Eye of the Beholden

Reflections on the Role and Perception of the Arts Reviewer

How to Cite

Ralph, B. (2005). Eye of the Beholden: Reflections on the Role and Perception of the Arts Reviewer. M/C Journal, 8(5). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.2432
Vol. 8 No. 5 (2005): 'review'
Published 2005-10-01

There is a scene near the beginning of the Mel Brooks movie The History of the World, Part I, in which the ‘first artist’ makes his appearance, completing a cave painting of a hunting scene or some such. Immediately following this, a bearskin-clad man steps forward and urinates on the wall. This individual, we are told (by the disembodied voice of Orson Welles, no less), is the ‘first critic’.

The First Critic

Fair or unfair, this is, in many cases, the popular image of the reviewer. Fans of The Simpsons will doubtless remember ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Criticize Dinner?’ a 1999 episode in which Homer Simpson becomes a restaurant critic. At first, he loves everything and can’t believe his good fortune in getting so much free food. Gradually, however, peer pressure from other critics forces him to become increasingly negative, until he finally alienates family and friends and winds up unable to enjoy even the most elaborate meals. The episode ends with him escaping from enraged restaurant owners.

Homer Simpson, Food Critic

Controversy and negative criticism are, as many reviewers will attest, the keys to getting work read and discussed. The desire of reviewers to push the bounds of propriety as far as possible is frequently in evidence. The most-read ‘events’ article on the partner site to this journal, M/C Reviews is entitled, somewhat provocatively, ‘Cunt Get Enough of The Vagina Monologues. This is, in every way, a fine review which examines the material well and provides a balanced view of the production, but one cannot help wondering how much of the popularity of this particular piece – the site statistics give 11724 readers as of 4 August, 2005 – depends on the title, the first point of contact for the reader.

Critics themselves are motivated by various factors, not all of which are generally explicitly stated to the reader. Aside from the desire to be read, they may have a vested interest in an event, or in being allowed to continue to attend events, for example, and one is often forced to wonder whether or not a critic might have been harsher should they not care about getting future tickets. There is an illuminating article by Quentin Letts from the New Statesman in which he describes the negative reaction of fellow critics to his actually paying for a ticket, attending and reviewing a play before the ‘official’ review night. They were more concerned with his having upset precedent and the free ticket tradition than with his actual review, and he quotes the Daily Telegraph’s Charles Spencer as stating that he was "wrecking a perfectly good system".

That being said, who are reviewers? For whom do they write and why is their opinion more important than that of the general public? A ‘professional’ reviewer may not necessarily get paid, or may only be paid in event tickets, but their work goes through some sort of formal review process of its own and is subsequently published, generally in a journal, magazine, newspaper or website. Anyone can write a review, but getting it published is harder, and the more respected the publication, the more difficult it is to get into print.

This does not mean that all reviewers are experts on the topic that they discuss, although the admission of this is generally left up to the discretion of the individual writer. Given the diversity of critical opinions, perhaps the only general characteristic that the majority of professional reviewers could be said to share is an ability to express their thoughts clearly and in a readable manner. Reviewers are sometimes highly qualified, but not always, and the opinions of a few can create a sort of cultural oligarchy, which might be considered far from ideal. Should reviews be ingenuous or informed? This very issue is addressed in ironic terms in the 1981 painting The Innocent Eye Test by the American artist Mark Tansey.

The Innocent Eye Test

Here, we have a cow, the ‘innocent eye’ of the title, examining a painting of cows. Does the cow have a special perspective? Is it an objective audience? Does it recognise the images on the canvas as such at all? The answer to these questions would appear to be awaited with eager anticipation by the gathered watchers, although the futility of their efforts is immediately obvious to the observer of the painting. The chain of perception does not stop here, however. It is merely part of a post-structural signifier play. Consider, for example, the following photograph, which features an observer commenting on his perception of the painting to a group of what one might term ‘secondary’ observers, in turn seen through the lens of the present discussion and further transformed by the experience and reaction of you, the reader (and so on, ad infinitum):

Art Observers

If reviews are themselves reviewed before publication, the reader is the (momentary) endpoint in the aforementioned complex chain of perception. These issues have been discussed recently by Jordan et. al. in a recent issue of Communication Studies in which they argue persuasively that the ideas of the reviewers of reviews impart a type of imprint on what is being written as criticism. The present article has, itself, been through a ‘peer-review’ process and was revised as a result – some new content was added, some taken away, all according to ideas which are not necessarily those of the original author.

Different publications usually offer a different style of review depending on their demographic. Generally speaking, the more specialised the publication, the more specialised the review. Academic journals cater to an informed, highly educated audience who expect a degree of precision, referencing and analysis, which might be lacking in more general newspaper reviews. The latter tend to be short and give a brief overview and opinion, reflecting the essentially ephemeral nature of a daily paper. Magazine reviews are often more substantial in both length and depth of discussion, but are, again, usually aimed at a non-specialist audience, although this can depend on the primary focus of the magazine itself. Professional website reviews tend not to suffer from space constraints, but are limited more by the desire of the reviewer to keep their observations digestible to whoever their ‘ideal reader’ might be. All such media, however, rely on the views of a select (and selected) few.

There are a number of websites that cater for those members of the public who seek a more democratic model. In the case of cinema, the Internet Movie Database allows registered users to rate and review movies. The resulting ratings are averaged to give an overall idea of the popular reaction to the movie, and those who wish to explore further can read the numerous ‘user comments’, or mini-reviews on the site. A similar phenomenon is featured at the online store Amazon, where customers can rate a book, CD or movie and write their own summary. Several other sites offer an averaging of published reviews in major papers, journals, magazines and websites. Rotten Tomatoes offers a statistical summary of the positive or negative opinions cited in such reviews in the form of the ‘tomatometer’, which gives a percentage rating to a given movie. Yahoo! Movies goes one step further and allows users to submit their own reviews, which are then averaged and can be compared to the aggregate media rating. Generally, these are close, although it is interesting to note that a brief scan suggests that Yahoo! users generally rate movies lower than the professional critics.

Does this mean, therefore, that the role of the professional reviewer is becoming less relevant in these days of digital egalitarianism? Certainly, opinions can be disseminated worldwide with greater ease than ever before, but the problem with this is one of quality control. When reading an online review, one often has no way of knowing the motives or, indeed, veracity of the author. On IMDB, for example, users often complain that other reviewers have not even seen the movie in question, which is a criticism that arises only very rarely in the world of professional criticism. It is likely that the division between the professional and the general public will become even more sharply defined with the rise of the internet medium, and that both will have their own audiences. It is significant that none of the aforementioned sites make any attempt to merge the ‘professional’ and ‘open’ content, but keep the boundary between the two clearly defined.

It is probable that critical theorists and reviewers themselves will continue to review the culture of reviewing. As R.P. Hart noted in 1976 (70), “the refusal by any field of inquiry to launch periodic, self-reflective examinations is surely a very special kind of arrogance”. Naturally, the desire to discuss one’s profession and, thus, give it the additional lustre of being considered an academic pursuit is also a motivation. That said, such probing is unlikely to change review culture itself. Harry Haskell’s overview of musical criticism, The Attentive Listener, contains sufficient examples to show that the same primary elements that exist in contemporary arts reviews have been in frequent use since at least the beginning of the eighteenth century, for example. We cannot quantify intent meaningfully, and can only discuss the ramifications of individual reviews in the broadest possible terms – perhaps critics are much less significant individually than they would like to believe, especially in a culture of increasingly globalised information exchange. Poor old jesting Pilate – when he asked (rhetorically) “what is truth?”, what would he have thought to be told that it was, arguably, merely a sociological statistical aggregate?

Author Biography

Barnaby Ralph