Invisible Criticism

Criticism has moved from the daily newspapers to niche media. This should be reflected in Denmark’s new media policy agreement, says Kamilla Löfström of United Critics Denmark.

A survey of criticism in Denmark shows that while the dailies are cutting back on criticism, it is alive and well in 51 magazines and niche media. The picture shows examples of media that include art criticism in their coverage. Illustration: Kunstkritikk.

The reports of the death of criticism have been greatly exaggerated. This is the happy news proclaimed by United Critics Denmark (Forenede Kritikere), which has conducted a survey of the field and identified fifty-one magazines and niche media where criticism is alive and kicking. While the daily newspapers are cutting back on the number and scope of reviews printed, an increasing number of niche media welcome critics, and this should give food for thought when negotiations on a new media policy agreement begin in the autumn, according to board member, literary critic, and part-time lecturer at the Department of Arts and Cultural Studies, University of Copenhagen, Kamilla Löfström.

The point to be considered is this: while criticism may well thrive on niche media, the question is whether the critics thrive, too. The lack of financial support for smaller magazines means that many have to work unpaid, making the field of criticism a precarious one. Therefore, Danish politicians should look at including more niche media in the overall media support scheme, Löfström told Kunstkritikk, all while expressing concern that criticism may eventually become invisible to ordinary readers.

The preliminary charting of the field shows where criticism is conducted within the various subject areas, but as yet it does not give a clear picture of the conditions under which the various media operate. Reflecting this, United Critics Denmark wants to initiate a larger study inspired by the 2018 Norwegian report Kulturtidsskrifterne – an analysis of cultural magazines in Norway (eds. Paul Bjerke and Lars J. Halvorsen). To be carried out in collaboration with scholars at the University of Copenhagen, the objective of such a report would be to form an accurate picture of the terms, conditions, and potentials of criticism in a new media reality where media are digitised and new platforms emerge.

United Critics Denmark was founded in 2018 as an umbrella organisation bringing together Denmark’s six associations for writers on art and culture: AICA Denmark; Danske Filmkritikere; Litteraturkritikernes lav; Musikanmelderringen; Foreningen af ​​Danske Musikkritikere; and Foreningen Danske Teaterjournalister. The board consists of Line Rosenvinge (art critic, freelance), Henrik Friis (music critic, Politiken), Ralf Christensen (music critic, Dagbladet Information), Rie Hammer (editor-in-chief and theatre critic,, Nanna Frank Rasmussen (film and TV reviewer, Politiken), and Löfström (literary critic, Dagbladet Information).

Why is there a need for a more thorough mapping of criticism in Denmark?

A few years ago, [the Danish newspaper] Dagbladet Information conducted a survey which showed that there is less criticism in the daily newspapers now than before. At the time, there was also a general feeling that magazines were folding at an alarming rate, and many expressed concerns about whether criticism would disappear altogether.

In United Critics Denmark, we wanted an overview of where reviews were actually being written, and we found fifty-one media where this was the case. Our assessment of which media to include was based on criteria such as whether they had an editorial staff, maintained a certain level of professionalism, and were independent of financial interests. This means that we have left out influencers and a number of blogs. For us, it was important that the reviews disseminated by the media contained more than just an assessment; they must also include an informed description and place the criticism within a wider perspective.

An interesting aspect of the mapping is that it reveals which areas are well covered in terms of criticism, and which are receiving less attention. For example, it seems that quite a lot is actually being written about visual art, while the outlook for classical music is less bright.

Besides identifying and counting the media that run reviews, what do you wish to achieve with the survey?

Of course, this is also about money. Even through you hardly receive lavish payment as a reviewer for a daily newspaper, things are looking even bleaker at many magazines and online media, where reviewers often go unpaid. The small niche media deliver something we cannot do without: a reception of the art being shown and the respect inherent in having a professional conversation, in approaching an artistic product with a critical sensibility. But if the reviewers do not get paid for doing so, it becomes something you can do only if you’re a student, or if you have some other source of income. So it is pertinent to ask how we keep criticism from disappearing.

Under the terms of the Danish media policy agreement, many of the small niche media receive so-called ‘tidsskriftsstøtte’ – magazine support – that goes exclusively towards the production costs associated with the relevant medium, such as print costs, but rarely towards salaries. The dailies receive ‘mediestøtte’ – media support – instead. In order to qualify for such support, you need to meet certain requirements, one of which is that you need to run reviews. However, looking at a large number of media – such as [the media group] Nordjyske Medier – we see that they have cut back on reviews so hard that you may well ask whether they actually honour that requirement any more.

Our purpose right now is to exert influence on the next media policy agreement. If cultural magazines are indeed shouldering far more of the criticism being published today, then the media support provided must be adjusted to match that development. It is our job to call attention to this issue.

What, specifically, do you want to change?

The current media policy agreement contains a phrase specifying that in order to receive support, you need to cover culture. We would like this wording to change so that it says that you must specifically cover art. The way we see it, the concept of ‘culture’ is too broad, because it also covers sports and community activities, while we want to strengthen professionalism within the arts. So it is important to highlight the concept of art, ensuring it stays top-of-mind when discussing support for criticism.

The way things are now, you can meet the requirements by reviewing sports and pop culture, and there’s nothing wrong with that if the reviewer has professional insight and is able to do something interesting with the subject. But when we look at our mapping and see that classical music is being reviewed in only very few places, that’s something we need to keep an eye on. Otherwise, we run the risk of that genre finding no place at all in our media landscape.IMAGE caption: Kamilla Löfström, literary critic and board member of United Critics Denmark.

Kamilla Löfström, literary critic and board member of United Critics Denmark.

In principle, there is nothing wrong with more pop culture being reviewed in major media today than was the case ten years ago. For example, I notice that more TV series are being reviewed, and that this is often done with the same level of professionalism generally associated with film reviews. There’s a common language being used, which means that the field is just shifting a little. But if you review visual arts, for example, you may find that in broad media, there’s little or no room for using the exact technical terms associated with that field anymore.

How does it affect the nature of the criticism being written when professionally based criticism is moving away from dailies and broad media to more niche magazines and online media?

Historically, criticism was born in journals – in niche media, that is – and from there it segued into general newspapers in the early 1900s. Here, the review became established as a genre. You might say that today, criticism is simply returning to its roots.

When contacting the various media for the study, we have asked how many readers they have, and this is where we come across a problem because the visibility of the niche media is far less than that of the dailies. Outside a narrow circle of those in the know, do people even know that these media exist? Even within our own field, our study caused us to discover niche magazines that we’d been unaware of up until then, but which actually run quality criticism.

Reflecting this, our concern is not so much that criticism will disappear, but rather that it will become invisible to the general public. Our mapping exercise is also about raising awareness of reviews and criticism among potential readers, making it more immediately visible. For example, you might create a common platform or a list of links so that the individual niche media can benefit from each other’s readers.

What happens to the language used and the way we talk about art when criticism transitions to niche media that are mostly aimed at other professionals?

To my mind, the important thing is to ensure that we’ll still have a shared language that helps us talk about things, and criticism contributes to building that vocabulary. This also applies in politics: we can’t change anything if we don’t have the language to describe it. Just imagine where the women’s movement of the 1970s would be at if they hadn’t created a vocabulary for inequality. If we lose the common vocabulary of how we talk about art, that’s a democratic problem. If criticism becomes invisible, that’s a cause for concern. It might become impossible to find for a general audience, or it might close in on itself in a flurry of professional geekery.

You could also look at it from another angle: what happens to the language and vocabulary in the dailies at a time when many media are transitioning to the digital realm? Just compare the headline of a digital review with the headline run for the same review in print; they will be different because they need to do two different things. In some cases, you’ll even find that the reviewers do two different versions of the entire review, one for print and one for online publication, and it’s clear that at some point this will begin to affect and shape the language used. We are very interested in the question of how we can maintain quality and a professional outlook when everything keeps moving faster and articles become increasingly dependent on being click-worthy. There is a risk of accepting a premise where you speak about works of art as commodities in a market instead of taking a professional view of their significance.

When you talk about criticism moving to niche media, are you exclusively referring to classic reviews? What is your position on, for example, social media as platform for another type of criticism?

Whether criticism can be exercised in other forms besides the classic review depends on the genre, I think. As far as film is concerned, it makes sense that you can also find a lot of serious criticism on video, and perhaps that is why film criticism was the first to embrace the internet. I also think that this has to do with film being an art form for which we have far more of a common language than, say, classical music. In a similar vein, I could easily imagine interesting visual art criticism being done on a visual medium like Instagram, because the genre lends itself well to that. As far as literary criticism is concerned, it makes much better sense to stick to the written language because we’re talking about quotes there. You respond to texts with text.

We [United Critics Denmark] distinguish between dissemination and criticism and have looked for media that run reviews. But having said that, very different conditions prevail for the different art forms. Within rhythmic music, for example, an incredible amount of criticism is published, and as a reviewer you relate to a geographical area that encompasses the entire world, more so than within the other art forms.

Speaking of this, we should remember that there is also an aspect of criticism inherent in the process of selection itself. The critic becomes a kind of curator, pointing out what is worthy of notice at all, and that is also a kind of assessment. The review doesn’t necessarily have to retain the exact same format it had around the birth of the broadsheet, but as far as I can see, you still need to include the elements of description, perspective, and assessment before you can speak about something being a review.

If something is purely a matter of curation, pure dissemination, or purely an assessment, then to my mind it is not a review. This does not mean that there is no room for growth and development in the field, because you can easily have a co-creative or performative criticism, for example. It just means that classic criticism has certain qualities that are worth cherishing.

Do you find that the quality of criticism is dropping as conditions for reviewers are growing worse?

Overall, this study hasn’t given me cause to think that we need to be concerned about the quality or level of criticism. That’s quite interesting, especially because we began this study with this very concern in mind. I think that many of the niche media I did not know particularly well prior to this study actually produce reviews that might well have been printed in a daily newspaper.

Still, readers of such media may find themselves unsure about whether they’re dealing with an influencer or a piece of marketing, or whether they are actually looking at impartial criticism. There have been examples of certain publishers producing texts that resemble reviews so much  that you might not realise their true nature when they pop up in your [web feed. I believe you’ll need to have read a lot of reviews to spot that difference straight away – and on digital platforms, people don’t always spend a lot of time on the things they come across. 

‘Overall, this study hasn’t given me cause to think that we need to be concerned about the quality or level of criticism. Many of the niche media I did not know particularly well prior to this study actually produce reviews that might well have been printed in a daily newspaper’, says Kamilla Löfström. Illustration: Kunstkritikk.