NOBODY ever built a statue, so the saying goes, to a critic.
This quote (attributed to several different people, but Finnish composer Sibelius was the likely originator) has been on my mind this week.
Having been a theatre critic for more than a decade in Yorkshire, I am often in the unenviable position of knowing personally the creators of the work I am reviewing. This was the situation with one particular piece of work I saw this week and one of the creatives behind it voiced his own opinion about critics. I believe the word “despise” was used (not, I should probably point out, levelled at me personally).
As well as being a professional critic, I have also made a few short films and a play I wrote toured the North last year, so I understand how difficult it is to give birth to a piece of creative work and then put it in front of people who you fear will simply shoot it down. Do they not know the blood, sweat, tears and pain that went into the labour of that piece of art?
Well, maybe they do and maybe they don’t; it doesn’t actually matter. The critic is an important piece of the jigsaw that makes up the whole picture of a cultural conversation. Our role is not to comment on the process, but the end result.
On a very basic level, the critic is the eyes, ears and critical judgment of the potential audience. In short, we help them decide if it’s worth sticking their hands in their pockets to find the price of a ticket.
When arts criticism is at its best, it moves several layers beyond this fundamental requirement.
Kenneth Tynan, appropriate to quote in a column about theatre critics, colossus as he was, said the critic was someone who knows the way but can’t drive the car.
Tynan, his colleague and rival Harold Hobson, Michael Billington, film critic Roger Ebert, these are among those who have elevated the form to an art form – and few would deny that they have been an important part of the cultural conversations of their time. Without Tynan and Hobson championing Look Back in Anger (Tynan: “I could never love anyone who did not wish to see this play”) the original Kitchen Sink play would have sunk and it is fair to say that 20th-century British theatre would look a very different beast. Without Osborne’s play, we may have remained stuck in the French Windows theatrical milieu far longer than we did.
While critics may not be as vital as those making the work, they are far more than the parasitic beasts some appear to regard them as. No art exists in a vacuum and the critic provides vital oxygen to art that deserves to breathe (while occasionally denying it to the art that doesn’t).
Maybe a statue will never be built to the greats like Billington and Ebert, but their contribution deserves due recognition and their craft, respect.