Arts Coverage in Australia: How Fucked Really Are We?


Image by Laurie Rojas, after ‘The Critic Sees’ by Jasper Johns. Used with permission.

After several recent blows to the journalism industry in Australia, we at TLB are feeling especially despondent about the state of this country’s arts writing. We find it difficult to fathom this form of deep analytical writing withstanding many more setbacks – particularly in a time when arts writing is continually kicked to the capitalist’s kerb, in a country where it is arguably already buried and almost dead.

After seeing a few standard news reports about the setbacks, and a bunch of tweets, we sensed and knew that there were a bunch of conversations happening between critics and between journalists and between critics and journalists that needed public airing. And so we asked a handful of our favourite arts critics and arts journalists if they would get together in a shared online document and have a chinwag. Anwen Crawford, Alison Croggon and Anders Furze agreed. Below is their conversation.


Anwen: Well, so my first question is, how do we push past a feeling of despair? Or should we? Because I do feel despair for the future of art making and arts criticism in this country.

Alison: This is a real question. Everyone will have a different answer, but maybe the first bit is to face up to where we are, and that’s hard. Watching the Fairfax fight at the moment, I realise I have absolutely no hope that journalism can continue in the way that we have assumed it will in the past. It’s really clear that the business model is stuffed, that journalism is not an end in itself, except when, as with Murdoch, it can be used to serve a particular corporate interest. The revelations about how Fairfax finance works just confirms this: journalism is a means of distributing profitable wares, and that’s it. And this is of course why the ABC, as a competitor on many levels, has to go, why it is under constant attack. I think we should fight for public broadcasting as much as we can, in the hope that something at least can be salvaged, but in the meantime it all looks pretty bloody bleak out there. Anyway, I generate my hope from what is possible. Seeing a brilliant show by The Rabble a couple of weeks ago, for instance. This is a company that was totally done over by the Brandis cuts a couple of years ago: on the verge of getting triennial funding, after doing all the hard yards for years, and had the rug pulled out from underneath them. A company that suffers under this particular system, because they are feminist, experimental, not “popular” in the ways they are supposed to be. And after this very bruising knocking around, they turn around and make some amazing work. And because it’s amazing, everyone goes, you can’t get a ticket. If we’re banished out to the fringes now, I guess we embrace that freedom. And make our communities there and protect that space and those people. I realise I sound a bit happy-clappy, but I do know these communities are real, and that they can be powerful in surprising ways. Anyway, I guess I’m saying the only response to despair is courage, and that courage is encouraging. We have to make a virtuous circle where now we’re just seeing vicious ones.

Anwen: I don’t think you’re being happy-clappy. There is truth in the notion that we protect and nurture our artistic communities when they are under threat. But I wonder about the spaces in which we can do this, physical spaces as much as much as metaphorical ones. My pessimism is inflected by the fact that I live in Sydney, and that music is my main area as a critic and an audience member – music and film. And the spaces for sustaining those communities are vanishing. Fifteen or so years of relentless gentrification and property development in the city has had a massive impact on small, independent arts venues. And for music in particular, the lockout laws had a huge effect on what was already a struggling sector. It’s not just mid-size venues that are gone, it’s venues that would fit 150 people, or even fifty people, the real grassroots venues where new work is incubated. So now we’re in a situation where the physical spaces barely exist in which to make the work, which means that audiences can’t see the work, nor engage with it critically. The sense of banishment can feel very literal. I often feel as if everyone in Sydney who doesn’t has an income of $100,000 or more is being actively pushed out (we are), made invisible, forced to keep our heads down. I know these are separate issues, in a sense, to the crisis in arts criticism and coverage, but they’re also not separate. The whole creative ecosystem is really fragile at the moment. I’m conscious of possibly drawing the boundaries too wide at an early point in this discussion, though.

Alison: That sounds dire, Anwen! And it’s not at all a separate issue. I am talking precisely about those physical spaces, where people can meet and talk as well as share ideas: it’s a major reason I value theatre. We’re mammals, we need those warm spaces. They do exist here in Melbourne, at least at the moment, although rising rents and gentrification are issues here as well. Of course we can curate online spaces as well, and they can be important in battling isolation. But they can’t be the only spaces.

Anders: I don’t know I can even gesture towards answering that question, Anwen. Among emerging critics I speak with there is a general sense the sky has fallen in. But then I only started doing this comparatively recently so for me the sky has always been fallen in.

Seven years ago The Wheeler Centre hosted a panel asking if film criticism had died, and I distinctly remember Adrian Martin telling that panel “forget The Age. I did!”

Which is not to say that the mass media conversation around culture is not an incredibly important one. I have a lot of time for well-informed “mainstream” arts criticism. It’s how I first discovered the possibilities of cinema: when I was a teenager I read a five star capsule review of Mulholland Drive in Empire magazine, and it sparked a curiosity in me that I’m still following fifteen years later. That’s the power of this kind of cultural conversation.

To have a dedicated section of The Age devoted to the arts – alongside politics, business, sport and the rest – is a statement that it is an important element of our daily conversation about our city and ourselves.

Of course, to have that section now weighted so strongly in favour of certain subjects, to have it so near-totally subsumed under the broader entertainment umbrella, is a statement about our city and ourselves as well.

Alison, I agree with you entirely about where journalism more generally currently finds itself. The old business models have petered out and they are not coming back. It’s over.

I’m trying to see this as a liberating chance for new ways of thinking to assert themselves but I’d appreciate it if they’d assert themselves a bit more quickly and forcefully please.

One approach that I’ve found interesting is the argument around increasing publicly funding journalism. The same argument applies to criticism. In the past, funding bodies supported film criticism in the interests of developing a broader film culture. Now, as Lauren Carroll Harris has pointed out, our film policy is almost entirely geared around production to the exclusion of other aspects of film culture, like criticism or distribution.

And then there is the issue of independence. For me this is a key question concerning the collapse of journalism’s business model.

Alison: Hi Anders – back in 2004, I answered the independence question by starting Theatre Notes, which I kept up for eight years. That independence was what I most valued about my blog. When The Australian offered me a review job, I almost resigned a week after starting because the contract seemed to say that I couldn’t write on my blog about shows I had reviewed for the Oz (it didn’t say that, but it made me realise how much I valued that, above everything else). I didn’t attempt to make it pay. And back then, the blog worked, not least because back then I could afford to do a bunch of work for nothing. From my POV, in 2004 I was already seeing the collapse of institutional cultural criticism (which is a fairly recent model, only really took place in the twentieth century). Over the past year I’ve been feeling pretty depressed about the whole critical culture thing, and started talking seriously a couple of months ago about starting another critical site in 2018, a different evolution this time that focuses on community, but which of course will have reviews and essays. This time an explicit aim is to get paid, and we will be crowdfunding it, although we are also very clear that although we will be seeking certain kinds of support from performance companies; we don’t want sponsorship or advertising from them. Early signs are that it has a good chance of actually working. The plus side of this debacle is that there is a huge gap. The big loss is the broadcast model, which you get in the mainstream press: eg, almost all the arts on the ABC has been taken away from broadcasting and sent into narrowcasting (internet sites, podcasts etc.). I think that is a serious loss, because you need those random encounters.

Anders: You absolutely do. Your point about institutional criticism being a comparatively recent phenomenon is an important one. I know I once had a preconception about a “golden age” of mainstream film criticism, but then I realised that maybe what I was lamenting was in fact a kind of miraculous aberration made possible by so many improbably colliding factors for a brief moment in time: the exception proving the rule. Funnily enough I just visited to see what the current situation is and was greeted with “Note: This site is an archive and no longer being updated.” I am glad to see you’re embarking on this new project – I look forward to seeing what you do with the site!

Anwen: Yeah, I’m not nostalgic for any lost golden age of journalism and/or arts criticism. I don’t think there was one. I find myself thinking of late about the notion of “indymedia”, which reared its head in activist circles in the late nineties/early 2000s, especially in relation to what was then a growing, global protest movement against corporate capitalism. This kind of citizen and/or activist journalism took advantage of what were then new tools and spaces online for the dissemination of independent media. Crucially, this happened pre-social media, pre-Google, pre-YouTube, pre–the enormous harvesting of our personal information by governments and businesses. We can’t turn back the clock, but I think the notion of a “people’s media” is due a revival, a revitalisation. It was this kind of media, and criticisms of the corporate-owned press which came out of activist circles, that taught me to be sceptical of the mainstream press when I was quite young, still in my teens. (And now I feel like something of a walking contradiction, given that I contribute my labour to some of this media.)

We often talk about the crisis in media as if it hasn’t been partly caused by the media itself, but it has. I’m not talking about individual journalists here. I am talking about the kind of financing and profit models that have shaped mainstream media, and which influence the stories that get told, and how they get told. And of course this narrowing of coverage is becoming even more narrow, now that digital metrics etc. dictate what gets published in the first place. We need to break out of this model, somehow, and (re)invent a model of media that is financially sustainable but not necessarily for profit. To go back to Alison’s earlier point about community: we need media that is a meaningful part of a community, or communities. I’ve kept one foot in the zine world since I was a teenager and that’s the kind of publishing community which is really meaningful to me, and which makes meaning among its participants. But it’s a thing unto itself, it can’t be scaled up without ruining what makes it special. We need something, though, an independent model. Jeff Sparrow made some similar points in The Guardian recently: “the only solutions are radical ones,” he wrote. I agree. But there is no reason why “radical” has to be synonymous with “exiled” or “ignored”.

Alison: Okay, another question: do any of us think that the nature of arts criticism will have to change in response to this crisis?

Anwen: I think it already has, hasn’t it? And largely for the worse. In that we’ve seen a substantial decline in essay-length pieces, these have mostly been replaced by capsule reviews, recaps, and a lot of stuff repurposed from social media. Now, there is a useful place (and a certain kind of writerly discipline) in capsule reviews and recaps, if not in simply screenshotting shit from Twitter. But if that’s all we’re left with, then we’re in trouble. And we are in trouble. So, if we want to break that cycle…? Well, I think that will have a lot to do with the nature and purpose of the publications we’re writing for. And what else? I’m always interested in finding ways around the new release cycle, which is so often tied to the publicity gears of major labels, studios, etc. If there are ways of pursuing critical questions that go beyond whatever is out next week, then that interests me a great deal. I think, too, that we have to resist the tendency to oversimplify our critical responses, which is something that social media in particular tends to reward: the polarising take, the hyperbolic rave review, the takedown. It’s very rare that I think a work is all good or all bad, and I think that those kind of value judgements are among the least interesting, or useful, elements of criticism. Related to this, I’m pretty bored with the intellectual vanity that often passes now for critical discourse, where we analyse a work only in terms of whether or not it measures up to our own moral codes. I wish the word “problematic” would disappear forever. This doesn’t mean that I want to see difficult, counterintuitive, thought-provoking criticism, written from new and/or underrepresented perspectives, disappear. Quite the opposite. But I do think we need to resist the temptation to be judgemental, rather than doing the more nuanced work of making a series of judgements.

Alison: I so agree with all your points, Anwen. It’s interesting how things have changed over the past decade. I began Theatre Notes in large part because I was trying to catch up on the past fifteen years in theatre in Melbourne (long story) and realised that there was only one place that did any kind of useful criticism (i.e., criticism that told me interesting things about what happened). That was RealTime, which is still going. The dailies had their critics passing judgement, and the rest was silence. Magazines like Theatre Australia didn’t exist any more. There was no dialogue at all, even on opening nights, I mean, nobody said anything, except in private. I remember in the days when blogs took off – people all over the place were experimenting with form as responses to performance, posting Socratic dialogues or even diagrams or doing reviews as .gifs. It was kind of chaos, and it was also exciting and fun. Don’t want to be nostalgic about this (okay, I am) but quite seriously, people would look over from London at some of the conversations that were happening, which were searching and serious and fascinating, and say, WTF is going on in Melbourne?! Most of reviewing now is a consumer guide, which has its place of course. Now we’ve got a very similar situation to the early 2000s, except it’s kind of the opposite: lots of white noise, and yet it’s still hard to find thoughtfulness and also disinterestedness, which is a quality I value a lot in criticism. And most of all, theatre reviewing of all kinds has settled down to a conventional review format. And the star thing (I loathe and despise doing stars) is just standard – it’s on almost every review. I guess for me it sums up everything that’s reductive about responses to art.

…Anyway, as a P.S., I think that the only response is to get serious again.

Anders: Anwen, I wholeheartedly concur with your point about the “it’s problematic” school of writing on art and entertainment. If nothing else it’s patronising to the readership. It’s funny just how much this attitude has taken hold though. At the moment I’m watching Sex and the City for the first time and quite often when I mention this to people they say “but don’t you find the depiction of gay people so offensive?” Well, I find your question offensive! I don’t even think it is, but even if I did, so what? Sometimes it’s good to be offended by what you watch.

Anyway that’s a digression. To the question of whether arts criticism is changing: I think there are definitely some creative, unique responses to the crisis in film criticism happening online. Locally, take a website like 4:3, which makes a super human effort to comprehensively cover the festival circuit. Or there’s the .gif-centric academic journal Peephole, which publishes wonderfully creative writing about super specific, isolated moments in films. Then there’s the burgeoning podcast scene.

So things are happening and conversations are being had. How long we’ll keep having these conversations is anybody’s guess.

Against my better self I’m also a big defender of film Twitter. It’s funny how much of a frenzy it turns into during the Sydney and Melbourne film festivals. The festivals encourage this of course (witness Melbourne’s ‘tweet screen’ spotlighting tweets before every screening). When we all go into overdrive twice a year we end up making a collective statement that movies do actually matter. That they’re worth getting hyperactive and ironic and witty and tired and angry about. I’m always encountering new recommendations and moments of critical enthusiasm on film twitter and on balance I’m very grateful for it.

I guess the bigger concern for me personally is that I really love talking about cinema with people who don’t live and breathe it. But in a media world that’s increasingly favouring niche content there are so few avenues to reach that general-interest audience, and the avenues that do exist skew heavily in favour of certain approaches. One thing that has remained with me from a piece I wrote on the decline of the Australian film critic is the notion that the only time newspaper critics get massive clicks online is when they’re writing one-star reviews. It’s tragi-comic: a film critic cuts through to a broad audience only when she or he hates a film!

So what does all of that mean for my practice? I don’t like asking this question because I don’t like dwelling on its answers. So instead I just keep on chipping away, chipping away, chipping away…

Alison: It seems to me that people will keep talking about art in whatever ways they like to talk about it. But whether people will pay for it, and how they access public discussions about art, is up for grabs. Part of that is up to us, I think. We have to write about art in ways that excite not only the hardcore fans, but that also invite people less familiar, but who might be curious, into the discussion. I’m not talking about dumbing down, I mean the opposite: dumbing down is a deeply patronising way of thinking about readers.

For me it’s about finding vocabularies that don’t make people feel patronised, that make them feel comfortable about partial understanding. I remember very well the feeling that I often had when I started going to the theatre in my early twenties, when I didn’t understand or like a show, and how I felt, somewhere underneath, that that meant that I was stupid. And I think that’s underlaid a lot of how I try to write. When I first started reviewing, I tried to use basically tabloid techniques to talk about complex ideas. I wanted to make jokes while talking about serious things. I truly do think art is (or should be) for everyone, equally the person who is just encountering it for the first time and is curious and interested by whatever has happened, the person who is deeply literate in all its forms. The person who doesn’t know how to behave in a plush temple of art, but who sees a Beckett play on television and immediately thinks of their job as a sheet metal worker, and actually understands, in a profound way, what Beckett was on about. (Yes, I knew that person.) I think that sometimes people think that art response is about being part of a club, of which you have to prove your membership. None of the good artists I know think like that, though.

Not saying I necessarily live up to my ideals, but intellectual access is a constant question for me. We have to invite people into the conversation. Part of this is I think about making our own critical processes more transparent, I mean the doubt and hesitancy and ambivalence, so that encountering and responding to art becomes less about magisterial judgment and more about a dynamic way of thinking and feeling, a teasing out of thought. Cultivating the ability to be wrong, and to admit it, so that others know they can be wrong too, and it’s okay. And so on.

Anwen: I am very much in concurrence with all the comments above, regarding the issue of general readerships, audience access, etc. Writing as a critic for a general readership has always been really important to me, because the formative experiences I had in reading criticism, when I was young, came via the music press like NME (the sorry decline of the NME is its own case study in the devaluation of criticism), or in newspapers and general interest magazines. Sometimes a review or essay could open me up to a whole new world, because it was introducing me to an artist I’d never heard of, or because it was discussing a broader cultural lineage that I wasn’t familiar with, or both. And if the piece was about an artist that I liked, or liked the idea of, I would try to follow up the references as best I could: if there was mention of another musician that inspired them, or a film or book, then I would try to track those things down for myself. Which was a harder thing to do, before the internet. It gave me a cultural education though, and a better one than I got at school. The autodidact impulse that culture, and cultural criticism, can facilitate is really important to me. When I write for publications like The Monthly, which is a magazine for a general readership, I always write with the assumption that a reader might not know anything about the subject, or that they might know everything. The challenge is to try and write for both those readers at the same time, without patronising anyone.

And of course, the more informed an audience, the more complex and combative (in a good way) those discussions can become. But one of the things that creates an informed, confident audience, who might be inclined to argue back with critics, is criticism itself: we all need, as critics and readers and audiences, an evolving record of art-making and the discussion around it, so that we feel we can contribute to it. And I’m still a reader of criticism, too, not just a writer of it. I still look for those pieces that help me to illuminate my understanding of an artist or an art form, or that will introduce me to something new, but they get harder to find.

It can take me a long time to make up my mind about things – or rather, I don’t really make up my mind. One thing that really interests me as a writer is to try and examine artworks or artists that I might have lived with for a long time, trying to figure out how my relationship with the thing has changed. Like Alison says above, it’s about teasing out thoughts. This relates back to the earlier point of discussion about stepping aside from the new release cycle. Some of the pieces I’ve written that I’ve been most satisfied with have involved things that I’ve had decades to think about. It’s worrying that in so far as the working life of a critic goes, any kind of time to properly think things through is increasingly a luxury. I don’t like the pressure to have an instant opinion on something. Again, I think this kind of pressure tends to make us judgemental.

I’m also interested – and I think this is related to the above, and to Alison’s point about making the process more transparent – in how one negotiates the ‘I’ voice as a critic. It’s not always an appropriate voice for criticism, and I don’t always use it, but when I do, it’s for a reason. Nor I do think the first-person voice is necessarily contiguous or interchangeable with the writer, as a person. The ‘I’ is always a construction, a performance, which doesn’t mean that it’s fake.

I think it’s very tricky as a woman writer, because we are all trained to read a woman’s ‘I’ as confessional, as undiluted autobiography. And despite the fact that I sometimes disclose personal information in my work, the confessional mode doesn’t really interest me, or at least, I want the chance to complicate that mode. Because what’s generally denied to women, and/or those from other marginalised subject positions, is the opportunity to write as a person who has cultivated skills – and, dare I say it, expertise – in a particular field of knowledge. If you write as a subjective ‘I’, then you can’t also be an expert. I don’t see why these two things can’t go together. I don’t see why the critical voice can’t be complicated by an ‘I’, and vice-versa.

But I do think that for a critic, the ‘I’ has to be a voice that can include others. You still have to be reaching out, implicitly or explicitly, inviting other audience members to examine their own responses. If you’re not doing this, if the critical response is really only about you, then I don’t think it’s going to work very well as a piece of criticism.

Alison: FWIW, I insist on my 'I’ as “a person who has cultivated skills – and, dare I say it, expertise – in a particular field of knowledge”. I think the presence of that 'I’ makes the expertise porous and partial, which it inevitably is, and is necessary as a demonstration that I don’t speak for everyone who has experienced the work I am writing about. Which is to say, it gives me more freedom to be open and argued with. That 'I’ is always a performance, which is, as you say, and—speaking with my theatre critic hat—not at all the same a deceit. It’s difficult, nay, impossible to combat reductive autobiographical (mis)readings of anything – I used to loathe the “personal” readings of some of my poems. But sometimes I find the misreadings in general of things I’ve written confronting: it doesn’t matter how clear or specific you try to be, someone somewhere will come up with some bizarre version of what you said. But that’s another issue.

One of the things I like about writing about performance is in fact the need to respond quickly. I never much liked doing overnighters, but even those—the traditional “notice”—can be a sketch of immediate response that can be vivid and interesting. But I agree that we need to think about things for years, it’s part of the task of critique. That long view, that perspective, can be difficult to find in a lot of reviewing. Australia has always had a problem with cultural memory.

Anders: One final point I’d like to reiterate is something I’ve only fully appreciated very recently: It’s not just up to critics to fix this problem.

The film podcast I co-host was recently longlisted for the Walkley media incubator and innovation fund (we didn’t end up being shortlisted). I shared this happy news with a journalist and he was genuinely perplexed to see us on the list. His tone was along the lines of, “Absolutely not dissing what you do but is it journalism?”.

To be honest, I had the same reaction! I had so fully internalised the perceived marginal status of criticism that I was genuinely shocked and impressed that some media gatekeeper somewhere had noticed us.

Which is ridiculous. It’s exhausting to constantly fight just for your right to have a seat at the media table. And it inevitably affects your work. You start applying a certain media logic to your practice, which means that you only cover certain things – the weekly “review cycle” that was previously mentioned being one such example.

So, editors, publishers, readers: what are you doing to develop our critical culture?

Anwen: It’s probably worth mentioning as we wrap up this exchange that the Walkleys has just announced a new version of the Pascall Prize, which has long been Australia’s only award for arts criticism – indeed, Alison is a previous winner! But with the exception of a “lifetime achievement” Pascall given to Evan Williams in 2015, the Prize hasn’t been awarded since 2014.

On the one hand, it’s encouraging to see the Pascall reinstated in some form. But I think there are a few things worth noting here. Firstly, the Pascall Prize used to come with a $15,000 award, which is a substantial prize for any writer. But there is no mention of this prize money now, which I presume means it will no longer come with any.

Secondly, the Pascall used to function as the “Australian Critic of the Year” prize, i.e., it recognised achievement over time, through a critic’s body of work. Now, it’s only being awarded for a “single work” of criticism, which seems to me a not particularly useful way of assessing criticism as a writing practice.

It’s better than nothing. But I think the changed nature and format of the Pascall tells us a lot about just how marginalised criticism has become. To echo your point, Anders, criticism is generally not regarded as part of journalism, and while I think that reflects a certain truth about the nature of criticism as a practice, it also means that criticism, as I think we have seen far too often of late, is considered a 'soft’ or 'disposable’ option, unlike 'hard’ news. The Walkleys has never offered any kind of prize for arts writing before now, despite people asking for it repeatedly over the years. And again, it’s worth noting that there are two Walkley-Pascall prizes being awarded now: one for arts journalism, and one for arts criticism, as separate disciplines.

Lastly, I was extremely disappointed not to see the Cultural Capital podcast, which is the terrific film podcast that Anders is involved in making, shortlisted for the Walkleys innovation fund! Nearly everything on the shortlist was to do with technical and/or “back end” demands for journalists, and while I’m sure these projects are each worthy in their own right, it was a shame not to see a greater diversity of approaches among the shortlist, or an encouragement of new projects in cultural criticism.

A postscript on the issue of time/turnaround for reviews: I think the problem is particularly acute with popular music criticism, where more and more I’m noticing the 'first listen’ review being published, often within hours of an album being released. I think that’s next to useless as a critical response. An album isn’t really made to be listened to once, then reviewed. Live reviewing is a little different, obviously with theatre or concerts or any other live form, you’re reviewing the thing as it was in that single iteration, for that performance, and I agree that there’s an interesting energy, for both writers and readers, in this kind of criticism. But to me the 'first listen’ album review is the equivalent of live tweeting a film review as you watch the film for the first time. It’s a gimmick. It’s stunt criticism.

Alison: Thanks for pointing to the new Pascall Prize, Anwen. That’s very discouraging: it’s an entirely different prize. I’d also like to mention, in relation to the issue of cultural memory, that the original Pascall Prize website, which had an archive of all previous winners, including speeches and videos, has died a digital death and now only exists on the Wayback Machine. This lack of interest or care on those who are supposedly custodians of these things is why so much is forgotten.

And ditto to your comments on the Walkley’s Innovation shortlist: there were no cultural projects shortlisted, including our proposal for a performance criticism website, out of about ten that I counted. It’s hard to see that mainstream journalism has any commitment at all to nurturing cultural criticism. And I guess we have to face up to the truth that it doesn’t.