The changing face of cultural criticism

Culture Editor Carys Rose Thomas discusses the effect that social media has had on the world of theatre criticism

Carys Rose Thomas
18th February 2019
Image: Carys Rose Thomas

Now, I am coming at this from a theatre writer with a (modest) two and a half years’ experience writing this kind of stuff. And let me tell you, theatre criticism is losing its relevancy, fast.

Gone are the days when oracles like Lyn Gardner and Michael Billington had the final say on what was good or bad, high or low art. This isn’t to say that people like that have no worth. They have dedicated decades to writing this stuff. They know how to spot work of quality and how to curate a beautifully written or spoken review of a piece of work. That being said, the world of media consumers are waking up to the realities of subjectivity in artwork.

As individual authoritative figures’ opinions lose the prestige and objectivity they were once seen to possess, the voice of the masses is prevailing as the final word on the quality of productions. Raving Guardian reviews aren’t worth much cop if everyone on twitter is slating your production. We now see productions popping a hashtag in the corners of their programmes, or setting up twitter accounts dedicated to the show, one of their main purposes being retweeting positive reviews about the show. Not by professional reviewers, but by the everyman with a twitter account and something to say.

Criticism has finally started being more honest with us

We are moving in favour of the democratic masses. And so we should be; good art isn’t just about how “high art” a piece can be. Good art is about entertainment, enjoyment, positive reception - hence why Mama Mia Live is hands down one of the best pieces of theatre I will ever see. Never in my life have I seen a room full of older women be quite so rowdy.

Twitter and other social networking sites also provide a space for voices usually marginalised in the world of theatre BAME, young, working class, queer theatregoers are given a space to have their voices heard.
As fantastic as contemporary culture’s recognition of democratic approval in art it, a place for criticism can still be found in this contemporary culture. Criticism is reinventing itself, finding a new form which aligns with this erasure of the merits of mass-media, in order to survive.

Criticism has finally started being more honest with us. Why anyone ever pretended they could have an objective opinion on a piece of work, I don’t know. Maybe you’ve had a bad day, maybe Shakespeare’s not you bag, maybe you misjudged it at the interval and just really needed a piss for the whole second half. Whatever your reasons may be, your environment, mindset, social outlook etc. inform your opinion of a piece, and that experience can differ for each and every person.

Writing about the arts can be in art form in itself

The more critics acknowledge their personal biases and subjectivity, the better their work can be, because the more creative they can be. Writing about the arts can be in art form in itself. Embedded criticism, reviews given in the form of two people’s text messages and reviews written in the style of performances themselves are becoming more and more commonplace. And, if you ask me, they’re making something which can otherwise be a little bit boring or naff at times into an art form that can be recognised for its own merit, just as the works it comments on are.

So let’s celebrate Adam, 36, who tweets a little quip about every play or gig they go to. Let’s respect critics like Gardner who have a lifetime of experience and knowledge behind them. But let’s especially commend those people who aren’t shying away from trying something new, and bettering the world of theatre criticism in genuinely innovative, creative ways.

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