Sunday, 4 August 2013

In praise of bad reviews

Picture: Opentable
Here's an excellent post by Ryan Sutton on negative restaurant reviews, taking up the claim that you should base a negative review on multiple visits 'because they deal with people's livelihoods'. Not so, says Sutton: 
An inaccurate, single-visit positive review, based on poor fact checking, poor eating, or poor writing, is no worse than an inaccurate, single-visit negative review. With a misplaced positive review, you’re wasting the hard-earned disposable income of those who visited the restaurant on your counsel, and you’re also taking money away from a better restaurant that your readers would have gone to otherwise. That’s just as bad as a “slam." Everyone loses.  
Quite right, and I'd like to see more critical art reviews too, instead of the identikit sycophancy from the media that still cover culture. Some prominent critics are slavering puppies that jump up and yap in delight at every indifferent novelty. Thankfully we have Brian Sewell and a few others of his ilk, but knowledgeable discernment is becoming scarce and critics seem too frightened of offending their art-world colleagues to condemn when condemnation is due. I've been amazed by the frankly abominable shows that have received adulatory reviews (most recently Michael Landy at the National Gallery).

You'd laugh if a critic gave a book of Shakespeare criticism five stars because Shakespeare is really good. But art critics do the equivalent all the time. They write about the greatness of the exhibition's subject without reviewing the exhibition. We know that Leonardo was a pretty good artist - which is as much as you'd learn from most of the reviews of the NG show. Critics seldom consider the quality of presentation - the wall text, the hang, the narrative structures. Still rarer is assessment of the underlying scholarship, any re-interpretation or re-attribution, which requires a degree of knowledge too often lacking. 

Criticism is an essential part of culture and the loss to the public sphere is profound. There has been a lot of focus on the loss of quantity from media cutbacks, which are indeed lamentable. But the decline in quality is the greater loss. Museums know that they can get away with mediocre crowd-pleasers because they won't get called out; there is no pressure for excellence. I suspect the greatest loss is in contemporary art where the market's judgment has superseded critical judgment, because there is so little informed criticism. One reason that the biggest galleries are squeezing out the rest is that smaller galleries don't get noticed by critics. 

I think the blogosphere is the great hope for the future. The best and most interesting reviews that I read are often on blogs, written by people who often have more specific knowledge than any generalist professional critic can have on a single topic. They are not beholden to editors requiring a consumerist yardstick (how many stars?), and they are not corrupted by privileged access to private views and foreign junkets on offer to professional critics. But there is also a lack of quality control (look at some of the nonsense that gets on this blog in the absence of editorial filter), and it's hard for blogs to get noticed. Time will tell. 

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