Critics used to be feared and respected for their ability to make definitive judgments on everything from conceptual art to catwalk fashions. This mattered not just for the success -- or failure -- of the individuals being judged, but for shaping culture more generally. Critical acclaim for 18th-century actor David Garrick changed how we viewed Shakespeare as well as actors. Hazlitt was Romanticism's critical muse, while Kenneth Tynan championed the post-war realism of plays like John Osborne's Look Back In Anger. It could even be said that criticism makes us who we are, forming, as Roger Scruton puts it, "part of the great transition from youthful enjoyment to adult discrimination." Today criticism can still -- sometimes literally -- define our tastes, with the Evening Standard’s Fay Maschler described as the "most feared and respected restaurant critic" in London.
But society often seems to have disavowed its critics today, particularly where high culture is concerned. If anything, tough criticism is less associated with the arts than lifestyle journalism and light entertainment, from Fay Maschler to Simon Cowell. Some fear the dearth of in-depth critical writing reflects something deeper. With teachers wary of criticizing students lest they damage their self-esteem, and professional journalism giving way to amateur blogging, are we the midst of a crisis of judgment? From politics to pop, some argue robust debate has collapsed to be replaced by a culture in which everybody's opinions must be respected.
Are we no longer comfortable with criticism and authority today? Who needs a coterie of "official" critics when anybody can publish a blog or write a reader’s review? Is this a liberating democratization, empowering the man and woman in the street? How can we refine our own judgment without a wider culture of criticism? Do we risk reducing critical clarity to a competing cacophony of unexamined prejudices? Isn't a society that is afraid to make critical judgments one that surrenders to paralysis and puerility? What is the role of the critic and why should we listen?
Tiffany Jenkins is Arts and Society Director at the Institute of Ideas. Tiffany is also a writer and researcher currently exploring the cultural meanings of human remains in museums, at the University of Kent at Canterbury, in the school of social sciences. Her work explores questions about the cultural authority of museums, and the rise of the body in the high modern period.
Ronan McDonald, senior lecturer, English, University of Reading; author, The Death of the Critic.
Munira Mirza, mayoral advisor, arts and culture, Greater London Authority; editor, Culture Vultures: is UK arts policy damaging the arts?
James Runcie, novelist, East Fortune; film-maker, Powerhouses and My Father; artistic director, Bath Literature Festival.
Gabriella Swallow, principal cellist, London Contemporary Music Group; permanent guest, BBC4's Proms.