Originally published by Frieze on 2nd September 2013
As a penniless culture critic, last month’s announcement that The Independent on Sunday was bringing the axe to bear on every single one of its culture reviewers was the final nail in the cardboard coffin (wooden ones are far too expensive), that was my hope of making it a legitimate career.
Instead, the editor announced they would be employing a crack team of monkeys and plying them with peanuts, Red Bull and methamphetamine – because it’s easier on the budget, and after all, anyone can have a valid opinion these days. Okay so I made that last bit up, but it would have been better than the reality, which is that one of the country’s leading publications will no longer have any culture reviews.
And yes, I get it, print is dead, or at least terminally ill; this move is just a further sign of digital’s cannibalisation of print media. The problem for us critics, is that whereas print pays, online platforms all too often don’t.
Some of you may be thinking ‘we all have an opinion, why should you get paid to express yours?’ And whilst it’s true that social media and blogs have given everyone a platform to vent their spleen, most people’s opinions on cultural events are not that interesting or considered.
It’s a bit like saying, ‘Well we all have a body, let’s all become professional athletes’. Of course, with enough practice, some individual talent and a little luck, no doubt some of us could, but being a good culture critic requires its own blend of skills, expertise and motivation.
It’s not about elitism – everyone can and should enjoy art, but it takes a certain type of person to dig beneath the surface of an artwork, identify things others might not, highlight subtle cultural references and, crucially, transmute this into accessible and entertaining prose.
If every publication were to follow The Independent on Sunday ‘s example and discard culture reviews altogether, culture lovers would be drowning in a sea of self-promoting press-releases whose job it is to sell the product, not assess it based on its merits. This would only cement the growing trend of commodification of culture; moving artworks even closer to being mere shallow products to be marketed and sold, rather than contested sites of debate that can inspire and incite in equal measure.
Art critics often get a bad press, which for some I’m sure seems like poetic justice, but they play a vital role not just in the promotion but also the production of cultural products. Art isn’t finished the moment it is placed in a gallery – how the art is received and inscribed with meaning is also part of the process, and insightful criticism is essential for making vibrant, intelligible culture.
You might argue that because arts are being cut across the board, it’s only fair that critics take some of the pain too – after all, ‘we’re all in this together’. But whilst the slashing of public funding of arts institutions is lamentable, the contemporary art market is booming; in May, Christie’s marquee post-War and contemporary art sale made a titanic, record breaking $495 million. In the meantime, opportunities for art critics disappear quicker than polar ice.
Undoubtedly, critics need both artists and art lovers to acknowledge how essential informed critical debate is for the art world. So the next time you read a review that expands your horizons, or forces you to reconsider something cultural, spare a thought for the poor critic that wrote it. They’re probably going hungry.