Aug 122012

With the passing of art critic Robert Hughes I’m re-reading a passage of his autobiography, Things I Didn’t Know.

In Hughes’ passage describing his leaving Australia he talks of attempts at painting and makes an observation about art criticism that is true of every field.

“You do not have to be a good painter to be a good art critic,” he said. “But there is, to me, something a little suspect about an art critic who has never painted and who cannot claim to grasp even the rudiments of intelligent drawing.”

The same could be said of any critic – knowing the technicalities, skills, difficulties and effort enables a critic to make informed judgement. That isn’t to say they are superior at their trade than those they criticise.

It’s been said that we are all two bad decisions from ruining our lives or careers. That’s true in the artistic or professional fields – many managers, entrepreneurs, politicians, artists or just men going through middle aged crises have come unstuck from making the wrong choice at the wrong time.

It’s why we always have to view the stories of great success with caution, as the winners’ tales are tinged with survivor bias and for every winner there a field of skilled, hard working people who didn’t succeed.

In some fields, like arts and sport, the winners have to have skills before they will even get a chance of winning. Although there are many who could have be successful but weren’t because they never had an opportunity to pick up a paintbrush, guitar or ball at a key moment in their lives.

That isn’t quite so true in more subjective fields like business, politics or journalism. In those callings it is possible for a suburban apparatchik, dour accountant or talentless hack to rise because of their mentors, rat cunning or just pure dumb luck.

One of a critic’s roles is to call out those talentless but lucky hacks and in doing so they do society a great favour.

In a world where spin and PR often trump good policy or ethical behaviour, we have to pay attention to the informed critics who help us filter out the misinformation and lies that is part of our information diet.

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