The Role of The Critic in the Age of the Internet

There has been quite a stir in the world of opera criticism; Norman Lebrecht, known for his somewhat controversial blog Slipped Disc, reported that Canadian music critic Arthur Kapitainis quit his freelance position at the National Post. The Post inexplicably removed his review on Canadian Opera Company’s Mametto II. It was stated in Lebrecht’s report that COC had requested the removal of the review, and the Post obliged.


Over the next couple of hours, statements were released by various inside sources, namely from COC’s Media Relations Manager, Jennifer Pugsly. She openly shared the email correspondence that occurred between her and the Post. It stated that COC had only requested corrections to the review rather than its removal. Furthermore, it was revealed that Dustin Parkes, the executive producer for features at the National Post, had not only chosen to remove the review himself, but had also continued to bemoan the role of music criticism for its inability to draw big readership.


Now, numerous others in operatic reporting have commented on the nature of this scandal (if it may be called such), from The Washington Post to Schmopera. These various publications tend to support Kapitainis, while also questioning the integrity of both the National Post and Lebrecht’s reporting. Such opinions are important, but also stand firmly on their own, so I invite you to read and comment on them at your own will.


Instead, I find that this instance comes at a fascinating time for me personally. As I write more reviews myself, I have begun to consider more deeply the role of the critic. When questioning criticism, countless other articles online seem to ask the same question over and over: what is the role of the modern critic when everyone can now share their opinions so freely?


If you’re reading this in hopes of a straightforward answer, it’s time for you to move along; I am not here to give it to you. If, however, you are here to participate in pondering this question with me, please, by all means stay.


The Role of the Critic According to Others

The role of criticism will differ according to who you ask. It seems that some companies and publications today believe that the role of the critic is to promote both the product reviewed, along with the publication the critic works for. 

At least, this is the conclusion that outsiders may reach when reading stories like that of the National Post. It would probably be unsustainable for the vast majority of publications to expect their critics to share only positive reviews. For the sake of argument though, let’s assume that publications only want to look their best, and that they wish to do so through positive reviews. 


The reader, in turn, may believe that reviews are written merely as a means to answer the question of, “Should I/Shouldn’t I?” when it comes to selecting a product to purchase. This is not too dissimilar to how the creators and publications view the critic’s role. However, the key difference is that one opinion works in favor of the product, while the other in favor of the reader.


The Role of the Critic According to the Critics

It is not difficult to find a critic’s opinion on criticism; after all, they are writers. One merely needs to do a web search on the topic to find numerous articles. By and large though, their thoughts on this subject seem to all boil down to a set of basic ideas:


First, the role of the critic is not to serve any one entity in particular. As Daniel Mendelsohn so aptly puts it in his New Yorker article, “A Critic’s Manifesto,” “The serious critic ultimately loves his subject more than he loves his reader,” his subject being the kind of work he or she reviews, be it music, literature, or other creations. Furthermore, he states that, “The role of the critic… is to mediate intelligently and stylishly between a work and its audience.”


Second, true criticism is able to make eloquent, informed commentary on the quality of a piece of work. This commentary should then be used as a vehicle to consider the work’s role in the larger context of our creative culture. Furthermore, as Anne Midgette states in her previously mentioned Washington Post article, “When a newspaper runs a review by a critic, it’s a sign of implicit support of the critic – even if the critic’s views differ from an editor’s, or a reader’s, or the subject [product] of the review.”


In essence, critics believe that criticism is a means to discuss new creations and the role they play in our culture and society as a whole. While the goal is not to write in spite of the work’s creator, its audience, or the product, criticism is also not written explicitly for any of these audiences.


This is curious then when considering how each of these different audiences seem to view criticism. If creators and audiences alike each feel that the role of the review is to serve them, then how are we to have a greater discussion about art and culture in today’s day and age? Furthermore, if either reader or creator requests a review with this implicit and perhaps subconscious bias, what is the critic to do?


What is the role of the modern critic? Depends on who you ask. Click To Tweet


Overall, I think my questions about criticism are more a larger question about how we as a modern society discuss creative works. If those who create want the respect, or even just the attention of audiences, is it not prudent to make sure that these creators allow a discussion to be had (even if it’s a negative one)? Similarly, if audiences want to experience works beyond the scope of “good” or “bad”, is it not vital that they receive information about a product beyond such a binary?


As I said, I have no answers to this. Yet again, if I did, it wouldn’t be a fair or true discussion of criticism.


What do you think the role of the critic is in modern times?

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