Have you ever paused to think why we read and pay attention to critics? And why on earth do we need them?
When you tune into a baseball game or a soccer match, are the TV and radio announcers called critics? No, they are called commentators. Do we hear them give erudite criticisms of the way in which the Chelsea striker skidded in the mud as he flipped the ball into the back of the Liverpool goal? No, the commentator gives an account, always hyperbolic, of the progress of the game, employing strings of excited, if tired, expressions to do with passion and commitment. But he doesn’t call himself a critic.
Do journalists in newspapers commenting on the latest hot tourist venue call themselves critics? No, they call themselves travel writers. Do journalists writing up the latest car call themselves automobile critics? No they are automobile industry journalists. Economists commenting on the financial collapse of 2008 do not call themselves critics, they call themselves financial journalists. And what of the people who comment on national and international politics? What do they call themselves? Do they use the term political critics? No, in America they are columnists.
We have names for those who broadcast and who phone in on radio shows, the angry bloggers and the letter writers. We call them censors, cavilers, carpers, knockers, defamers, backbiters, traducers, and sometimes slanderers and satirists.
But only the Arts are assaulted day by day by the critics.
Imagine you are a professional musician and you have played in your quartet four hours a day for years, and have spent eight weeks learning and practicing a new piece. In due course you come before the audience. It’s hot, you are nervous, you have a slight headache. You play your little heart out, for what? A pittance. Next day the review appears, written by a critic, whose knowledge of the piece, it’s composer and it’s musicological history might or might not be sound. The so-called critic might in fact have no music training at all (maybe the managing editor didn’t know what to do with her, and rather than sack her after messing up the Sports column, put her onto Music). In a couple of sentences, and from a comfortable perch in one of the best seats in the auditorium, the work of weeks is rubbished, condemned and denigrated, without hope of explanation or come-back. The critic is probably unable to play any part of the piece in question.
We once had a delightful music and theatre critic in Washington. A gentleman, he always found something nice to say, and even if he didn’t like the piece and maybe thought the acting or singing was iffy in places, he was always encouraging. Regrettably, what you more usually get are negative lamentations about obscure matters of which the audience is blissfully unaware. It’s an ego trip, illustrating the amount of research the reviewer has done, trawling among the old reviews. The reader is mildly surprised “Thinks: I thought I knew something about music, but I didnt spot that. Maybe he/she is right.”
Are critics just natural bullies who have found their niches? Would they trash a performance if they knew they were up against powerful and wealthy people who might deploy lawyers, instead of penniless artists scraping by? As for those critics who have studied music in college, there is, messieurs, mesdames, a universe of difference between the person who is trained in music and the person who is genuinely musical.
Enough already! Fire these acidic scribblers, whose only function is to deter ticket buyers. I have a better idea!
What we need are BANK CRITICS!
Had we had critics of Wall Street and the City of London as nitpicky and sour as your average theatre critic the West might not now be terminally bankrupt, robbed, divested and ripped off.
Why, for instance, did no critic start years ago with the business schools and their culture of bid-it-up,-grab-it-quick,-and-get-out? I focus on this, not because the financial collapse doesnt deserve full treatment (a tome the length of Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire comes to mind), but because I know about one un-remarked aspect of it. I was present. I heard it. It is immoral, unethical and, as we have discovered, dangerous:
“You see”, said one Professor of Business in London, “We in Europe have to offer competitive salaries to top talent. If the Americans offer 250,000 dollars, or equivalent, to green recruits from Harvard, we have to match it. Then if we leap-frog over the Americans, why, they then leap-frog back again, until a king’s ransom is paid just to sign up a green honours graduate. If you’re smart you’ll work all the hours available till you’re thirty, rake it in, then get out before they fire you.
The corollary of this, he explained, is that those who then get to the top arrange “competitive” golden hello’s, leap-frogging basic salaries, bonuses that would make a king gulp, and termination pay-outs that can only be called robbery of the shareholder. Business schools (not all) encourage top executives to temporarily boost the share price by “letting go” a crowd of vulnerable middle executives before they draw their pensions. Time to get out and get the parting handout! No one on the patsy, yes-man, hand-picked Boards of these companies cares that this weakens the company’s future. This, of course, applies both to the banks, other financial institutions and to the big commercial companies in the U.S and Britain, a pervasive culture of short-term results, short-term personal gain, no sense of responsibility, and a cynical disregard for the institution for which they work. Only, now we know, too late, that the enormous incomes were not being offered to talent at all.
Thus the modern, famous Business School. Let us reform it, along with the banks, the CEOs, the boards and the relationship of companies to their shareholders.
We couldn’t expect arts critics to undertake a review of modern banking, of course. They can hardly get to the theatre on time. But there should have been some proper critics who could have taken the trouble to understand credit default swaps, securitization of risky loans and other casino games and written caustic and devastating reviews. Then the readers of the newspapers and magazines, especially the “Wall Street Journal”, cheerleader of the financial holocaust, might have said, like the theatre-goer:
“Thinks: I thought I knew something about finance, but I didnt spot that. Maybe he’s right.”