The Art of Criticism: judgement in crisis?

Sunday 1 November, 1.45pm until 3.15pm, Upper Gulbenkian Gallery Keynote Controversies

Critics used to be feared and respected for their ability to make definitive judgements on everything from conceptual art to catwalk fashions. This mattered not just for the success – or failure – of the individuals being judged, but for shaping culture more generally. Critical acclaim for 18th-century actor David Garrick changed how we viewed Shakespeare as well as actors. Hazlitt was Romanticism’s critical muse, while Kenneth Tynan championed the post-war realism of plays like John Osborne’s Look Back In Anger. It could even be said that criticism makes us who we are, forming, as Roger Scruton puts it, ‘part of the great transition from youthful enjoyment to adult discrimination’. Today criticism can still – sometimes literally – define our tastes, with the Evening Standard’s Fay Maschler described as the ‘most feared and respected restaurant critic’ in London.

But society often seems to have disavowed its critics today, particularly where high culture is concerned. If anything, tough criticism is less associated with the arts than lifestyle journalism and light entertainment, from Fay Maschler to Simon Cowell. Some fear the dearth of in-depth critical writing reflects something deeper. With teachers wary of criticising students lest they damage their self-esteem, and professional journalism giving way to amateur blogging, are we the midst of a crisis of judgement? From politics to pop, some argue robust debate has collapsed to be replaced by a culture in which everybody’s opinions must be respected.

Are we no longer comfortable with criticism and authority today? Who needs a coterie of ‘official’ critics when anybody can publish a blog or write a reader’s review?  Is this a liberating democratisation, empowering the man and woman in the street? How can we refine our own judgement without a wider culture of criticism? Do we risk reducing critical clarity to a competing cacophony of unexamined prejudices? Isn’t a society that is afraid to make critical judgements one that surrenders to paralysis and puerility? What is the role of the critic and why should we listen?

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Dr Ronan McDonald
senior lecturer, English, University of Reading; author, The Death of the Critic

Munira Mirza
advisor on arts and philanthropy; former deputy mayor of London for education and culture; author, The Politics of Culture: the case for universalism

James Runcie
novelist, East Fortune; film-maker, Powerhouses and My Father; artistic director, Bath Literature Festival

Gabriella Swallow
cellist, broadcaster and arts commentator

Dr Tiffany Jenkins
writer and broadcaster; author, Keeping Their Marbles: how treasures of the past ended up in museums and why they should stay there

Produced by
Dr Tiffany Jenkins writer and broadcaster; author, Keeping Their Marbles: how treasures of the past ended up in museums and why they should stay there
Recommended readings
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The Death of the Critic reviewed

McDonald’s careful and engaged critique defends the idea of criticism through a historical discussion of the critics’ changing role, dealing on the way with the ‘democratisation’ of criticism aided by the internet, and its obscurantist elevation into self-reflection by post-structuralists.

Michael Savage, Culture Wars, 21 January 2008

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