If you know the system, it’s easy to understand the hierarchy of quality and authority. Critics X’s opinion in the New York Times or LA Times is worth more than Critic Y’s in the Johnny Falls Daily News. A system of official critics and editors and publications lends authority to judgments of quality. So take away that system and what do you have? Chaos, surely. Remember that famous New Yorker cartoon with the picture of the dog in front of a computer: “On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog”. Anyone with a computer and an internet connection can get on and express an opinion.

And they do. And how will you know if that opinion is any good or not? And worse – if everyone weighs in and we’re so crushed by the volume, how will anyone have the time or interest to read more complicated arguments? If the easy opinion dominates (even if that “opinion” consists of nothing more than texting a vote for Your Next American Idol) will there be anyone left to write those more complicated or informed criticism? Will there be an audience for it? And even if there is, how will readers find the experts?

Martin [Bernheimer] suggests that this new free-for-all produces a culture of lazy consumers who don’t know and/or don’t care about quality. The thumbs-up has as much weight as the Financial Times Sunday essay.

This is undoubtedly true for a huge number of people. But perhaps those people weren’t paying attention before anyway. And so what if this easy insta-expert business is nothing more than a way to get people paying attention, even at the most basic level? Look at the dance shows on TV right now. Who thought people would watch dance? Yet Dancing with the Stars and So you think you can Dance have been at the top of the ratings. They’ve occasionally been the most-watched shows on their nights. Maybe it doesn’t mean anything, but more people than ever have been at least watching some form of dance in the past year. Anything wrong with that?

Anything that encourages people to respond to art (even it’s just voting) is a good thing. Too many people (believe it or not) are afraid to express an opinion about that symphony or ballet they’ve just heard. We elevated the expert opinion about the arts to such a high level that many “regular” people were afraid to express an opinion because they weren’t experts.

But I think the larger answer to Martin’s concern is that human nature doesn’t change that much. The reason critics have been important is because we have a need to find people who can help guide us to the “good” stuff. That need hasn’t gone away; to the contrary, we need that kind of help now more than ever. The volume of art available to us now is greater than ever before. Everywhere a wail of complaints has gone up about being overwhelmed by how much there is.

Two final points: First – I think the ocean of creative work out there forces people to become more sophisticated in order to deal with it, not less. Don’t mistake quick judgment for short attention spans. With more things competing for our attention, we can afford to be pickier. And we are. We have also expanded our cultural palates, and our tastes and expertise are more wide-ranging than they used to be. Some culture we like we engage with only casually (again the voting), while other culture we devote more of our attentions.

Second – I think that what’s happening here as far as criticism goes is not the disappearance of good critics, but the realignment of critical authority. In a way, we are coming out of the Model T era of criticism. In most cities in this country, the number of arts critics narrowed to less than a handful over the past decade. Our traditional structure of bestowing critical authority in the press had become threadbare. A lot of what has passed for arts journalism has been on auto-pilot. Want proof? We’re not seeing significant protests from the arts community as critics are eliminated at local papers.
So where do you find the new critical authority? One answer is that you-the-reader have to work harder. First, because of the internet, we have more access to critics at traditional publications all over the planet. Living in Seattle, I couldn’t read the LA Times regularly before the internet came along. Now I can make a daily habit of stories in the Times, The Guardian, The Age, and dozens of other excellent publications. I have to have criteria in this expanded menu for who I want to pay attention to.

Technorati currently tracks 300,000 arts blogs. Many (most) aren’t very interesting. But some are. Many are. Slowly the landscape is realigning and signs of where authority lives are becoming more visible. And I think readers are becoming more and more sophisticated about how to find it. For those who aren’t? Well, they probably never were.

Douglas McLennan