Opinion: why arts critics are just as important as ever
Post-show tweets are all well and good, but we still need reliable, informed and impartial critical voices
The experienced critic is under threat, but as this year’s Fringe demonstrated they are needed now more than ever
Everyone’s a critic. Especially in 2013. This year’s Edinburgh festival has been marked by a swell of social media reviewing: with applause still ringing in their ears, more and more performers are ordering audiences to tweet about what they’ve just seen (only if they liked it, of course), or even – in recorded announcements at Assembly shows – to submit their own reviews of the performance online. Share your views, tell your friends, have your say.
So what’s the point of a traditional critic, then? Some of their employers don’t even seem to know. At the end of a summer in which the Independent on Sunday has sacked all its arts critics, deciding instead to run a digest of reviews from other newspapers, some increasingly fractious writers could be forgiven for thinking their days are numbered (when the Independent tweeted a link to an article called ‘How much would you pay for this James Bond submarine car?’, their now ex-pop critic Simon Price replied, ‘Nothing. I’d get rid of it, and drive a digest of other people’s cars instead’).
But the Independent’s decision is staggeringly wrong-headed. In fact, traditional arts criticism is hugely important. Above an ever-louder festival roar of social media opinion and audience feedback, traditional reviewing – backed up by experience and properly edited – is more useful than ever.
Critics are some of the only people at the Fringe paid to have audience experience at the forefront of their minds. In a flooded performance market like the Fringe, reading early reviews is still, for many people, the main way of deciding what to see. Would you be more likely to take a chance on a show that you’ve only heard about from the back of a flyer, if you noticed it also had four stars from The Scotsman? Probably.
Performers might well prefer it if potential audiences only listened to the handful of people who like a show enough to tweet about it. Promoters enjoy claiming that these tweeters are more representative than critics, but that’s simply not true. At the moment, even brilliant shows that sell out entire runs (and collect whole constellations of five star reviews) still only generate a handful of online responses from audience members. But acts know that professional festival reviews are widely read and trusted, and that’s why they get so much more upset by bad reviews than by negative tweets.
Critics are an audience’s best friend. Entirely crowdsourced arts coverage would be an unhelpful creature, silent about many shows and raving disproportionately about already-popular acts. Imagine the National Library of Scotland stocking nothing but Fifty Shades of Grey. The Fringe could become like that: hidden gems remaining buried under unfortunately-written show descriptions in the Fringe programme, while the biggest promoters delight in yet another positive tweet that may or may not have been written by the director’s mum. It doesn’t sound good, does it? So, critics and audiences, let’s stick together here. We’re on the same team.