The Role of the Arts Critic: a Childers Group Public Roundtable

Last week, I reorganised my Friday Lunch Group’s schedule in order to attend a public roundtable on the role of the arts critic organised by the Childers Group. This group, formed in late 2011, describes itself as an “independent arts forum … committed to the long-term viability and vitality of the arts”. It aims to advocate for the arts across government and private sectors. Last week’s roundtable was, I think, the third public forum they’ve held. All have been well-attended, which hopefully bodes well for the arts!

The event ran for two hours and featured a large panel of local critics/reviewers, administrators and practitioners in a wide range of the arts. They included the universally well-known, like Robyn Archer and Marion Halligan, and more local luminaries such as arts critic Helen Musa and Canberra Times editor-at-large Jack Waterford. It was emceed by writer and arts administrator Yolande Norris, who put questions herself and managed contributions from the audience. The ideas and viewpoints flowed – with a lot of concordance but some differences as well. Below is my summary.

Trader in ideas

Lucy – with a self-deprecating “I’m a poet so you won’t know me” – Alexander made the point of the day, for me. Late in the panel, she (from the audience) suggested that the critic is a trader in ideas. By this she meant that, in looking at a work, the critic picks up the ideas contained within it, weighs them, and explores what they might mean for people.

Another arts practitioner from the audience said, along similar lines, that she values information and insight into what is going on – into what the creator may have intended and what the critic actually “read”.

Somewhat related to these ideas, Marion Halligan said earlier in session that she regularly reads reviews (or criticism) of books, plays etc, she doesn’t expect to see or read, because “a critic tells you what’s going on” and gives you “a sense of the arts landscape”. A critic, therefore, she and others said, needs to be able to write (or speak) authoritatively and engagingly.

All this neatly sidestepped discussions about negative and positive criticism and got to the nub – to my mind anyhow – of the real value of criticism. While negative or constructive “criticism” of a work may be useful for the creator, Alexander’s point captured the bigger picture value of criticism. And it reflected, I think, what Robyn Archer meant at the beginning of the session when she suggested that “the arts” comprises three prongs: artist, audience, and the dialogue between them. These three need to be in balance she said for there to be a strong culture.

There was some discussion about the form of this dialogue, with film critic Cris Kennedy suggesting that dialogue is easier in the digital age. Robyn Archer queried the role of expertise in the digital age. She was concerned about the rise of “a new cultural democracy” – the world of “likes” and “unlikes” – and the resultant attitude that “if it’s popular it’s good”. I suspect there has always been this tension – but I guess it’s increasingly visible in our social media dominated world, isn’t it?

Overall, it was agreed, at least as far is there was agreement, that the critic should be knowledgable, that criticism should be “artful”, but that the important thing is opening dialogue.

What is criticism?

There was, of course, quite a bit of discussion about what criticism is. The point was quickly made that a review or criticism does more than describe. It takes up broader questions relating to the art form being reviewed, and should involve a studied reaction drawing on knowledge. It should illuminate and “bind things together” and requires a “critical” frame of mind. This was contrasted to “opinion” which seemed to be defined as “judgement” without a firm basis of knowledge.

Jack Waterford suggested that a lot of cultural discussion is occurring, such as on local ABC radio, but that this isn’t necessarily the same as criticism. Related to this, an audience member mentioned the issue of public art in Canberra, suggesting there’d been a lot negativity in the news pages and not enough criticism in the arts pages of the newspapers.

There was discussion about the need for disinterest, and that this was tricky to achieve in a small arts community like Canberra. (Marion Halligan suggested most arts communities are small – take England, she said, where the writers all review each other!)

One contributor suggested that food criticism is currently leading the way, and that the arts could look at what’s happening there! (There wasn’t discussion, however, on what this criticism entails and how it is leading the way.)

Who is criticism for?

The general view was that criticism is for the reader, though who the reader is wasn’t fully teased out. Those writing for papers and journals clearly see the reader as their public, and feel a responsibility to inform. One panel member made the point that criticism written for, say, a specialist dance journal should be different to that written for a general newspaper. An audience member pointed out that in the online world, the audience is international, and that this can (should) impact style and content.

There was also some discussion about creators and the role of criticism for them. Many appreciated constructive criticism, but quite a few said they use trusted friends to vet criticism, as negative criticism (that written from a point of ignorance) can be destructive. Criticism is also affirmation that people are looking at their work. As Marion Halligan said, the worst thing is silence. No review, she said, is worse than a bad review.

What is the aim of criticism?

In addition to the ideas implied above – contributing to the culture, informing the consumer and increasing people’s knowledge, providing constructive feedback to creators – it was also suggested that “the critic is a cog in the marketing machine”. I wouldn’t like to think that “marketing” per se is the critic’s role – and I don’t think that’s quite what was meant. But the critic does help promote the culture, can function as an advocate – in both cultural and political spheres.

This is certainly how I see my blog – as an advocate for Australian (in particular) literature . Of course, I’d like to think my reviews encouraged people to actually buy books, but my specific goal is to raise awareness about Australian literary culture.


Hmm … this is the hard part. Did the roundtable come to any final agreement or resolutions? No, I wouldn’t say it did. But I assume the organisers will take away the ideas presented and feed it into their future activities.

Near the end, it was suggested that it’s time to start populating the digital media with criticism and dialogue. This is an area that was not really tackled – that was just played with around the edges – and is possibly a good subject for the Childers Group to take up for their next roundtable.  What is happening in the online world and how can it best be harnessed to support and promote the arts. What impact does the growth of the amateur reviewer/critic have? Is there a difference between reviewer and critic?

Finally, returning to the opening idea of the critic as a “trader in ideas”, I liked the related suggestion that arts criticism is about the big things, about living and who we are. Can’t say better than that, eh?

A big thankyou to Nigel Featherstone and the Childers Group for holding this roundtable.

14 thoughts on “The Role of the Arts Critic: a Childers Group Public Roundtable

  1. Thankyou Sue for suggesting I attend this and thanks for writing this up. I arrived from Sydney about half way through the roundtable, but the impression I had from the discussion I heard and from your post, is that the issues surrounding audience could be brought out further.

    A piece of criticism such as a review can have multiple audiences such as the artist themselves, fellow artists, the general public (and who is that really?), people who have been trained in the art but are not professionally involved and who may maintain an interest as a hobby etc. A piece of criticism as an engine of dialogue amongst the audience. The criticism can provoke and lead that dialogue. Yet this is the tricky part. How does a critic engage the audience with a piece of art and generate debate? The critic plays an important role in promoting discussion but how can a critic attract not only a passive audience such as lurkers on a blog, but an audience that is prepared to voice their thoughts and discuss them with others publicly?

    As you said at the roundtable it takes quite a lot of work on the part of the critic to foster audience engagement. There is also skill involved in this. I agree that this would be a good topic for another roundtable.

    • Thanks Yvonne … I was thrilled that you took up my suggestion, and that we got to have a chat afterwards. Hope the weekend’s events went well and all is fine at home. I didn’t hear anything about your area being in trouble.

      Thanks for your comment. As you say, reaching and engaging people – the diversity of us all – in dialogue is the challenge. We now have, as Kennedy said, the technology to do it but do we have the skills to manage it?

      • Spot on! In one sense the technology is the easy part, developing the skills to use it to its full advantage and manage it is the tricky part.

        The swimming went well and fortunately all is quiet at the home front. It was fortunate I left Sydney in the morning. Those who left Sydney in the late afternoon were held up by lengthy road blocks on the Hume Highway and didn’t arrive in Canberra until midnight. Some who drove through the fire area in mid afternoon had to drive through with flames along the roadside.

  2. Love the idea of a critic being a ‘trader of ideas’, and the emphasis upon foreknowledge as an element in writing a critique, especially when opposed the book review. I read a lot of reviews that are simply reviews, that do not offer a ‘critique’ of the work for various reasons. It’s useful to distinguish this.
    I’ve recently been calling myself a ‘word hustler’ !

    • Oh, I’m glad you like the term too, Catherine. Quite a few of us there did I think. Word hustler – does that cover all your writing? Hmm … that could sound a little too self-deprecating.

      The critique/review definition wasn’t really teased out but I see it pretty much as you describe here. And it is probably a bit of a continuum in practice isn’t it with different writings falling all along the line.

  3. I think the “trader in ideas” point aligns perfectly with the fact that there was no One Single Consensus reached by the end of the session — and rightly so! Knowledge and perspectives are ever changing, contextual, determined by individual backgrounds and values, and ever adaptable to/as a result of the process of “walking in another’s shoes”… even the critic’s shoes, perhaps?

    • Good point Hannah … the idea does accept the notion that ideas are fluid (and should be so). I think “walking in another’s shoes” is an important part of it – in two ways. Creative works enable us to walk in another’s shoes, and then critics I think need to try to walk in the shoes of the creator to understand what they might have been intending and what impact their criticism might have on the creator!

  4. The idea of trading ideas also equalises the role of artist with the critic/commentator. There seemed to be a bit of discussion about who was qualified to comment/criticise work – does the critic need to be a practicing artist? Is it enough that they have just engaged with the concepts of the work? Perhaps. Also, the more ideas are traded the more qualified we ALL become…

    • Thanks for joining in poemation. You’re right there was some discussion about that too. I think artist-critics can bring a different and valuable experience to criticism, but not all artists can write. Also their perspective is different and it could, in some situations, be too close (but I don’t want to add to that “to be objective” because we can never be really objective can we?).

      So, I don’t think they “need” to be a practising artist, but they “can” be. They do need to engage with the work and be able to explore its ideas. As you say, the more ideas are traded the better – for criticism and for the culture.

      What do you think?

  5. Oh what a wonderful event! I think the thought of criticism as trading ideas, it puts a bit of difference perspective on it, make it less about liked it didn’t like it and more about the big things. To bad they didn’t reach out into online, but as you suggest maybe they can do a whole panel on the topic another time. Also, I am definitely not of the mindset that popular equals good but inclined very much to the opposite so that it takes convincing from someone I trust for me to read a “best seller”

    • Yes, Stefanie, you’ve nailed what I like about the trader notion, the removal of the like/don’t like situation which I find fraught and somewhat irrelevant to the analysis of a work. I “like” most things I read because I choose to read things that I expect to be interesting. I may not agree, I may think there are aspects that are weak in some way, but I rarely dislike.

      And yes, re best seller. I still … Why do I say still … Haven’t read Dan Brown!

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