My Blog Week: January 16 to January 22
A Word on the Week
Critical Lapses (part five)
At the beginning of this series, I introduced the argument that criticism of popular entertainment is not negligible, even where the entertainment itself might seem so. The artificial authority of critics in the pre-internet age, and the artificial environment conferring that authority, stole quality of life from generations. Stressed working people were not able to go home and enjoy their shows, and eat their food, because of a cultural drumbeat telling them: “You’re stupid for liking this”, or, in the case of food, “You’re killing yourself eating junk”.
The long, familiar litany of carps and complaints, has rendered fun a wary procedure. The message has two themes. That ordinary people and their tastes are inferior, and that the gatekeepers to superiority will instruct them so, but will not let them in.
Almost every review or comment piece you see is framed in terms of pursuing the negative, praise hedged with buts and yets and stills and howevers. It might seem radical, but criticism has no mandate to find fault.
The notion that criticism’s mission, chiefly, is preventing things from being gotten away with, comes from foggy thoughts of standards or integrity, and goes back, again, to criticism as assumed authority, with authority purposed to keep people in line. There are standards, which eddy their way in, the standards of educated writing—the use of specialized terminology and the insertion of references. But the standards needed are (to repeat): respect yourself; respect your publication; and respect your audience. Encompassed in these tenets are the rules of sound argumentation. If you want to use specialized terminology, explain it. If you want to raise a reference, have it support your contention—by explaining how it does.
Be reliable, be perceived as fair, polite, and smart enough to say what you intend.
Bad art, popular art, accessible art, commercially successful art, we are well-trained to know—we can picture whose art and which art these terms describe. But bad art should no longer exist, after centuries of critical intervention. If carping is useless, but the harm justifying it is real, bad art would by now have degraded or driven out good art. It should have forced adaptability and become the new standard.
Canonical tendencies keep art static, 19th century creators more known-by-name than 20th and 21st, and are a product of the critical mill that upholds antiquity as a standard, for the virtue of its being grandfathered into superstition, which can be cited as canonical.
That we sometimes do harm to prevent greater harm is a foundational belief, part of our sense of what integrity is. But we employ unproven, platitudinous teachings, often just bullying variations on the theme that art is somehow “inside” and that always rejecting the present effort will force the artist to outdo it, until greatness is dredged up.
Objectively, how would you prove this? A writer, painter, actor, singer, does fifteen iterations of the craft, picks the best, and puts aside the worst. Over the next few months, another fifteen, and another winnowing of the best. Several years’ work produces a catalogue of achievements, and a good sense, for the artist, of what “my style” is. None of this, the normal, businesslike way creators work, fits the romance that feeling bad about everything, striving continually for the miracle that will dispel the bad feeling, is the path to a pinnacle, a culminative greatness there all along, but having to be painfully extracted.
So why aren’t critics nice? Our society invests negativity in “soft values”, and positivity in harsh ones. Writers of reviews feel bullied too, and curry the approbation of a public that doesn’t (in fact) demand mean reviews. Like fat cells emitting hormones to make the body crave potato chips, the culture generates a narrative that seems to feed only the culture.
Next week, we’ll look at examples of raising contentions, and arguing them through, and in the process outline a means to genuine critical standards.
On Monday, part two of “Fellyans”, Bede arriving to converse with the prowlers. Wednesday, a new poem, “Such Is Life”. Thursday, Catastrophe, descriptions of the impact on Hess of Saint Pierre. Friday, part one of a new short story, “The Resident”, two seekers of interesting properties find one they have hopes of.
Images on my posts often have a link to related information (click first image), sometimes serious, sometimes whimsical, sometimes in answer to a direct reference. Since people can be leery about links, I include them here: what they are, what sites they point to.
My Blog Week: January 16 to January 22