We have critics for all kinds of industries, disciplines, and entertainment. Whether its food, art, theater, or some other form of leisurely activity, we want to rest assured that we're spending our time and our money as wisely as possible. And that requires doing some research and reading to uncover what's in store if we commit ourselves to a new program, book, or exhibit.
Criticism is at its core a measure of one person's taste, and there can never be a real method to advise any individual about whether something is worth checking out; what wows one person may bore the next. Yet, despite some severe cutbacks at newspapers and magazines in recent years, critics have endured. To whatever degree possible in these difficult times.
You have to wonder though how long criticism can survive. We've made unbelievable strides in this social-media-heavy world to empower people and to encourage them to aspire to be the next Julia Child, Tom Wolfe, or, yes, Pauline Kael. With so many different venues, media, and opportunities to make a name for yourself, anyone with a dream and a prayer can emerge someone worth reading. It's a drastic change from an era when criticism was itself an art form beyond just a way to learn more about a play's opening.
On some level, now that everyone has an opinion, nobody's opinion really matters in its own right. Even those who churn out great writing in the form of a review will only make a name for themselves now for doing something more than just their jobs. Take Pete Wells' review of Guy Fieri's Midtown New York restaurant this fall that caused a firestorm for being labeled too caustic. Wells, some believed, crossed a line as a critic.
Nobody would make the case that The New York Times should do away with its food reviews inside that section's coverage. But if the only time new eyes find their way to Wells's review is when he skewers a chef, what does that say about the practice altogether?
Not all reviews are the same, of course. Had a local NYC blogger written the same article that Wells did, it's doubtful that anyone would have found it, or shared it. But more and more the consensus on a subject is what drives people to or away from something. The Pete Wells' have given way to sites like Rotten Tomatoes or Yelp where an overall mathematical equation or anecdotal evidence speak for the product.
By curating coverage in this fashion, everything gets its deserving final score and it helps us make better assessments. However, there are still some last bastions of the old methods. Look at Broadway, for instance, where shows can thrive or be driven out-of-town depending on what the critics say. One bad review won't make a flop. But if a series of the well-known and well-respected critics all pan a show, it doesn't have much hope for survival. Similarly, if it gets rave reviews, the show is much more likely to be picked up and to survive into the next season. It's not one score that determines the show's fate; it's a series of the dozen or so influencers who, together, can move the needle in one direction.
As we make for more sophisticated ways to make judgments on works of art or entertainment, we should aspire to level off at a process similar to the one used for Broadway. Taking into account the opinions of five or ten individuals who know the business best is a smart system to employ. What's not is depending on the thoughts and impressions of the crowd when it can be so easily manipulated. There's still a place for great writing and thoughtful reviews. We just have to be willing to do the research to discover it instead of defaulting to the average.