'The appetite for critics treating their art as a blood sport is huge.' Photo: Michele Ferguson
MELBOURNE'S theatre scene lost a passionate and erudite voice last week with the closure of Australia's most popular theatre blog, Alison Croggon's Theatre Notes.
The blog was founded in 2004 - about the time I started writing about theatre for this paper - and over eight years became a seemingly endless fount of reviews, news and theatre commentary, spiced up by a twee persona and, as time went on, repetitive whinges about the author's own fatigue.
Now, navel-gazing digression, flaunting your idiosyncrasies - these are perils of the online diary format.
And it's true the blog could amplify Alison's flaws as a critic. Her intellectual vanity, her capacity, especially early on, to attack recklessly and without restraint, and various unconscious biases (the most serious, arguably influenced by a consulting relationship between Alison and the Malthouse management, was her tolerance for the frequent and inane whimsy in Michael Kantor's Malthouse productions, a tolerance she lacked elsewhere).
Yet Alison always wrote about the theatre with energy and passion, restless intellect and original insight. She could argue with stentorian vehemence for the rights of the critic, and always insisted on the importance of criticism.
She also took full advantage of the unlimited space blogs offer, a huge opportunity for arts criticism. She was the rarest kind of theatre blogger - a professionally trained print critic with the time and money to write long-form reviews and commentary, over an extended period, free of charge - and our theatre scene is richer for her contribution.
Theatre Notes' influence is hard to overstate. When I began reviewing theatre in 2004, print still dominated theatre coverage, with the main reviews limited to newspapers and magazines. Artists made art, a handful of critics responded in the press, and that was that.
The blogosphere offered a different, more discursive model for arts critique. Now, almost every critic worthy of the name has a blog, and due to the main novelty - the ability for all and sundry to comment - reviews can be discussed and argued over in public.
It is this aspect of Theatre Notes I'll miss most. The critical topsoil has always been thin in this country, and the opportunity for serious and sophisticated public dialogue about art is rare.
Through her blog, Alison has interacted with other critics, artists, audience members, overseas colleagues, fawning admirers, trenchant detractors (and even a few memorable times, Nigerian spam).
And sure, there were flame wars, ignorant trolls, red herrings and all the rest of it, but at its best the discussion was salon-like, intense and informed, and people came to rely on it to develop their own appreciation of the art.
I myself have had more than a few entertaining stoushes with Alison online, and I've lost count of the number of people who have approached me to say they would like to see a David and Margaret-style show about theatre.
The appetite for critics treating their art as a blood sport - as if art really, really matters - is huge. Although Theatre Notes is an impressive achievement, its demise raises serious questions about the future of arts criticism in Australia. As Alison and I noted at the Australian Theatre Forum last year, our critics face an almost total lack of institutional support.
The situation is dire. Arts coverage in print media has dwindled as newspapers struggle to survive, and over the past 18 months, the ABC has eviscerated its arts journalism on TV and radio, virtually ripping up its charter commitment to the performing arts. Online criticism has manifest advantages in this environment, but without some policy intervention, they are likely to be squandered. Running a blog takes time and energy, and arts criticism is too important to rely on dilettantes like Alison doing it free. The Literature and Theatre Boards of the Australia Council have had eight years - eight years - to monitor the development of blog-based criticism. They have done nothing.
I wish I could say I was surprised, but there's a reason all of our most famous arts critics are expatriates. Australia just doesn't give a shit.
It's completely dunderheaded, because art and criticism have a symbiotic relationship. Creative culture thrives in the presence of a vigorous critical culture - artists tend to excel when they know their work is being taken seriously.
Theatre Notes did more than its fair share to help create the illusion of a strong critical culture here. Now it's gone, hard questions have to be asked about how we can support our critics to turn that illusion into a more lasting reality.