Lecture 2: What is Criticism? (An Introduction to Cultural Journalism. Online course by Dr Maya Jaggi)
The main forms of cultural journalism in print and online are reviews, interviews, profiles and general features (broadly defined as any articles that are not news reports). Culture is also covered in news reports, comment and blogs. Most of these forms rely on core journalism skills such as reporting and interviewing. But they also include criticism, which means the skill of critical appreciation. Most forms of cultural journalism can be enriched by incorporating an element of criticism. That means making your own assessments of art, not just relying on received opinion. So this is a field of journalism in which you can find and express a personal voice.

What is criticism? We are all critics in the sense that we constantly judge whether cultural products (such as books, films or TV programmes) are good or not, and how they compare with others of their type. But criticism is not just an opinion. A review is an argument based on evidence which seeks to persuade others. It ideally includes an element of objective description of whatever is being reviewed. While reviews, like comment, are subjective, the critic aspires to speak not just for him or herself, but for other readers, listeners or viewers.

Critics play a vital role in supporting cultural and creative industries, and in enabling artists of all kinds to develop their art and reach audiences. But criticism is neither promotion nor just consumer advice. It may be a good thing if people read a book or see a film or show because of a review. But a critic must be independent of marketing. Their job is not to sell anything in particular, but to pay attention to art, whether it has financial backing or not. They can in fact function as an antidote to hype, or expensive promotion. Among the critics obligations are to be fair to the artist he or she is reviewing, and to the art form itself. But their main responsibilities are arguably to the audience, and to give their judgement with integrity.

The language of the review will depend on the audience for which it is intended. With some conceptual art, for example, one function of the critic may be to translate theoretical jargon into terms the general reader will understand. Critics can mediate between art and audiences, explain the new, and even predict what will last. They can set standards and shape tastes, sometimes working against public opinion.

Criticism can be read for cultural news, as a forum for debate and as a mirror of social concerns. The audience for book reviews, for example, might include people who will read the book being reviewed; people who have already read it; and people who will never read it. A review should include factual information (for example, release details and dates, or venues); description; some flavour or quotation of the work; context; and evaluation or judgement. Relevant context might include the artists past work; comparable works by other artists; and the entire history of the genre or art form. It might include an element of the artists biography, though not usually their domestic circumstances or the market value of the art works. Unlike academic reviewers, a reviewer in the news media is expected to make a judgement.

Here are some questions you could ask yourself as a reviewer: Is the artist doing something new, or taking their art form in a different direction? If they are working in a tradition, in what way do they conform or depart from it, or develop it? How does the work compare with others by the same artist or other artists? What art has inspired or influenced them?

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