March 28, 2020
In this age of pile-ons and ‘cancellations’, complacency and cliques, how does a critic stay free-thinking and engaged? Our reviewer pauses for thought...
Rachel Cooke on criticism: ‘What is the point of a critic if not to tell the truth?’
When Mary Beard’s new BBC documentary series Shock of the Nude began last month, I had high hopes. A new censoriousness is abroad both in the art world, and in our wider culture, and I hoped that she might have something to say about this: something clear, clever and non-prurient. But alas, it was not to be. I disliked her approach to marble fig leaves and the male gaze, and in the New Statesman, where I am the television critic, I said so, calling the series out for what I regarded as its superficiality and modish solipsism. “She is the star,” I wrote. “And Michaelangelo, Courbet and all the rest of them can go hang.”
I did not expect her to like this, but neither did I expect to hear that she didn’t like it. Beard, a Cambridge don, is smart and successful. I assumed she would rise above it; given that I once gave a book of hers a rave review, she would know, moreover, that it wasn’t personal. But again, I was wrong. A few days later, Beard devoted the blog she writes for the Times Literary Supplement to TV criticism, having taken exception not only to my review, but to several others too. In it, she ticked each of us off individually. (Had I, she wanted to know, ever considered how few TV minutes in the past had been devoted to Zoffany’s Tribuna?) She then called for a total rethink of TV criticism. It seems that Beard wants new, better TV critics, who will take a new, better approach to television. The inference is that what she really wants are TV critics who will universally praise everything that she does.
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