The Art of Critique
Digging into how critics work, and their role in society, with Ben Neutze and Jessica Ho.
The “Art of Journalism” series aims to uncover what it takes to be a great journalist in the 21st century. Each segment narrows in on a particular form of journalism — investigation, critique, interviewing, podcasting, column writing and crime reporting — and draws on established journalists to examine the skills, techniques and processes behind creating their best stories.
For the “Art of Critique” segment, I talk to Time Out’s National Arts and Culture Editor, Benjamin Neutze, and Time Out Melbourne’s Food and Drink Editor, Jessica Ho. Exploring the genre of critique and cultural commentary from two different angles, we discussed the value of experiential learning, the role of the critic in society and whether industry response supports or hinders the evaluation process.
Ben Neutze is a national arts and culture editor for Time Out Australia.
What are the qualities of a successful critic?
Curiosity is incredibly important. A good critic is a well of knowledge but is also open to new ideas. I think compassion is really important too.
Particularly in the arts space, critics need to be in tune with their own emotions. It’s this balance of skills and discipline, where you have to be able to feel something, and then analyse it critically. Critique is simultaneously very passionate, and very dispassionate.
Can you run me through your personal process of critique and evaluation? Do you take notes?
In most things I don’t take notes. I try to experience everything as any audience member would, and remain open to feeling whatever it provokes. I always think that if something is worth remembering, I’ll remember it. I do a little bit of research beforehand, and afterwards I’ll go back and try to understand it more thoroughly, and unpack my emotional response.
When critiquing a performance or piece, what are the most salient factors or elements that you’d focus upon?
I like to consider whether the piece achieves what it sets out to achieve. If something is designed to make you laugh, there’s no point criticising it for not being particularly profound. I always question if something is as good a version as it was intended to be. There’s then a bit of a value judgement included, where I question how worthy or important something is.
Is there an established structure, or any particular techniques that would guide your written pieces?
I try to make sure that there’s not a formula that gets applied to my work. There’s been times in my career where I’ve been busy and have written a review in a set way: captivating introduction that offers some hint of what the experience is, followed by a short paragraph outlining relevant history, then a judgement of direction, performances and technical elements. That’s the most straightforward way of writing a review, but I try hard to not limit myself to that formula. I want things to be interesting and unexpected.
Jessica Ho is Time Out Melbourne’s Food & Drink Editor.
What does your process of food critique look like?
If I’m going to a bar or restaurant, I’ll do some research to see who is involved in the scene… If there are any key players, where they’ve worked in the past, if they’ve opened previous venues. I’ll also have a look at menus and drink lists to get the feel of the venue, determining whether it’s cheap eats or fine dining.
From there I will analyse and question what it is exactly the venue is trying to achieve. This information can come from online research or a media release. I think the important thing with critique is remembering that you’re not critiquing based on personal reflection. Critiquing is all about analysing whether a venue does what it’s meant to achieve, or what they’re trying to market.
How essential is it that food critics acquire practical training or education in the food or hospitality industry?
Very important. If you’re going to write about food, you definitely need that practical experience. Whether it’s working on the floor, learning wine knowledge, or working behind a bar; that acquired knowledge really comes through in a review.
How does industry persuasion or negative backlash affect the process of critique?
If you’re writing something about a dish, or a venue, you need to be able to back up your claims. I think it’s important that people have experience in what they’re writing, so that they can write from a place of knowledge and authority.
Interested in criticism? You might also enjoy our interview with 2019 Walkley-Pascall Prize-winner for Arts Criticism, Jeff Sparrow.