We are the cultural Norns

Here, at last, is a mind-expanding podcast that is the antidote to everything the wretched Arts Council stands for


This article is taken from the May 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

What cretin said that nobody ever erected a monument to a critic? (I’ll tell you: it was that lugubrious drunk Jean Sibelius). Actually, he could simply have added “at least, not in a good way”.

It’s a monument made of vibrating air rather than marble, but the old monster Richard Wagner himself worked out his spleen against the eminent Viennese scribe Eduard Hanslick by caricaturing him as whining creep Sixtus Beckmesser (originally “Veit Hanslich”) in Die Meistersinger. As it happens, there is also a bust of Hanslick in the courtyard of Vienna University.

So there, and so much for Sibelius. It’s true, of course, that the only time you actually hear about critics is when our journalistic “colleagues” gleefully dump their night-soil on us when they get a whiff of a story about one of us disgracing himself (it’s always him, natch).

Recently it was the guy who insulted the poor old lady in ENO’s Rhinegold. Before that, the chap who said Carey Mulligan wasn’t hot enough for her role. Or the theatre hack who had a playground spat on the always elevated Twitter with Lily Allen, who told him to “get in the bin”, whilst the director of her show dignified himself with the toney comment “Fuck the critics and their precious bullshit”.

It hardly matters that the first two, unamazingly, weren’t actually like that, nor that Lily’s director will be oiling us up like a Bangkok ladyboy if he ever gets one of the critics’ awards (or even a decent review, probably). Abuse us all you like: we won’t sue — in fact most critics are probably thrilled to be the story, even when it involves being arrested for noncing.

We are a humble, self-effacing breed, inordinately happy with those few equivocal tributes to us — Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 1779 play The Critic (starring the admirable Messrs Dangle and Sneer); the contingently lovable Jay Sherman of the short-lived ’90s Simpsons-stable cartoon; er, The Critic magazine; and Lindsay Duncan’s magnificent play-slayer in the film Birdman, enduring with weary contempt the peevish rant from stage-strutter Michael Keaton: “You mistake all those little noises in your head for true knowledge … There’s nothing in here about technique. There’s nothing in here about structure. There’s nothing in here about intentions … You risk nothing! Nothing! Well I’m a fuckin’ actor! This play cost me everything!”

Diddums, I know. But I suppose one can understand the overreactions of people who probably didn’t actually set out to unload a heap of manure on the stage or the screen or the canvas, however incredible that may seem as one witnesses the horror in action. They do tend to fetishise us, with their endless tinkering previews leading up to the mythical press night, the breathless wait for reviews — and the packing of the audience with fan-bloggers and effluencers in a doomed bid to drown out with a flood of breathless social-media encomia the doomladen toll of the true critical bell.

I suppose that what they cannot bear is that whilst they spend an inordinate time thinking about us, we, like some aloof, heartless beauty, never give them a thought: it is a kind of needy, unrequited love. Critics are (or should be) devoted to Another — and that other is the audience: not just the one in the theatre or the cinema or the concert hall but the one reading, whose diversion and amusement is our first duty.

Pythia at the oracle of Art

Which really makes the audience’s glee in critic-shaming a bit puzzling: don’t they realise we are public heroes? Subjecting ourselves to boredom and intellectual insult several nights a week, in order to save them money? Cultural Norns, Pythia at the oracle of Art, we are also the guardians of your leisure time. We are not shills for the entertainment industry nor (well, in most cases) an agency for shifting tickets. You really wouldn’t begrudge us our cramped free seats if you stopped to consider the kind of stuff we have to see so that you don’t have to.

We are here to keep the showbiz crowd honest. In a world where everyone believes their own publicity, where many review websites rate stuff on a scale from “good” to ”excellent”, it feels important that there is a last critical redoubt devoted to being informed and objective — yes, and opinionated, exigent, elitist, belligerent and viciously biassed against the fake, the pretentious, the cheesy, the dishonest, the second-rate and the self-serving.

We know that it’s a vain quest, doomed to failure. In a valedictory interview Michael Billington, the Guardian’s theatre critic for many years, admitted: “I have failed totally in my ambition. All the things I was crying out for, more political drama, more international drama, none of them exist … Plays are becoming more and more marginal. They are a niche product for niche audiences in niche theatres.” The same applies across the arts. But the certainty of failure would be a pretty feeble reason to quit the struggle.

Critics also — and here I mean of course the few decent ones, not the ranks of liggers, press officers’ toadies and self-appointed denizens of questionable websites — tend to be knowledgeable and grimly entertaining, after all that suffering we do.

Through no particular merit of my own I currently occupy the role of President of the Critics’ Circle, a seat previously held by such legends as James Agate, Harold Hobson, Andrew Porter, Dilys Powell, Derek Malcolm, Jack Tinker, Rodney Milnes … it’s a delightful organisation, a place where the few of us who can bear the sight of each other can whinge about the Via Dolorosa of the critic’s life, compare notes from our various trenches across the arts, bitch about our colleagues — and about the fools and knaves who run the arts.

Kicking stuff around, over our glasses of vitriol and bile, it occurred to us that it might be nice — in times when there is a distinct narrowing of what you might call the “critical space” in proper newspapers and magazines — to come out fighting, to put the enthusiasm and fandom that are our true attributes on display. So the podcast Critical Mash, under the auspices of this magazine, was born.

A sort of super-aesthetic equivalent of the Algonquin Round Table, this impossibly highbrow divertissement is based on the notion that whilst most people (including critics) are locked into the little ghettoes of their chosen field and art form, and fear and shun all the others, the connexions between the arts are far too interesting and fruitful and fun to ignore; so we plunge, far out of our depth, into unfamiliar waters, hoping the podcast will provide water-wings for those brave or foolhardy enough to join us.

Our latest episode, pegged to the upcoming Tate Modern exhibition Expressionists: Wassily Kandinsky, Gabriele Münter and the Blue Rider, is dream territory: a group of painters who so envied the freedom of music to exist without having to depict external reality that they took the momentous step of inventing abstract painting as a way of enabling art to do the same thing.

Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc had met at a party on New Year’s Eve, 1910, and a couple of days later were together at a concert of music by Arnold Schoenberg, teetering on the cusp of atonality. Kandinsky was so struck by the concert that he painted it (Impression III), attempting to capture in colour the meaning he had divined in Schoenberg’s music.

It was the beginning of Kandinsky’s journey to creating his defining series of Compositions, ten works painted over 30 years charting his grappling with this interface between visual art and music, and the way they enrich each other, expressing his conviction that the arrangement, rhythm and interplay of colours is essentially the same as the way chords and harmonies are deployed and intermeshed.

There was a great fad for “synaesthesia” at the time — the idea that the sound of your doorbell tastes of chicken soup, or that the number 4 is purple, and all that. At the same time as Kandinsky was finding equivalences between painting and music, the Russian composer Alexander Scriabin was doing the analogous thing of inventing a “colour organ” that would associate musical keys and notes with different colours, and project them around the room where the music was being performed. Kandinsky got very excited by the idea and applauded Scriabin’s (alas, never properly accomplished) projects, notably the Poem of Ecstasy and Poem of Fire, great ecstatic orchestral outpourings.

Well, you’ll have to listen to this mind-expanding podcast — featuring, alongside the critics, the exhibition’s curator Natalia Sidlina, and Russophile composer and polymath Gerard McBurney — to find out exactly what connects Kandinsky’s colouristic theory and practice, the pretty blue horses of Franz Marc, and a massive projected total-art event in the Himalayas that, through a combination of aural and visual overload, plus a load of Aleister Crowley-style sex magic, would stop time and bring the world to an orgasmic, cataclysmic end.

I venture to say that you won’t find this sort of thing elsewhere. Here, at last, is the antidote to everything the wretched Arts Council stands for, its campaign to render everything controlled, accessible, democratic, easy — the opposite of true art, whose purpose is to take us beyond the landscaped pseudo-reality in which we have chosen to live and make us kneel before the mystery of our existence.

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