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A question for Viola Davis: what is the world without critics?

29 April 2022

Introducing Rakewell, Apollo’s wandering eye on the art world. Look out for regular posts taking a rakish perspective on art and museum stories.

It is a sad world when acting star Viola Davis is not happy and she is certainly not happy at the moment. The esteemed actor has been criticised for her portrayal of Michelle Obama in the US TV series ‘The First Lady’ to which she responded with a statement which has stunned poor Rakewell. ‘Critics absolutely serve no purpose,’ she said. ‘And I’m not saying that to be nasty, either. They always feel like they’re telling you something that you don’t know. Somehow that you’re living a life that you’re surrounded by people who lie to you and “I’m going to be the person that leans in and tells you the truth.” So, it gives them an opportunity to be cruel to you.’

Rakewell realises that we have a certain amount of skin in this game – we do try to earn an honest crust from the occasional critiquing of art, after all – but we cannot help but feel that Davis has misunderstood the critic’s role.

There is no doubt that critics can churn out ghastly crap that is personal and pointless – ad hominem attacks that no one need read and would be better off ignored than considered. Yet, the great critics do serve a function. They sift and separate and at their best, find the works that deserve attention. Far from being the gutter feeders who parasitically live off others’ talent, the finest critics are champions of the overlooked. Consider David Sylvester’s championing of Richard Hamilton and other British Pop artists or Clement Greenberg proselyting Jackson Pollock’s career? Artists hailed as titans of modernity only hold this position on account of the brave critics who saw something in their work and shouted it from, if not the rooftop, then their column.

Or consider the critic such as John Berger who didn’t worry too much about what we looked at so much as how we looked. If you want to change the way we see the world the critic can be the perfect person to do that – just ask literary critic Germaine Greer.

Rakewell shudders to think what might happen in a world without critics. After all, how would we know where to discover the truly great artists? Without the careful guidance of the next generation’s Diderot and the dismantling of all creative hierarchies what would happen? Going to a gallery would be worse than TikTok – an amorphous mass of clamouring mediocrity. Far from being dismissed, critics deserve to be lauded.

Got a story for Rakewell? Get in touch at rakewell@apollomag.com or via @Rakewelltweets.