Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Notes on a Scandal: As We Launch Our Search for the Next Great Music Critic, Norman Lebrecht Surveys the State of Arts Criticism and Asks: Does It Have a Future?

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Notes on a Scandal: As We Launch Our Search for the Next Great Music Critic, Norman Lebrecht Surveys the State of Arts Criticism and Asks: Does It Have a Future?

Article excerpt

One summer's day a dozen years ago, while lecturing a class of Spanish graduates on arts criticism, 1 suddenly realised they hadn't a clue what I was talking about. Spain had lived under Church repression into the 20th century, and under Fascism until General Franco's death in 1975. The notion of a free press was fairly recent and non-partisan arts comment was novel, in a country where art was provided by the government. Criticism, one student said, mightbe construed as ingratitude.

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Tearing up my notes, I spent the next three hours on my feet explaining the history and practices of criticism--from Swift and Addison in the coffee houses of London to the telegenic interpretations of Kenneth Clark, Robert Hughes and Marcel Reich-Ranicki, whose expert enthusiasms developed the critical faculties of an armchair audience: an unexpected democratisation, marvellous to behold and infinitely valuable.

Clark made it possible for a chap in a pub to appreciate Francis Bacon, and Reich-Ranicki for a hausfrau to persuade her neighbour in the butcher's queue that Gunter Grass was a more important writer than Hermann Hesse. Kenneth Tynan and Pauline Kael added repertoire tips and quality control to their remit. Their successors attempt to mediate between a bewildered public and the debate about conceptual art. The role of the critic is in constant evolution, a work in progress, a creative necessity.

Yet, in 2010, the critic is an endangered species, almost a write-off. The onslaught of the internet on newspaper economics has ravaged arts journalism. Across the United States, from Miami to Seattle, newspapers have slashed budgets and sacked critics, leaving the New York Times, which is similarly under siege, wielding an unhealthy near-hegemony.

In Britain, the Telegraph and the Times cut review fees to [pounds sterling]40 and [pounds sterling]60, a disincentive for all but the utterly desperate and the academically tenured (who else would write all night for the price of a cheap pair of shoes?). The mechanism for succession has gone to rust. The average age of classical music reviewers on the nationals is over 55; theatre critics are not much younger. Atrophy is setting in.

At the former incarnation of the Evening Standard eight years ago, I published four to five reviews a night, and six to seven at weekends. No newspaper, the Standard included, maintains that level of engagement today, and as a result much of London's glorious diversity goes unreviewed. Ethnic and experimental arts are ignored, as are venues off the beaten track. When did you last read about a concert in Croydon, Blackheath or Basingstoke? The Brighton Festival is covered, if at all, by local writers because the nationals won't pay train fares.

In the Midlands and the north, most newspapers have gone downmarket. Vasily Petrenko of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, an orchestra in the ascendant, asked me not long ago if the Arts Council couldn't subsidise the press to publish reviews. His proposal was not altogether quixotic. A lack of regional reviews distorts relative merit and turns the allocation of state funding into a political lottery Goodness, as Mae West said in another context, has nothing to do with it.

On television, the BBC has replaced genre authorities with comedians such as Rolf Harris or the gardener Alan Titchmarsh. Alan Yentob, a time-serving executive famed for his creative indecision, has planted himself uncertainly in a main-channel slot. ITV, the Simon Cowell channel, has abolished The South Bank Show. Channel 4 flickers to deceive. Talent shows, dance excepted, are judged by ignorance. TV has abdicated its role in the arts conversation.

These depredations leave criticism in a crisis that is as insoluble as it is universal. Only in France and Germany are critics protected and respected as before, and even in those rule-bound societies the howling of wolves can be heard at the editorial door. …

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