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Viola Davis says critics ‘serve no purpose’ but we do – and it’s not to sell tickets | Stage

It’s hard to see your idols torn down unfairly but it’s also galling when they attempt to tear you down without just cause. I am a Viola Davis fan; many of her performances by her have been majestic and the critics have often crowded round to say so, as far as I can tell.

But some have not been kind about her portrait of michelle obama in The First Lady and now she has said that critics “absolutely serve no purpose”although her defenders suggest the comment refers to criticism on Twitter, not the entire body of criticism.

Still it seems astonishingly thin-skinned and part of a current fashion to issue disdain publicly on the apparently grubbiest of Grub Street, though never when the reviews are glowing, of course.

I can see why some – particularly artists of color – feel misjudged by the overwhelmingly narrow demographic of critics out there, but that is a different discussion. If some want to write off criticism as nonsense, that’s their delusion. Perhaps they have not read James Wood, Parul Sehgal, Margo Jefferson, Philip FrenchA. O. Scott or Michael Billington, among others, in recent decades. And maybe they have not encountered the rich canon of literary criticism much further back.

I am not suggesting that today’s critics are latter-day William Hazlitts but I do believe that criticism is vital to culture, as does Kwame Kwei-Armah, who made the point some years ago that reviews are a legitimate part of the industry’s ecosystem. I have reviewed his shows from him both positively and negatively since and he has always welcomed me with open arms, unlike some other less sporting responses from similarly seasoned figures after they receive a less than enthusiastic review.

The lazy refrain “What are critics for?” is a stone’s throw away from asking: “What is art for?” If storytelling is a vital part of life, so is its analysis – what it says, how well it says it, what it means to us. Critical appraisal enriches stories and builds an existential dialogue between creator and receiver. Peter Brook, in The Empty Space, suggested that critics can feed into the creative process and improve it.

At its best, criticism is an art in itself albeit an imperfect one – subjective and dependent on taste and sensibility. At its worst, it can show cruelty and whimsy as well as the unconscious biases we carry. If you love stories – on film, radio, canvas, page or stage – you are likely to be interested in their architecture: how they build their worlds, characters, effects. This is what critics spend their lives looking at as rigorously as they can. Criticism is, in effect, a homage to storytelling.

Reading criticism taught me how to make sense of things as a teenager and how to better know my own tastes. I recently talked to the playwright Beth Steel who said that in the days she couldn’t afford to see live theatre, she’d read all the reviews instead and think through ideas that way.

Criticism over the last few years has become increasingly lenient, given the pandemic and the desire to support the creative industries in straitened times. Maybe this has inadvertently left some actors and artists less hardened to negative reviews. But it is not our job to sell tickets or books or TV subscriptions. Criticism is already perilously close to the market and we are in danger of eroding its worth if we are not absolutely honest and remember we serve only our readers.

Neither is a negative review an entirely negative experience in every instance. I wrote a book, published last year, and some of its more negative reviews online genuinely made me think of how I might have opened up the book to other kinds of readers. It will probably have a beneficial effect on any subsequent book I write.

Ultimately, critics are readers and audience members. We are figuring out how something affects us and if we connect with its human experience. To sneer at us, and suggest our responses lack purpose, is to sneer at the audience.

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