Do Critics Matter?
The fact that the classical music, dance, and art critics are not represented in today's critics' survey in the Washington Post may give those of us in those disciplines extra reason to worry that what we write doesn't actually matter.
But the whole idea that there should be some kind of correlation between reviews in the paper and ticket sales, or popularity, is fundamentally flawed to start with. It reveals a misunderstanding of what it is a critic does. Our role is not to be mere consumer advocates, telling you how to spend your hard-earned dollars. If that were the only point, newspapers might as well issue simple public-relations-style puff pieces and have done with it.
The role of a critic is to cover a field. This doesn't mean simply pandering to popular taste. It means doing one's best to convey a sense of what is going on in a given discipline by writing about every possible side of it. It means trying to convey a perspective that a reader who doesn't spend every night going to concerts/plays/films may not be able to gather himself; or offering a thoughtful take that might stimulate a reader who does go to everything to see something in a different light.
For part of our role is to foster dialogue and debate. That doesn't mean setting forth judgments of taste in order that readers might fall obediently into line behind us. Quite the contrary: it may mean putting out views that one knows may represent the minority. It means being interested in the thoughts of those who disagree. It means being delighted when someone is powerfully moved by something one didn't like oneself. It also means writing well enough that someone might want to read you -- a goal that's hard to reach if all you're doing is trying to push readers to buy tickets.
The disciplines collectively referred to as "the arts," commercial or not-for-profit, highbrow or low, offer a lot more than simply the possibility of passive consumption and a thumbs-up, thumbs-down reaction at the end of the exercise. Their very existence is a tacit reminder that there is a lot more out there than this passive consumption, and critics should be reminding people of this fact. To get diverted into yet another hand-wringing round of us-against-them, critics-are-dying-out, audiences-are-stupid plaints is pointless. Audiences aren't stupid, and if critics are feeling irrelevant, it's up to us to figure out how to become a more vital part of the debate. But if we measure "relevance" by how many tickets we sell or how many people agree with us, we've already abnegated our responsibility.
Edited to add updated links to the various critics' published statements.
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