What Makes a Great Critic? A Mysterious Extra Quality Marks out Exceptional Reviewers Such as Alexander Walker, Whose Life and Work Are Celebrated Today in a Memorial Service at St Bride's

The Evening Standard (London, England), October 1, 2003 | Go to article overview
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What Makes a Great Critic? A Mysterious Extra Quality Marks out Exceptional Reviewers Such as Alexander Walker, Whose Life and Work Are Celebrated Today in a Memorial Service at St Bride's


Byline: NORMAN LEBRECHT

ARTS criticism is not the quintessence of art. It is a tertiary adjunct, neither creating nor performing what has been created but standing one pace ahead of the crowd to chuck bouquets or ordure at the passing cavalcade.

Bad critics, and there is no shortage of them, strut the interval lobbies in a thicket of acolytes. Good ones, downcast by the magnitude of art, drink alone at the end of the bar. Great critics eschew sycophants and stimulants.

They stand apart, right or wrong, revalidating the art of their time.

Two of the finest critics ever to grace the arts died in July. Alexander Walker was film critic of the Evening Standard for 44 years, the most trusted of first-sighters and beyond comparison the most stylish. Three generations of readers were guided down dim-lit aisles by the pencil-beam of Walker's perception. When he started reviewing, film was politely deprecated as an entertainment, not a true art form.

When he died, aged 73, it was universally acknowledged as the premier art of our times. That validation arose, in no small part, from Alexander Walker's evangelical ardour, his caustic and compelling conviction.

Harold Schonberg, who died in New York, aged 87, was music critic of the New York Times from 1960 to 1980 and thereafter its cultural essayist. He came into the post with his art form in its prime: Leonard Bernstein was packing Carnegie Hall with eagerfaced kids, Stravinsky had embraced atonality and new waves of reconstructionist composers were breaking all known conventions. By the time Harold retired, his art had been redesignated "classical" and forsaken by the mainstream.

No reflection, this, on Schonberg's critical achievement. I remember him warning, years ahead of the trend, that American concert life would atrophy if it did not wake up and engage with its times. Sainte-Beuve, the paramount French literary critic of the first half of the 19th century, once said that a critic "is a man whose watch is five minutes ahead of other people's".

Harold was sometimes five years ahead, sometimes light years behind.

Throughout Bernstein's golden era, Schonberg ceaselessly attacked his Philharmonic programming and lampooned Glenn Gould's piano playing. He was never more readable than when utterly wrong.

His verdicts became, in time, immaterial: Bernstein entered history and Schonberg became fish-wrapping.

But the sparks struck by his flinty reviews fire the glow that endures as Bernstein's halo.

Alexander Walker, too, was a chronicler of decline. In 1974 he wrote a book called Hollywood England, an upbeat account of Britain's burgeoning film industry. At the time of his death he was two-thirds of the way through a history of its demise.

Nothing roused his dander more than the deadhead Arts and Film councils which presided over the diminution of a once-verite art covering all aspects of British life to a thin stream of stripping frenzies - The Full Monty and Calendar Girls. Among Walker's 20 books, this last one would have been his angriest. Schonberg wrote best-selling dynastic histories of great pianists and conductors. He refused dinner engagements at which musical personalities might be present, the better to nourish his detachment.

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