The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How we talk about politics is infecting how we talk about culture

Earlier this summer, Grantland’s television critic Andy Greenwald penned a response to the furious conversation about the fourth season of FX’s “Louie,” which had ventured into the sort of uncomfortable territory in which the Internet thrived: a multi-episode exploration of sexual ethics and sexual assault.

“We live in an era of opinions. In the Internet economy — in which I am a loyal and grateful participant! — loud voices are more than just currency, they’re coal. The Outrage Industrial Complex burns all day and all night with Twitter as its blistering engine room. A constant stream of fuel is necessary to keep the entire enterprise afloat, and so any event, be it the collapse of a government or the cancellation of a sitcom, is greeted with a near instantaneous torrent of reaction,” Greenwald wrote. “Being silent is far worse than being wrong.”

I wonder if this objection, which has been voiced in many quarters, has a specific root: As we have become more comfortable discussing the politics of culture, our discussions of art have become a lot more like our discussions of politics.

We treat people whose interpretations differ from our own as if they are acting in bad faith. We focus on gaffes and supposed gaffes. And we demand that significant figures in cultural commentary have something to say about every big event so we can check their reactions against our sense of what they ought to feel to remain in good standing.

It is impossible to measure membership in fan communities the same way we measure party registration or church membership and attendance. As social media has made conversations that once took place in fanzines and on message boards more visible, it has become quite common for users to include the teams they root for, the shows they watch religiously and the movie and book franchises they love in their online biographies, along with information about their work and family lives.

As Jonathan Gray, Cornel Sandvoss and C. Lee Harrington wrote in the introduction to the 2007 essay collectionFandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World,” “fandom was automatically more than the mere act of being a fan of something: it was a collective strategy, a communal effort to form interpretive communities.”

In other words, fandom is an identity category, one that can be deployed both to challenge existing cultural norms and to maintain “social and cultural systems of classification and thus existing hierarchies.” And having committed to an identity, you have to defend it, which means defending the object of your affection.

Andrew Sharp, surveying the reaction to LeBron James for Grantland, noticed the way the discussion around the Miami Heat star has calcified.

“It’s gotten to the point where you can’t criticize LeBron for anything,” he wrote. “You can’t say that LeBron’s cramps were obviously bad enough for him to leave the game, but, man, he sure was dramatic about the whole thing. You’re obviously ignoring everything he’s done to make his team great, and you’re part of the problem, and why does everyone hate LeBron so much, don’t people realize he’s never gotten a fair shake?”

The idea that enjoyment is tainted by argument shows up over and over again in our cultural conversations.

There are fans of “Game of Thrones” who apparently cannot tolerate the idea that a show that ranges so broadly might not show the same deftness in all aspects of its production that it demonstrates when it is at its best. I regularly hear from readers of comic books who insist that the only way to judge superhero movies is to read them against their source material, which would surely change my feelings about the execution of a storyline or two. When I state an opinion — that the second paintball episode of the cult sitcom “Community” did not engage me as much as the first — that critical judgement is taken in some quarters as an error of fact.

This is the logic of “Everything Is Awesome,” taken seriously. Our enthusiasms apparently cannot stand up to discussion. It is a view of the world that has a lot in common with the same way liberals and progressives tore into each other about whether or not it was helpful to criticize the obviously flawed rollout of the Affordable Care Act. Rather than showing television, movies or books respect by taking them seriously and accepting that they can stand up to analysis, it sometimes feels like the only acceptable way to show affection and appreciation is via absolute veneration.

That all-or-nothing approach can also mean that we end up applying rigorous litmus tests to the artists who are potential objects of our admiration. Does Shailene Woodley’s disavowal of feminism undermine her portrayals of idosyncratic female characters? Does a verse in a Beyoncé Knowles-Carter track that references Ike Turner’s abuse of his wife Tina discredit her newly-proclaimed feminism? Does a single loss of temper in which he used a homophobic slur disqualify Jonah Hill from making the sorts of bromantic comedies that have made him a staple of American movies?

When we criticize politicians for similar slips of temper or public statements, we do so in part because we believe they have revealed something about how they will make policy and enforce the law.

But artists do not behave like politicians. While they can draw on their inner selves in their work and often do, the substance of their work is to escape from the constraints of their own perspectives and experiences. I am open to arguments that specific incidents can be connected to larger failures of the sorts of empathy that produce great art, or that reveal limitations of personality that translate into limitations of artistic craft. But it is rare for anyone to attempt to make that sort of case.

The drive to align what an artist intended with a politicized sense of what is right shows up in our interpretations of content as well. As Time television critic James Poniewozik tweeted after a “Louie” episode that depicted the hero trying  to sexually assault his long-time love interest: “I swear it was like 12 hours after ‘Pamela pt 1’ aired when I started seeing ‘Why the silence about LOUIE?!?’ tweets.”

To the people who were asking Poniewozik to weigh in on the episode, was “silence” supposed to be consent? Or can it just be the sound of our minds working? And if it is consent, what did the people who were tweeting at him assume he was consenting to? By not writing on the scene in question right away, was Poniewozik supposed to be endorsing the idea that the Louie, a fictional person, is still a good guy even though he is an attempted rapist? Was he tacitly signing on to the idea that Louis C.K. can do no wrong as a creator of a television show? It does not seem to be a possibility that a critic (or a creator) might hold off on weighing in until they know what they want to say.

A similar fiasco unfolded earlier this year with “Game of Thrones,” after Alex Graves directed a scene that many viewers understood to be a rape scene, but that he later described as complex, but consensual, sex.

It has become the norm for people involved in hit pop culture to explain their artistic decisions in great detail after audiences have had a chance to consume them. Some of the appeal of these interviews is that they provide an opportunity for audiences to do a gut check and confirm that what they saw on screen or read on the page is what the artists intended.

But does it matter? “Game of Thrones” would have maintained more public regard if Graves had never tried to explain himself, and  if the show’s executives had not provided a competing interpretation of the scene. It is one thing to be sure that you and someone you are considering voting for are on the same page before you pull a lever or punch a ballot. But sometimes a lack of certainty about what an artist intended relative to what we saw can provide us with more enjoyment and artists with greater freedom to maneuver and grow.

None of this is to suggest that we stop talking about the politics of culture. If we respect television, film, books, music and video games, we must engage seriously with their ideas and the way we communicate with them. The production of art raises serious political and economic issues, whether reality television workers are shunted into freelancing conditions that condemn them to poverty, the high fashion industry enables a culture of sexual coercion, authors’ incomes collapse in a new era of business, or women and people of color are marginalized in front of and behind the camera.

But in discussing big issues, art’s advantage is that it is so different from politics. Art does not need to align with partisan conventions. It can lend moral clarity to the limitations we have accepted on our politics. And speculative fiction can pose scenarios and propose solutions that are liberated from what is actually politically possible. It can hold multiple, even contradictory, ideas in place simultaneously.

I cannot help but wonder if we would enjoy ourselves more and do greater honor to the art we loved so much if we accepted that the conventions of our conversations about art can reflect that same difference.