Trust me, I'm a music critic

Saturday 18 October, 16.00 until 17.15, Free Stage, Barbican Creative Conundrums

The writer Brendan Behan infamously described critics as ‘like eunuchs at a harem: they know how it’s done, they’ve seen it done every day, but they don’t know how to do it themselves’. Yet while venomous put-downs between artists and critics are nothing new, critics at Glyndebourne this year found themselves in the midst of a Twitterstorm after making disparaging comments about an opera singer’s weight. Some outraged commentators accused the critics of sexist double-standards, arguing that opera critics should judge only the singing; others complained they were engaging in ‘body-shaming’. One of the critics, plus a few defenders, retorted they were justified in making such harsh judgements on artistic grounds and that their critical duty was to judge the work, not protecting the feelings of performers.

The argument seemed to reflect many of the uncertainties around the role of critics today. There is anxiety from some quarters that professional arts critics are being pushed out of the cultural mainstream and being replaced by amateur bloggers or non-experts pointing to the loss of the BBC’s once flagship Review Show as evidence that serious criticism is no longer valued. Others counter, however, that social media has rejuvenated the discipline, offering a greater platform for informed opinion and debate than ever before.  Optimists point towards the seriousness of alternative music sites such as Pitchfork, and the flourishing of online reviews sites for classical music, as proof that arts coverage can thrive online.

Yet for others the debate is less about platforms than the role of a critic as arbiter of artistic value. When the BBC announced earlier this year that it would remake the famous series Civilisation, some commentators lamented the lack of a successor to Kenneth Clark, but many more felt it was important that the new series reflect a diversity of opinion rather than Clark’s patrician Eurocentrism and that few would accept such a highly loaded ‘personal view’ of culture.

What role do critics play today? Is their job to act as more as informed reviewers and guides to the cultural landscape or do they have a greater role to play in shaping taste? Is serious criticism in seemingly terminal decline or are critics simply being held to stricter account in the digital age? On what criteria should critics base their judgements?

Christopher Gillett
opera singer; columnist, and Opernwelt

Cathy Graham
director of music, British Council

Ivan Hewett
chief music critic, Daily Telegraph; professor, Royal College of Music; broadcaster; author, Music: healing the rift

Amanda Holloway
commissioning editor, Sinfini Music

Simon Millward
director, Albion Media; former London art critic, Wall Street Journal

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
Tom Hutchinson clarinettist; teacher; arts project manager, Royal Philharmonic Society
Recommended readings
A Times critic crosses the line of malice

Early this summer, a slew of middle-aged, male London critics lay into an Irish mezzo-soprano at Glyndebourne for being too fat. - See more at:

Norman Lebrecht, Slipped Disk, 17 September 2014

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