Recent Australian discussions on whether a company has the right to refuse ticket requests from unsupportive critics have attracted international interest, with discussion largely focused on the ethics of offering free tickets and expecting favourable coverage. There’s a far more interesting issue at play here, however, and it’s about the place of broader contextual issues in the critical response to a single work. Ultimately, that’s a question about the nature of critique itself – especially where those broader contextual issues are integral to the conditions of production of the work.

The week’s controversy began with Opera Australia refusing to provide review tickets to two writers including Harriet Cunningham, a critic and former Opera Australia copywriter, who wrote in Crikey:

The announcement of Sydney’s 2015 main stage program reveals 11 shows more limited in repertoire, more traditional in style and more narrow in their appeal than I have seen for years…

What has upset me most about 2015 programming — and yes, I am upset and frustrated by the insistence on wall-to-wall opulence, extravagance, indulgence and, dammit, tradition over inspiration — is the cynicism. It’s the shameless give-em-what-they-want approach…

It’s patronising and it’s disingenuous…

And while Opera Australia’s Artistic Director, Lyndon Terracini, had hoped to set the record straight in a letter to the editor explaining that one of Cunningham’s specific ticket requests had been “politely declined,” a leaked email screen grab [$] indicates instead that Cunningham will not be offered “any further comp tickets” because “Lyndon is very offended.”

In response, there’s been a great deal of expert and public discussion on the ethics of reviewing within the complex interplay of advertising and publicity in the typically cash-poor arts scene. Not only can most arts organisations not afford publicity campaigns of significant impact, but nor can publishers afford to pay for the tickets their writers need in order to do their work, and of course, nor can freelancers and bloggers afford to sustain critique as a practice if that were to involve paying to see several shows per week.

Alison Croggon notes that the convention to provide free tickets has been long recognised, while Richard Watts and others point to the obligation of publicly funded organisations to provide opportunities for public critique through the media. For some members of the general public, this affair has exposed for the first time that, of course, all reviewing is contingent on free tickets.

The scope and the value of critique, however, exceeds the arts publicity economy. What’s at stake is the reception of the work of art itself.

Critique is expansive. Quality critique does not offer a fixed interpretation, a star rating, a verdict. It creates public spaces for public discussion. It broadens the impact of a work, but also its scope, by drawing connections that exceed the explicit intentions of the maker. Critique is the key conduit between a work and its various communities of interest. As a record and as an intellectual exercise, critique charts the artistic trajectory of the work against a known cultural tradition. In doing so, the critic is often provoked by the work to connect together artists whose work has never before entered into a dialogue, presenting their juxtaposition in the critical piece for the first time, and thereby offering a new artistic thread through history and into the future. The critic thinks the work through and through.

A linked and similarly vexed issue is the editorial decision of a small handful of publications not to give the names of their critics – the most recent being The Saturday Paper’s refusal to name its book critics. While the aim here might be to avoid the perception of partiality and to present the review as a text in itself, ultimately the critic’s work is undermined by the forced anonymity. A book review – or indeed, the critique of any work – is not written in a vacuum. The writer has a cultural history, a political education, a set of values that they bring to their interpretation. The reader’s experience of the criticism is only enriched by an understanding of what the writer brings to the piece. Similarly, our experience of a work of art is enriched by quality critique – and moreover, where it has not been possible to experience a work for ourselves, its critique becomes our sole conduit to that work.

Imagine back to the decades where Australian artists relied desperately on reports of artistic innovations, events and controversies from across the country, from distant lands. We might hail today’s internet culture as having put an end to that isolation and its reliance on the arts critic, but this contrast is a fallacy; in today’s dazzling world of ever-proliferating works, genres and makers, the role of the critic has never been more important. We are able to experience only the very finest, the silkiest thread of a distinction between the arresting work of art, its experience, its interpretation, its value to the practice, and its critical reception. The mass market media continues to lose market share; the independent blogger continues to eke out distribution modes; the artist negotiates a harrowing complex of platforms for presentation and critique. We’re witnessing both the convergence and the collapse of an array of tipping points and we need to ask more questions than ever before – of the media, of politics, of art.

Returning to Cunningham’s original piece, we see a generosity among the concerns she raises: a consideration for context that deepens our understanding of the company behind the mainstage program. Cunningham recognises and is keen to share with her Crikey readers that:

At any given time, there is a full company of Opera Australia employees touring Australia with cut down versions of operas, taking them into schools and regional venues. In the Gold Coast, Western Sydney and inner-city Melbourne people have been getting together to sing in community choirs under the direction of Opera Australia music staff. Terracini has commissioned new operas from Elena Kats-Chernin and Kate Miller-Heidke. And, just quietly, Terracini has been creating new work with Indigenous communities including Barkly Regional Arts in Tennant Creek, the Winanjjikari Music Centre All Stars and Mbantua Festival of Indigenous culture. You probably haven’t heard about it, because it’s not something that makes news in Sydney, but it’s happening.

It’s happening because Opera Australia is an arts organisation with a complex set of public responsibilities which it takes seriously. Cunningham offers this vital context because it’s integral to the conditions of production of the work she derides. A critic who is responsible to her audience, Cunningham offers this information to invite us to give it further consideration. Why does this work not receive broader coverage? Why is this work not celebrated and promoted as the Opera Australia main program? Why does the company risk coming across as disingenuous in the way it promotes its mainstage program? These are questions about Australian cultural identity, about the cultural and class politics of opera. These are not questions that could have been posed in the public space had Cunningham not made that possible. It’s a shame that “Lyndon is very offended” because this may be the most high-profile coverage of Opera Australia’s regional and Indigenous work that Lyndon has seen so far.

Critique is vital to our culture. It’s essential to good citizenship. It’s our civic duty to respond to cultural and political messages with a critical eye. It’s central to the ways in which art is made, distributed and received that its criticism is rigorous and diverse. And it’s a valuable if entirely unintended consequence of the week’s controversy that it has served to strengthen the value of critique for Australia’s arts. Critique of critique – in all its healthy circularity – reinforces its own role in amplifying, complexifying and distributing the work of art.