Arts Critics and Exploitation – Part 4 – ‘The Future’

In the previous article in the ‘Exploited Critics’ series, theQR suggested that the practice of website owners recruiting unpaid, volunteer arts journalists be stopped. In this fourth, and final article, I explore what that would mean, and why I am prepared to risk this site becoming unviable, if it means some form of viable profession is preserved & promoted.

So what happens if you put an end of unpaid, hobby arts journalism?

One possibility is that the bottomless supply of ‘free’ reviewers ends. With supply depressed well below the demands of the thousands of clamouring venues and creators, the value of any remaining critics would then rise. That is to say, they might be able to make some income.

Of course, hundreds of new review sites might just spring up as those jettisoned volunteers set up for themselves. Assuming theatre owners wouldn’t immediately declare all tickets free for the price of a review on any website, they would have to make choices. Choices as to which outlets still offered them genuine value in return for access.

I imagine the short list would be short. However, with the market free from heavyweights bloated upon an abundance of unpaid content contribution, the arts economy would be forced to confront the crisis in arts journalism shared by the wider news industry. If high quality arts journalism is indeed a vital part of the creative economy, then solutions would have to be found.

Maybe you think I’m being rather savage? Maybe you point to the internet-facilitated democratisation of the arts journalism world, and you’d be right. There is much more opportunity for people to have their opinions heard, so long as by people you mean a demographic overwhelmingly dominated by folks benefitting from other sources of life-sustaining income, and students. Which is to gate arts journalism and criticism against the disadvantaged every bit as much as the elitist system which went before.

If you want actual diversity in theatre reviewing, then you have to recruit individuals from diverse, disadvantaged backgrounds and PAY THEM!

Now my attitude will seem cruel to those who see their hobby reviewing (however seriously undertaken), as their only means to satisfy their appetites for the stalls. However, though successive governments have embedded wage stagnation and economic inequality in our economy, the answer isn’t cause to destroy theatre criticism and arts journalism as a viable career.

Not all critics are made equally

That an abundance of people want to be theatre critics/arts journalists in no means they should have an automatic right to be such. The idea that being literate and capable of an opinion as sufficient qualifications to be seen as a credible critic is offensive. For here is an unquestionable truth: humans are not gifted equally, be it in work ethic, writing talent, or critical faculties.

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Yes, the distinctions between the most and least able are fuzzier than in the scientific or mathematical disciplines, but the very basis of the critic’s art lies in recognising the difference, crudely speaking, between good and bad art. If there is no such thing as a ‘good’ reviewer, there is no such thing as a ‘good’ play. This is obviously untrue, unless you’re willing to defend the proposition that the new Osmonds musical is every bit as ‘good’ as Hamilton. (Spoilers: it’s not).

However, the juggernauts of the online arts criticism world, and many venues, have fundamentally compromised the idea of quality control within the industry. Year-round open recruitment to the voluntary reviewer’s ranks speaks to an appetite for more volume above all other concerns. The very concept of ‘reviewer’ is in question when venues are happy to grant access to ‘writers’ producing little more than a plot synopsis with a sprinkling of adjectives, or worse – only a Twitter or Facebook post.

Writers with talent – and they are present in every organisation – are thus left to peddle their scribblings amidst an ocean of the so-so. If the industry can’t offer anything but the most minimal quality control, again, why would anyone pay for, or pay attention to, their output?

So not everyone is equipped to make a living as an arts critic, so what?

Re-professionalising the world of theatre criticism would doubtless result in the exit of some talented, hard-working writers. However, not every gifted actor will make a career on stage, nor will every skilled instrumentalist find a secure spot in a professional orchestra. Failure abounds throughout the arts industry as in any other, but for almost all there is at least a reasonable possibility of success.

Perhaps theQR wouldn’t survive such changes, it’s a possibility I have to accept. However, at least the possibility of success would be greater than in a digital landscape dominated by giant, exploitative enterprises, and ethically constituted teams happy to be exploited by the arts industry at large.

So long as there is a surging supply of reviewers willing to work for nothing; so long as there are only nominal barriers to entering the space, the future is not bright. Instead that future mostly belongs to the financially secure hobbyist securing themselves free tickets to the theatre. The result will be nothing less than the death of arts journalism and criticism as a professional endeavour. What remains will be worthy neither of respect, nor any payment other than exposure.

But isn’t theQR part of the problem?

Readers of this series may find themselves thinking, ‘But Dr. Quinn’ aren’t you contributing to the problem? After all, I am an unpaid critic who runs a website that costs quite a bit of money. First, I would point out that theQR belongs to me, it is my asset, and what revenues it generates belong to me. I am not a volunteer for someone else’s publication, subject to their management. Rather I am investing my time and money into something here that could become profitable with time. Indeed, I intend it to without taking – or facilitating society to take – advantage of anyone else.

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It is not unethical to take part in society as it operates now, whilst simultaneously recognising fundamental problems with its operation. I intend to campaign for change and to take meaningful action, and if anything I’ve said resonates with you, I appeal to you to get in touch so we can discuss ideas on how to encourage the changes necessary.

If however you’re content with a status quo which pays the salary of others both directly, and indirectly, whilst most of the labourers make-do with ‘free’ tickets and exposure, then please let me hear your arguments. In a series to follow, theQR will begin to search for a better way forward, reaching out to stakeholders to begin a conversation (if such a thing is possible).