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The two essential tasks of critics

Johann Hari has written a fascinating piece on the role of critics in contemporary arts and culture, and is well worth reading.

 Because critics perform two essential tasks in the cultural ecosystem – and as with any ecosystem, if you knock out one part, the entire network is at risk of unravelling.

Their first task is simply consumer advice. This has been sniffed at by some critics, like Susan Sontag, but it is their most basic function. There are more films, books, albums and plays out this week than you can experience in a lifetime. Anyone with an internet connection has access to a menu of infinite cultural experiences. You need intelligent people to work through them and recommend the most interesting.

But critics have a deeper role still. When something new and startling comes along, it often baffles us, and we are tempted to drop it, pained, for easier cultural lifting. A great critic can help us to figure out what it going on, and to appreciate it in a richer way. … As film critic Pauline Kael put it: “We read critics for the perceptions, for what they tell us that we didn’t fully grasp when we saw the work.”3

One of my teachers at the Guildhall argued that critics ought not be purveyors of opinion, but protectors of quality, which is a sentiment I tend to agree with; but I’d not really thought about the insight aspect which Hari puts forward here.

In light of his point about the diminishing length of reviews, I found it very interesting to read a review from 1907 the world premiere of Delius’ Romeo & Julia auf dem Dorfe. Not only was it considerably longer than any reviews you might read today, it was much more detailed.

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