It’s frequently said, with varying degrees of regret, that there’s no need for full-time critics any more. Do potential punters really need to know what someone from The Guardian or New Yorker said about a specific book or restaurant or movie or conceptual installation, we’re asked, when anyone can see that it got four and a bit stars on Amazon or TripAdvisor?
I’m a little torn on this. I see exactly why TripAdvisor exists, and I’m glad that it does, but it does require a healthy dose of scepticism on the part of the reader; not just when it comes to disguised conflicts of interests (giving a crap review to a rival, for example) but also straightforward ignorance from the reviewer. I was talking to a hugely skilled and experienced chef yesterday, the sort of guy who can take all sorts of criticism on the chin, but he was deeply irritated that someone had said that his ravioles were all wrong. Not bad, note – wrong. “I make them how they’re meant to be made,” he sighed. “If someone doesn’t like that, fair enough. But I really don’t know what this guy’s comparing them with.”
I sympathise with the chef, so you’d expect me to be singing hosannas to Ted Gioia, who in a Daily Beast piece last week railed against music critics who don’t have any grounding in musical theory. Well, no. Apart from the fact that I used to scrabble around on the fringes of the music crit biz and I couldn’t tell a diminuendo from a diminished fifth, this does suggest that technical ability should be the most important consideration when it comes to judging music, which would ultimately mean that Emerson, Lake and Palmer or Level 42 are somehow empirically better than Bo Diddley or the Ramones, a prospect I simply refuse to countenance. And moreover, modern popular music – even more than any other art form – has been about rather more than the music for several decades. How could one possibly contemplate, say, a Public Enemy album in purely musicological terms? (Further responses to Gioia’s piece from Ian Rogers at The Vine, Jody Rosen at Vulture and Mike Powell at Pitchfork.)
So who are the authority figures supposed to be? What are the criteria? Who judges the judges? As the BBC announces plans for an updated version of its legendary art history series Civilisation, heads are being scratched as to who would be the best frontperson. Kenneth Clark, the original civiliser-in-chief, certainly knew his stuff, but would a similar level of patrician assurance suit Civ 2.0? No, but at the same time we wouldn’t fancy Ant and/or Dec in the role either. Or, for that matter, someone randomly plucked from TripAdvisor. We need an expert whose expertise is implied, not woven into his bespoke suit.