A few weeks ago, in Room for Debate, a section of the Opinion pages of the New York Times, eight critics, artists, and writers weighed in on the question of whether or not we need professional critics.
Each put forth thoughtful and compelling reasons why we do need professionals and what they can provide that non-professionals presumably can’t (expertise, experience, context, editing, etc).
I agree. But I think the conversation can be broader and that the question posed may not be the right one anymore.
Instead of lamenting the loss of professional critics, let’s improve the quality of amateur criticism. We need to cultivate the next generation of critics by redefining the way we talk about criticism and democratizing the idea of a critic from the start.
Criticism should be integrated into school curriculums and celebrated as a unique fusion of both analytical and creative writing. We need to educate people HOW to be a critic, not protect the title for an elite few (as much as all that future competition scares me…)
I think of it as the “Ratatouille” model, after the brilliant Pixar film, which I show to students I teach to demystify the role of the critic. Ratatouille presented what I consider the best contemporary representation of criticism in popular culture in the way it deals with the transformation of the critic Anton Ego and the way it celebrates the idea that “everyone can cook” or, in this case, that “everyone can be a critic.” That doesn’t mean they are cooks or critics, it means they have the potential to be and our job as those who value and practice criticism today is not to protect it but to share it.
So what does that mean for “professional” critics? Well, in the new marketplace of online economics, we’re responsible for “selling” ourselves. I’m young enough that I don’t expect to have a career in criticism the way my mentors did. The professional critic, by definition, is anyone who manages to draw an income from her or his opinions.
So we can’t just fight for the few slots at the big papers anymore, we have to be entrepreneurs. And like other entrepreneurs, talent, skills, experience and knowledge matter. I suspect that those who know what they’re talking about (with the requisite education and experience), who have an original voice, and who earn the attention and trust of readers will prove valuable enough to find a way to support themselves. Getting to that point is frankly as arbitrary as who gets to be a professional critic at the newspapers today.
What we think of as the professional critic today soon won’t exist as we know it anyway. So it’s not a question of “do we need professional critics,” rather I think the question is: What will the new professional critic look like, and how can we ensure a greater pool of amateur critics, from which the best professionals will emerge?