Wednesday, December 07, 2016

The Tao of arts criticism

The demise of professional arts criticism is, quite rightly, receiving the attention it deserves. But its murder by what is known in the media industry as user-generated content is receiving less attention. Prime examples - in more ways than one - are the user-generated reviews on Amazon. The authority of a professional critic is determined by the number of reviews written by her/him, and their subject matter and critical perceptiveness. With professional critics being axed as user-generated contributions replace paid for content, there is no reason why the same criteria should not be used to judge the authority of user-generated reviews.

Here is an example. A classical music related book was recently promoted on social media by drawing attention to its seven five star Amazon reviews. The identity of the book is not relevant to this discussion; but the authority of the reviewers as measured by number of reviews, and their subject matter and critical perceptiveness - all of which is in the public domain and easily accessible - is relevant. The seven Amazon reviewers of the book in question have contributed a total of just 29 reviews. For one reviewer the five-star review is the only one they have contributed. Another reviewer has written only two reviews, the other one a five star accolade for a title from the same publisher. While another reviewer has contributed a total of six reviews, all five star - one is for the subject book and two others for books by the same author. Of the 29 reviews none are for classical music recordings, but one is for Thomas the Tank Engine stories.

It is good that seven readers have enjoyed the five star book and I wish it every success. Amazon reviews have their uses as a quick and dirty guide. But user-generated content needs to be treated with caution. Because not only are these reviews notoriously unreliable - that leading exponent of user-created content TripAdvisor is a good example of this unreliability - but user-generated content is hastening the death of irreplaceable professional arts criticism. I will let the Taoist text Chuang Tzu, Book XII Part II Section V Thien Ti (Heaven and Earth) provide the last word on user-created content:
Tell a man that he is merely following (the opinions) of another, or that he is a flatterer of others, and at once he flushes with anger. And yet all his life he is merely following others, and flattering them. His illustrations are made to agree with theirs; his phrases are glossed:-- to win the approbation of the multitudes. From first to last, from beginning to end, he finds no fault with their views. He will let his robes hang down, display the colours on them, and arrange his movements and bearing, so as to win the favour of his age, and yet not call himself a flatterer. He is but a follower of those others, approving and disapproving as they do, and yet he will not say that he is one of them. This is the height of stupidity.
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1 comment:

Pliable said...

This is relevant.

The Critics' Code: Skilled professionals should be paid for their work
- http://www.criticscircle.org.uk/film/?ID=501