $30 million from its editorial budget and outsource arts and entertainment content. The changes may benefit freelancers but will no doubt do so at the cost of fulltime jobs. Beyond that, little is certain. A 5 April media release outlined the company’s position: ‘Our publications will be genuine digital businesses with the capabilities and cost base to best operate in the current media environment. We will be introducing an innovative mix of new products to deliver our audience focused, quality journalism and maximise our revenue opportunities. We will continue to print for many years, so long as our newspapers have an audience and advertisers.’

Works Cited

Michael Brenson, , ‘Resisting the Dangerous Journey: The Crisis in Journalistic Criticism’, in The Crisis of Criticism, Berger, Maurice (ed.), New Press, New York, 1998.
Mark Brown, ‘Between Journalism and Art: The Location of Criticism in the Twenty-First Century’, in Theatre Criticism: Changing Landscapes, Radosavljević, Duška (ed.), Bloomsbury, London, 2016.
Michael Cooper, ‘Nonprofits to Help Boston Globe Pay Classical Music Critic’, 31 October 2016.
Alison Croggon, ‘Culture Crisis’, The Monthly, October 2016, pp. 30–36.
Ben Eltham, ‘When the Goal Posts Move’, Currency House, NSW, 2016.
Karen Fricker, ‘The crisis in theatre criticism is critics saying there’s a crisis’, 11 September 2014.
Andrew Keen, The Internet is not the Answer, Atlantic Books, London, 2015.
Alex Ross, ‘The fate of the critic in the clickbait age’, 13 March 2017.
Irving Wardle, Theatre Criticism, Routledge, London, 1992.

The SRB-CA Emerging Critics Fellowships are supported by the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund.

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