I frequently enjoy reading the academic and writer Freddie deBoer, and I particularly appreciated the zest with which he tackled the field that I’m in — political art criticism — last week. He wrote:
This morning I was browsing The Atlantic and I was struck by the degree to which I just expect all of our cultural criticism to function as a checklist for socially liberal politics — knowing when I sit down to read a piece on a movie or book or music, particularly when addressing some sort of controversy, that such a piece will undertake an obligatory exploration of the degree to which the art in question satisfies contemporary progressive political expectations. More, art and artists who are seen as symbolically satisfying the dictates of progressive social politics will be celebrated, and their supposed lack of critical respect will be complained about even if they are among the most celebrated artists on earth; conversely, art and artists who are seen as deficient in this regard will be denigrated, and their supposed abundance of critical respect will be complained about even if they are ritualistically criticized by every prominent publication on the internet.
I want to be up front that I’ve written a lot of the type of pieces that deBoer describes, both for the Atlantic and other outlets. And I do think that sometimes stark political criticism and reporting that puts politics ahead of aesthetics can have a value that he is not acknowledging. There are a great number of troublesome and boring tropes that have persisted in an ostensibly creative industry for an enormously long time. The entertainment industry’s progress towards gender and racial equality behind and in front of the camera have been shockingly woeful, especially given the oft-professed liberalism of many of its power brokers. If you care about art, you ought to be outraged by this creative and industrial sclerosis and to confront it bluntly, rather than surrendering and slipping under the waters.
But over the past couple of years, I’ve become increasingly interested in a new set of concerns. It’s less important to me to see whether a work of art passes a litmus test than to examine how its politics and quality interact as they did in “American Sniper,” where by smoothing away Chris Kyle’s politics, Clint Eastwood also erased much of the roughness and vitality of the man who was his subject. I find Ken Burns fascinating because of the way his documentaries manage to soothe viewers into a state of receptivity of tough ideas about race and individuality in America. I appreciate the way “Ricki and the Flash” and “The Carmichael Show” humanize conservatives because of how that empathy sharpens the debates staged in that movie and show, creating stronger character moments and avoiding self-satisfied liberal piety that leaves viewers precisely where they were when they entered the theater or sat down in front of their TVs.
Writing these sorts of pieces doesn’t mean I’m not still angry as hell about pervasive discrimination in the entertainment industry. I remain furious about it. But I’ve also become much more interested in reporting out the actual mechanics by which these profound inequalities persist.
deBoer ends the post with a number of suggestions, all of which seem worthy of discussion, particularly the suggestion that “evaluating a work of art for its political hygiene before and above more traditional aesthetic criteria leads to bad art criticism, art criticism that is incapable of working in the spirit of nuance, shades of grade, uncertainty, and instability that is so essential to deep artistic thinking.” But as someone who still makes a living writing about the intersection of culture and politics, even if the way I do it has evolved over time, I’d like to throw another question into the mix. For people who evaluate art primarily by its politics, what is the political work you think art should be doing?
This might sound like a simple question, but it’s not, and it’s one that’s constantly overlooked in some of our most intensely politicized debates about art.
Is art meant to inspire us by presenting us the world as it could be, or to galvanize us to action by showing our society in all the astonishing ugliness it so often displays? Is equality putting admirable representatives of under-represented groups on screen? Or is it treating characters of color, women, LGBTQ people and people with disabilities as if they’re just as capable of venality and repugnance as able-bodied straight, white men? In treating political systems, are we interested in fine-grained explorations of institutions and individuals within them, or broad judgement? Do we trust audiences to pick up on subtlety, or do we operate on the idea that many people who consume pop culture are either stupid or uninterested in nuance? Do we think political art should serve to deepen the commitment of the already-converted, or do we hope that it can reach new people in part by breaking out of the hardened arteries that circumscribe so many of our political debates? How do we reckon with artists whose technical abilities compel us even as their ideas rattle us?*
These are important questions, and they’re not settled, even though much political criticism presumes an agreement that does not, in fact, exist.
Take the debate over rape scenes on television shows like “Game of Thrones.” Though I don’t always enjoy watching them, much of my criticism of such scenes is driven by the idea that it is useful for many audiences who have no direct contact with sexual assault to encounter the subject in a context where they’ve made emotional investments in characters and have some sort of stake in the outcome. I sympathize with, though I don’t agree with, my fellow critics like Wired’s Laura Hudson who suggest that the people who make pop culture are incompetent enough at telling such stories that the industry as a whole should be strongly discouraged from telling them. But in many cases, debates over rape scenes in pop culture would be better and more productive if we stepped back from specifics and talked about what we want out of such storylines, how our critical preferences affect the way we read such scenes and what makes us uncomfortable and compelled.
In a similar way, the debate about diversity in pop culture keeps rolling forward without pausing to discuss a number of significant questions. Much of the push to get more women and people of color opportunities to direct films and run television shows is based on the presumption that certain things will happen when they take the reins of power: that TV writers’ rooms will get more diverse, that women and people of color will get more lines and more respectful treatment, that these newly-empowered artists will reach down to help other people climb the ladder behind him.
But what if women and people of color don’t do these things? What if they act to preserve their own newfound advantages rather than helping others? What if the stories they tell and the characters they create don’t, to use deBoer’s term, meet a certain level of political hygiene? And what are we to make of white straight men like “Survivor’s Remorse” creator Mike O’Malley, who, operating in a moment of heightened scrutiny of diversity in entertainment, has created a rich portrait of a black extended family, paying particular attention to his three female leads?
The problem with the current state of political art criticism isn’t really that it’s political, but that it’s predictable–and that if we really want our mass culture to be telling dramatically different stories and staging radically different discussions, I’m not sure what we’re doing is actually working. That doesn’t mean that we should surrender, and accept that pop culture simply is what it is, and go back to agonizing over Ross and Rachel’s relationship in re-runs or fretting over the kids and their Ariana Grandes. It means that, having cracked open the idea that Hollywood doesn’t exist divorced from the world, it’s time for the real work to get started.
*Someday, I promise, I’ll write my big piece about my conflicted relationship with Eminem’s music.