When no one is left
The crisis in Australian arts coverage
Many years ago I happened upon a discussion of the word critique, in a book by the American philosopher and political scientist Wendy Brown, that has stuck with me ever since. “Critique is an old term that derives from the Greek krisis,” writes Brown.
In ancient Athens, krisis was a jurisprudential term identified with the art of making distinctions, an art considered essential to judging and rectifying an alleged disorder in or of the democracy … The sifting and sorting entailed in Greek krisis focused on distinguishing the true from the false, the genuine from the spurious, the beautiful from the ugly, and the right from the wrong, distinctions that involved weighing pros and cons of particular arguments – that is, evaluating and eventually judging evidence, reasons, or reasoning.
Brown’s description of krisis and its political function within ancient Greek democracy has always struck me as a cogent definition of criticism itself, as an art form. The English word critic also comes from the Greek, kritikos, which itself derives from kritēs, which means “judge”. A critic is a person who makes judgements.
For this reason, among others, critics tend to be disliked, or, at least, people pretend to dislike them. I think that we are prone to confuse the element of judgement that is involved in criticism with the image of a courtroom judge, so that the critic becomes, in the mind, a remote, authoritarian and possibly arrogant figure, issuing their pronouncements from on high. No wonder people hate critics. Those bastards think they know everything.
Only – believe me – we don’t. No critic that I have ever met believes that they are entitled to the final word on a subject. But good critics, passionate critics, are motivated by a desire to be the best audience member that they can be. A critic needs to be informed, enthusiastic, curious and open-minded. This is all I ask of other critics; it’s all I ask of myself. I don’t want to be a judge, or the judge, but I do believe in the democratic function – indeed, the necessity – of making judgements. I believe in the art of speaking back to art; of analysing it, arguing with it, celebrating it, sifting and sorting through its constituent elements. I cannot imagine how I would make sense of the world without art, but nor can I comprehend how I would make sense of art without criticism.
Effective criticism is timely, and alert to the times in which it is made; it forms one strand of a wider public conversation that we are each entitled to join, by virtue of being alive. But in Australia we are all, increasingly, being denied participation in, and exposure to, art and arts criticism. The two go together, never mind the well-worn cliché that artists and critics are sworn enemies.
Last week, after the announcement from Fairfax management that 125 editorial positions would be cut from its mastheads, it emerged that arts criticism and arts journalism will likely be a prime casualty of these staff cuts. This comes in addition to the hundreds of editorial staff, including arts critics, that Fairfax has already made forcibly redundant over the past half-dozen or so years. Then there are the savage funding cuts made to the Australia Council since 2015, funding and staff cuts made at the ABC and other cultural institutions, and, in my hometown of Sydney, the decimation of local music and small arts venues due to lockout laws and rampant gentrification. Taken all together, it seems to me not much, if any, exaggeration to say that the majority of people who hold power in this country hate artists, hate anyone who thinks about art, and would rather that everyone of such a persuasion gave up, and shut up, for good.
As critic Alison Croggon wrote in this publication late last year, in this country, art “is considered a leisure activity, a luxury for the elite, an entertainment in the most reductive senses of the word, a value-free product”. As a nation, we are hostile to self-examination, which is a part of what art and arts criticism can do. We don’t want to hear that we are anything but the fair-go larrikins who carry the spirit of the Anzacs in their hearts, or something like that. (These nationalistic myths of bravery and justice feel increasingly threadbare and incoherent.) We want to be entertained, and reassured of our fundamental decency, but not challenged.
Or do we? A critic underestimates the intelligence of an audience at her peril. In fact, I think there is a hunger – a great hunger – among local audiences for work, both Australian and otherwise, that will help us to think through the world that we find ourselves in. But what happens when that work is ignored? When no one is left to write about it, to argue with it, to take it up and wrestle with it?
Some might say that the internet solves the problem: if we can access music, literature, television and film in a single click, then arts critics are unnecessary. But this overlooks the fact that the internet tends to exacerbate, rather than unsettle, hierarchies of attention. The most famous artists and the most profitable works – the hit television shows and franchise movies – are given more coverage than they generally need, or deserve. Riskier, less popular artists and their works are left begging for the scraps and clicks left over from coverage that has to generate revenue before anything else. And this is the direction in which Fairfax has been headed for some years now, like a train with its wheels falling off.
But it was local arts critics at Fairfax and the ABC – critics like Bernard Zuel, Sandra Hall, James Waites, Craig Mathieson, and the nation’s beloved Margaret and David – who demonstrated to me, when I was a young reader, that such a thing as criticism even existed. There isn’t a school for criticism, or a degree you can take; you learn by reading, imitation and practice. The part of you that reads a review and thinks “Yes, but”, or “No, and”, is the part that has to be encouraged, given space, given a chance, in order for you to become a critic. But these spaces and these chances are being shut down or, worse, left open only to those who can afford to work for free, which is indeed a luxury.
I am thankful for the spaces I have as a critic, including here at the Monthly, and for the chances I’ve been given. But I genuinely despair for the future. I am 35, and I see local artists and arts critics my age and younger – many more than I could count – who are given few to no opportunities to participate in public conversation. There are musicians with no venues to play in, theatre critics with no publications to write for, filmmakers with no cinemas in which to screen their work, writers who cannot afford to write books. This country’s culture is being starved, and with it any opportunity to understand ourselves as something other than subjects of a ruthless economy. We are in crisis.