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Everyone’s a Critic

Are specialists out of fashion? Do readers want emotion-based reviews? Phoebe Athena Henell and Levi D'Avocat make opposing cases in light of ENO's Response scheme


Imposter syndrome weaves its way into so many aspects of life, and notoriously so at Oxford. From shattering our confidence in our own essays to deterring us from applying in the first place, it’s a hurdle to leap over our shadows. It becomes a barrier to escaping our comfort zones and diving into new rock pools — rock pools holding a wealth of undiscovered seashells and starfish. Especially at the world’s top university, overflowing with some of the most accomplished and brilliant minds of our generation, it feels like there will always be someone who can do a better job. Someone more experienced, more gifted, more dedicated. The par excellence of their niche. And in the context of breaking into the arts and culture review world as nothing more than an amateur — a dilettante — it can be intimidating.

As Oscar Wilde opens the preface of The Picture of Dorian Gray:

The artist is the creator of beautiful things.
To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim.
The critic is he who can translate into another manner or a new material his impression of beautiful things.

Reviewing newly released music albums; live indie gigs at The Bullingdon; sculpture exhibitions at the Ashmolean Museum; and experimental student theatre at the intimate Burton Taylor Studio. Without a background even half as impressive as the artists themselves, how can I be expected to critique their work? I certainly could never have written the lyrics myself, nor could I have produced any of these plays. How can I have the audacity to highlight faults in skills that I myself am deficit in? What weight does my opinion carry? And who even cares?

All these questions ran through my head when I successfully applied to become a critic for the English National Opera. The ‘ENO Response’ scheme is designed to nurture upcoming talent and help aspiring journalists to build a profile. In return for free tickets to ten operas, I have committed to writing a review of each within 48 hours, which they publish on their website and social media streams. It’s a fantastic opportunity, but nonetheless intimidating.

For starters, I don’t play any musical instruments — the closest I came was being driven by my mum, kicking and screaming, to piano lessons up until the age of ten, until I’d stamped my feet enough to be allowed to quit. I haven’t so much as glanced at a treble clef since. My attempts at singing are an embarrassment, and probably deserving of a ‘public disturbance’ sentence. Surely my music student friend, with all the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas she has fabulously starred in, would be more apt to write reviews than a Philosophy and Modern languages student?

Yet here I was, grabbing what I thought was a complimentary glass of prosecco (which rather embarrassingly turned out to be for a private party, but luckily only once I had already drunk it), I made my way to the stalls of the London Coliseum. Three-quarters of an hour early. It was easy to identify the professional critics. They carried both a “press release” information pamphlet and an air of nonchalance; far from an occasional and much-anticipated bougie treat, they frequent countless opening-night performances per month; it’s just another day at the office for them. Barely arriving on time, one of these professionals plonked himself down next to me. “Who do you write for?”, he asked. Errr. No one, really. Happy to introduce myself, I expressed my anxieties about the whole thing. In the interval, he directed me to the “press room” full of charismatically dressed journalists and free wine. Thanks to the conversations I had there, my worries evaporated.

Readers don’t want to read an essay. If they did, they would be scouring SOLO instead of flicking through a newspaper. In any given audience, only a tiny proportion are experts. The overwhelming majority simply want to know if buying a ticket translates into a fun evening out. They don’t know or care about the technical semantics or critical analysis. Reviews exist to make art accessible to the layman in quotidian language. They describe the mood and atmosphere by capturing the emotional responses. In fact, not being a specialist enables a more liberal use of language, with vocabulary not bogged down in technicality and permitted a bit of floridity.


Of course, opera should be made more accessible for a wider audience. And ENO is certainly on the front line where it comes to opening the ‘prestigious’ arts to a new crowd. Between their ENO Response scheme and BAME fellowships, they are, at least, attempting to democratize and reinvigorate the hellishly expensive art form of opera with new ideas and a younger demographic. However, the Response scheme, which encourages review-writing on a largely “emotional response” basis, has caused an outcry from the ranks of professional and specialist reviewers, which has been largely mocked and satirized by news outlets.

The reason? While the scheme provides free tickets to the 10 successful applicants, ENO has banished the right for professional writers to see an opera for a second time while writing their review. The news has generally presented this in the terms of a group of privileged culture-prats stomping their feet, despite the fact that reviewers like Rupert Christiansen have made candid and measured criticisms of the Chief Executive of the English National Opera Stuart Murphy’s decisions. The problem lies not so much in the action itself (though it’s easy to imagine why a second viewing might be helpful for a reviewer) but in the message it sends – one that was clearly picked up in the media response: Specialists are out of fashion.

“Nobody fears critics any more,” says Director Samuel Keller; the days of the critic making or breaking an artist’s career are behind us. Curators and social media have replaced more traditional channels of determining who is who in the sink-or-swim arts world. Marc Spiegler, journalist for the American business magazine Forbes, sees the danger in this. “The art world, like any organism, requires a certain amount of pruning to stay healthy. So the disempowerment of critics–our putative pruners–should cause concern.” And this is the clincher. Programs like Response are necessary, and by no means opposed to established reviewing; if anything, they’re only ensuring the next generation of reviewers. The problems start with the weighting of emotional responses over well-researched and backgrounded engagements with the arts. While it might be refreshing, occasionally, to hear a (generally) overly positive emotion-based response to a cultural event, these are often characterized by the novelty felt about the experience over the actual quality of the exhibition or performance.

The critical evaluation of creative developments, founded in a history of criticism and recorded artistic movements, is really important for the arts. And while it’s important we do challenge the pretentious terminology and air of snobbishness surrounding the nature of reviews, where it persists, this is more often a stereotype of reviewing than it is a reality. Good reviewers are both receptive to the emotional or sentimental impact of pieces, and still maintain a sense of distance; they tell us stories, give us comparisons, frame new developments in a way that fits them into the historical landscape of the arts – and only writers with specialist knowledge are able to do this successfully. Besides – so much of art is ‘a reaction to’. And it’s a whole lot harder to rebel against standards when there’s no one present to enforce those standards in the first place.
In short: Yes to ENO’s Response scheme, but no to the trend of anti-specialist reviews. We need both reactions as a lens through which to understand art; to shape it; to limit it; to give it a clear trajectory of change.

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