Was Russell Crowe experiencing “critic rage” when he chucked that phone? A grumpy new trend sweeps Hollywood.

The tabloids rushed madly to explain Russell Crowe’s Mercer Hotel attack-with-a-deadly-telephone imbroglio, citing the toxic effect of Fosters’ oilcans on good-looking men with anger issues. Crowe’s “sensitive man” counter-account, given to Australia’s Daily Telegraph, described his thwarted need to whisper late-night sweet nothings to wifey Danielle Spencer back home and blamed “the combination of jet lag, loneliness, and adrenaline.” Here’s another explanation: misplaced though it may have been, perhaps Crowe’s flying off the handle was just the most recent example of critic rage gone wild. Just days before the attack, Crowe boycotted the local press junket for Cinderella Man, reportedly angered by the universal lack of enthusiasm bestowed it by New York film critics. Was Russ still steaming when he delivered a face full of phone on little Nestor Estrada, the now-scarred-for-life employee? Did he just make an honest, drunken, 4 a.m. mistake and think he was attacking New York Daily News film critic Jami Bernard, who called his latest pic “nostalgia-drenched” and “overprocessed”?

Violence seems the logical next step in the increasingly heated banter between artists and critics. David Mamet, blogging in the newly hatched HuffingtonPost.com, snarked at longtime New York theatre critic John Simon upon Simon’s recent firing from a 37-year effort. “In his departure,” posted Mamet “he accomplishes that which during his tenure eluded him: he has finally done something for the American Theatre.” Mamet didn’t throw anything, but he’s older and arguably knows less than Crowe about the airborne features of modern telecommunications equipment.

Comedian Rob Schneider, however, recently condoned pummeling reporters who don’t find him as hilarious as he apparently believes himself to be. After Los Angeles Times entertainment columnist Patrick Goldstein unspooled some easy jokes about the “unfair” Oscar snub of Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo, Schneider bought a full page Variety ad to suggest, in pale imitation of all those bullies who must have kicked the shit out of him in high school, that meeting him in the lunchroom would leave Goldstein “beaten beyond recognition.” Comics, of course, are the angriest people on earth, save perhaps Russ.

More telling than the absence of humor (and real danger) in these recent displays of celebrity pique is the basic lack of understanding they reveal: when critics speak, the audience just doesn’t care. Media organizations dutifully employ critics in some remembrance of times past when society believed that an active discussion of the arts meant something to an enlightened society. But, now, the critic lives in a quiet cul-de-sac with little traffic, a lonely byway on the outskirts of mainstream American culture. Critics don’t sell tickets: opening weekend ticket sales and Broadway advances depend almost entirely on marketing campaigns. And Patrick Goldstein can bash whomever he likes in print, but Schneider’s movie face will remain eternally unscarred. Celebrities baring their movie muscles in high protest of the wrongs done them by critics seem like children having a meltdown because their imaginary friend won’t play with them.

That said, critics are little better. With culture writing reduced to fart-whooshing in the void, scribes get abnormally aroused when someone famous is kind enough to tell them they stink. Variety editor Peter Bart, for example, snubbed for an interview last year by notoriously press-shy Adam Sandler, published an imaginary encounter in which he wondered if Sandler was bothered by the fact “that a very substantial portion of the audience would go to any lengths to avoid seeing you.” Sandler took the bait on his last album, Shhh…Don’t Tell, subjecting unwitting consumers to five tremendously unfunny minutes in which he ordered a black secretary to suck his microscopically small dick, then identified himself as happy “to be Mr. Peter Bart.” Fully three people got the joke, but Bart must have felt acknowledged.

“It’s hard to be a critic in a non-critical age,” John Simon, who was once likened to a sadistic guard in a Nazi camp, told Radar. “In an educated, literate society that takes the arts seriously, there is room for criticism. But we don’t live in that society.” Rather, we’ve become a society easily distracted by the bread and circus fed us by those competing for our leisure dollar, unable to pick up the flying phone and call for help.