If art is a mirror of society — and I have to believe in some funhouse sort of way that it is — then reactions to art offer their own sorts of reflections. And the visage we see staring back at us would make Dorian Gray flinch.
It’s no secret that American society has grown more divided in recent years. The American public has grown more partisan as ideological uniformity has increased. In response, we have an increasingly partisan Congress, with fewer conservative Democrats and fewer liberal Republicans and virtually no moderates of any sort. Perhaps this is a result of audiences on the political edges consuming increasingly partisan media.
And we’re seeing an increased sort of partisanship when it comes to entertainment products. With apologies to all the handy craftsmen out there, let’s call it “artisanship.”
The most dramatic display of artisanship in the pop world right now has to do with the “Ghostbusters” remake or re-whatever hitting theaters in a few short weeks. Labeled “Lady Ghostbusters” by preemptive non-fans, the Paul Feig-directed, female-led cast managed an impressive feat: It racked up the most dislikes in movie trailer history on YouTube. A prominent YouTuber later pronounced he wouldn’t even review the film. “For once, I’m doing something a little different: A non-review,” James Rolfe said. “Because I refuse to watch it.” Tired of political correctness and having their toys played with incorrectly, a segment of the potential audience revolted.
That revolt has led to a reaction, as revolutions often do. Sony is clearly trying to capitalize on it, judging by its media outreach efforts. “Who’s Afraid of Female ‘Ghostbusters’?” the New York Times asked after being given access to the film’s four female stars and allowing them space to lament the sexism of the die-hard dude-bros who aren’t afraid of ghosts but are afraid of gals. Anti-men’s rights activists have heeded the batgirl signal on social media, preemptively proclaiming their allegiance to the film. In a piece that is somehow not sponsored content, BuzzFeed suggested “12 Things You Can Do To Support The New ‘Ghostbusters’ Movie Against The Haters.”
In addition to offering abhorrent, in-theater-experience-ruining suggestions such as “make the theater as rowdy and supportive as a bunch of drunk girls in a bar bathroom,” that BuzzFeed listicle was strangely revealing. Here’s a wordier headline that would have been more accurate: “12 Things You Can Do To Support A Movie You Haven’t Seen And Therefore Have No Idea If It’s Any Good To Spite Other People Who Also Haven’t Seen It And Also Have No Idea If It’s Any Good.”
Art appreciation is dead. Naked tribalism is all we have left.
I don’t mean to lay all of this angst at the feet of “Lady Ghostbusters,” mind you. Earlier this year, the release of “13 Hours” (a.k.a. “Bayghazi”) was marketed heavily toward conservative audiences. This made a certain amount of economic sense — conservatives and conservative media have always cared more about the Benghazi attacks than liberals — but it also turned the film into a front of the culture war. Its premiere in a football stadium deep in the heart of the reddest of states was more political rally than cinematic event. In this vein we also see the uptick in religiously minded films marketed heavily to conservative audiences or progressive news-comedy shows offering liberal audiences the destruction and evisceration of all their enemies.
Increased artisanship has contributed to identity politics being used as a shorthand for a film’s quality. This is why critics feel comfortable dismissing “Free State of Jones” for its failure to acknowledge its own “white privilege” and for treating “races as equal victims of the class war” and for its “white savior narrative” and for being the “tale of a white man co-opting a primarily black struggle.” Is “The Shallows” a bad movie because it is just about “another white lady in jeopardy”? Or is it a good movie because “she’s given agency to fight back” and is therefore less misogynistic than “The Birds”?
These are the questions that relentless artisanship forces us to ask. They’re questions of ideology rather than aesthetics, questions of how the world should be portrayed rather than the skill with which it is portrayed. They’re questions that endorse a sort of mindless need to take sides and presage the death of art as an experience to savor and sift through.
Partisanship at least makes a certain sort of sick sense in the two-party system we’ve adopted. Artisanship, on the other hand, merely divides the world into good and bad. Woe to those who find themselves on the wrong side of that line.