It was fifteen years ago I wore down The Age’s then arts editor and wrote the first of some 500 published comedy reviews. It was fifteen years ago I learned that I would not only be reviled by those who produced the artform that I loved, but that dozens of them would really want to punch me in the puss. Arts criticism seems like a charmed profession right up until that date you post your first bad notice. I have since lost count of the big acts who have formally called for my resignation, and the smaller ones who have used their social media accounts to informally call me a stupid bitch.
That’s the gig, though. If you are paid when you scorn an artist’s work, there’s an argument to be made for their entitlement to scorn you right back. When director Geoffrey Wright poured a glass of plonk down the front of David Stratton, this was not, in my view, done without cause, or without advantage to us all. Of Wright’s film Romper Stomper, the veteran reviewer had refused to comment, saying only that this was a film so “dangerous”, its existence should not even be acknowledged. This act of critical cowardice warranted a trip to the dry cleaners, at least. And, even if you’re a nonviolent idealist who believes that stains are no solution to intellectual disputes, aren’t you a bit impressed that in 1992, our local cinema culture was lively enough to produce a dirty shirt? I can’t see anyone getting so worked up about The Dressmaker.
Artists and their critics get worked up. Norman Mailer reportedly assaulted his least forgiving critic Gore Vidal during the 1960s several times. Following one particularly caustic review, the old blowhard pinned the great thinker to the ground. “Once again, words fail Norman Mailer,” said Vidal who, I am certain, would welcome any fleeting fear or pain at the hands of Norman if it squeezed from him another such quotable wisecrack.
Regardless of the masthead for which they were produced, the passions of the critic could once be governed no more than the passions of the artist. Sometimes, professional artists would fight professional aesthetes and even though blind ego played its part in these stoushes, vocation did, too. Film reviewer Jim Schembri may be reviled for his 2008 comments on Australian film — notably, by the actor Jimmy the Exploder and an entire theatre of moviemakers. But, the guy was doing his job. Australian film has been afflicted these past decades by a thin liberal sentimentality, which it seems able only to outrun when depicting serial killers, or those or skinheads David Stratton would apparently prefer us not to view.
In his infamous 2008 report, Schembri was not writing from ignorance or malice but a genuine concern for the cloying narratives of local cinema. And, shit, even if he was in a very bad mood when he wrote it, it had already been an awfully long time since the uncommonly good Somersault. When they’re not butchering backpackers or eating convicts, the nation’s better screenwriters default to unambitious themes of tolerance. Someone needed to say it.
Of course, you could argue that Stratton needed to say that Romper Stomper was a dangerous film. And, he did say it, much to Margaret Pomeranz’s disquiet and Geoffrey Wright’s carafe. In his overt refusal to discuss Romper Stomper, David Stratton guaranteed its broad discussion. And, this was a film worth discussing.
This is the friendless work of the decent critic. To provide the conditions for better discussion and better art. Looking back, it seems that Stratton, hardly a naïf, was doing just that. He, like all cranky, experienced critics worth a damn, risked the loss of his shirt.
I wonder if critics now have quite so much to lose. And this is for a couple of reasons, the first of which is down to dull old revenues. Criticism itself has been largely lost as a profession and, apart from comedians looking for pull-quotes, few want to read or publish what an old turd like me has to say about the state of comedy. An emerging market finds it more pleasant, possibly more instructive, to talk about the new season of The Weekly with their Facebook friends. It’s tough to face the fact that one’s expertise has a diminished market value, but boohoo, go tell that to Geelong’s automotive workforce.
The other, more curious reason that criticism has lost its power is harder to explain, and even seems to controvert the miserable market conditions I’ve just described. Let me give it a go: widespread passion for art now comes a very distant second to widespread passion for individual entitlement to an opinion.
In an age where the remunerative value of criticism has dropped so sharply, you’d think people would be free to say all sorts of extreme things. But, you know, even in the face of no financial risk, they’re really not saying them. The fact of having an opinion seems to be much more important than the quality of the opinion itself. From the pages of our most storied publications to the Facebook feeds of the conspicuously friendless, the same themes visibly emerge. Caught in a battle with the self, critics of the current era ask questions like “is this a thing which I can personally and morally endorse?”. And, while such questions are not invalid per se, their extreme promotion from the personal realm into the public one is not so great for art. You don’t — or, at least, you didn’t once — just ask “is this art work good for me?”
There is a view that this is golden age for dissent and criticism of all kinds; that the gatekeepers of “MSM” are gone and that public conversation is now gloriously, chaotically dominated by all sorts of challenging views. Although, it seems to me that these “challenging” and highly personal views are of a very predictable order and, in fact, are just the sorts of things that “MSM” now routinely publishes. It’s a marketable faux-anarchy sold back to us by media whose ownership is more centralised than ever. The fact that many people happen to agree with these “challenging” views is itself no guarantee that these views are challenging. They just have a “challenging” style, perhaps a jaunty dismissal by a midlife man of the “politically correct” or a jaunty use by a slightly younger lady of the word “cock”. Read many pages in The Age or The Australian. So long as one appears to be indignant and speaking “from the heart”, one can qualify as a critic, of the cultural or the social.
Mailer doesn’t have Vidal in a headlock anymore. Vidal is not ready with a withering riposte. Criticism is largely a bunch of coddled censors whose ardent belief in their entitlement to speak overshadows the obligation to support art itself.
Yesterday on Twitter, a much-reported exchange between artist and critic failed very badly to meet the Vidal standard. Lawrence Mooney, who is one of the nation’s best comics, was a bit of a cranky Mailer but his critic, a novice News Corp writer called Isabella Fowler, was no Gore. You can read Ben Neutze’s account of the matter here. Or, you know, you could just go straight to your Twitter or Facebook account and do as many thousands already have and decry Mooney for his “insensitivity” and even his “sexism” in questioning the credentials of the young reviewer, who many chivalrous publications have pointed out is “female”.
If we’re talking in the terms of the old money, the review really was unbridled shit. I feel for Fowler and I remember well how naff it feels to be a twenty-something who screws up in public. Although, the “gatekeepers” of “MSM” did see to it back then that we greenhorns had a little more editorial guidance. Those paternalistic fascists with their empire indulgence of facts and structure.
But, I do understand Mooney’s frustration with the new economy of critique. And, I say this as someone who has certainly faced, and still faces, the fury of comedians, some of whose protests have been steeped in the ordure of sexism. But, Mooney was not being a sexist, FFS. He was simply being Lawrence Mooney. You call Norman Mailer a vacuous liberal, and you’ll find yourself pinned on the ground. You call Lawrence Mooney “not a comedian”, and you’d better expect he’ll Google you, find out you’re on loan from the lifestyle and property sections and tell you to “enjoy your next cup cake and your open inspection you knob”.
I have no interest in defending Mooney’s barbarism. I think, as a professionally funny prick, he does a pretty good job of that himself. But, I do have an antique interest in promoting the responsibilities of the critic.
In the dwindling terms of the old-money, Fowler has not truly earned her “right” to an opinion. This is not to foolishly recommend the renewal of the old guard of the “MSM” — although, if there’s an older, more powerful guard than News Corp, which printed the review, I’m yet to learn of it. It is, however, to optimistically recommend that young reviewers try, where possible, to go to the trouble of forming an opinion rather than just having one.
The contract between critic and artist has long been uneasy. And it will remain uneasy so long as these two pastimes are industrialised. But, all the critics who talk about art are not long for this market. Enjoy a future where all you will have is a statement about one’s right to an opinion without the unnecessary burden of having to actually read an opinion.