Everyone's a critic, be they informed or not

A famous London-based composer and theatre producer frets about the future of his art form.

A prominent Hollywood film magazine lets go a couple of its critics.

A New Zealand MP is "outed" as a precious and overbearing bully for complaining about the behaviour of young children on a flight.

Three isolated and quite different events separated by continent and constituency.

What could they possibly have in common? The viral roar of the madding digital crowd - that's what.

Let me explain.

Last week, reproduced on these pages, was an article from a London newspaper in which Andrew Lloyd Webber, celebrated for Cats, Evita and Phantom of the Opera, among other creations, following a deluge of online opinion on his latest musical, Love Never Dies, worried about the potentially destructive influence of the online "critic" - that is to say, anyone with the time and inclination to post a view, unload comment on a forum, or send opinions spiralling out into the blogosphere.

We are all critics now.

In the digital age, all you need is a viewpoint and a modem.

The accretion of opinion, however ill-informed, the article seemed to suggest, is steadily usurping the role of context, expertise, scholarship, memory, cultural nuance - and replacing the considered musings of the "expert" with, at its more benign, expressions of popular taste.

At the more savage end of the same spectrum are to be found, according to Sir Andrew's sympathisers, the malign rantings of the mob.

On the one hand it is difficult to have too much sympathy for the musical luminary, because nothing if not popular taste propelled his shows to unrivalled commercial success, and earned him a fortune in the process; on the other, one suspects he could just have something of a point.

Is popular taste - in the TV world we might measure this by ratings, in movies, by box-office receipts - to be the primary arbiter of cultural or artistic value in a future wired world?The magazine Variety might appear to think so.

Earlier this month it sacked its chief film critic Todd McCarthy and chief theatre critic David Rooney - apparently on the basis that the traditional critic is becoming irrelevant.

In an age of texting, Twitter and social networking, audiences' reactions and "word-of-mouth" are exponentially more powerful a force for revealing consumer preference.

Popularity rules, OK?Surely, then, a force for good? To the extent that these digital avenues offer alternatives to the crusty, ivory tower elitism which has perplexed, puzzled and infuriated ordinary citizens for ages - or, in a broader sociopolitical and cultural context, a way round the lofty and sometimes arrogant "gatekeepers" of information - this democratisation of knowledge has to be welcomed.

But perhaps we should be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

As one example of just how endangered the quality of public conversation becomes under the overriding mandates of popular taste and commercial imperative, one need look no further than the dismal state of TVNZ's programming.

But it is perhaps in other spheres of public affairs that more disturbing eventualities of the messy combine of popular perception, the digital universe and the traditional media can be observed.

Take the case of Labour MP Charles Chauvel and the mewling infants.

Last week , a politician who has struggled to make even the merest impression on the public consciousness with contributions to an important debate on energy or climate change, for which he is an appointed spokesman, suddenly finds himself in the news because he dared to voice the view that badly behaved kids on a plane ought to be told to quieten down a bit.

One problem for Mr Chauvel, it transpires, is that the father of the children is a former Act New Zealand member and a "Right-wing blogger".

He went public via the net with his account of events - an account disputed by Mr Chauvel, and by other witnesses - and very soon the bilious traffic on the affair, and musings by various commentators, meant it was all over the headlines.

Another problem for Mr Chauvel is that he is gay and in the public pay to boot, points crudely or snidely underlined in the fallout.

Looking back over the coverage and the online commentary, the impression is that Mr Chauvel has been given a jolly good roughing up and what's more the bumptious upstart asked for it.

Is this an example of democracy at work in the instant information age? Or yet more evidence that, left entirely to its own devices, the relentless drive of our public discourse, aided and abetted by prejudice, emotional knee-jerkism and ill-informed comment, is steadfastly towards the lowest common denominator?

• Simon Cunliffe is assistant editor at the Otago Daily Times.


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