A Problem That’s Not a Problem
“Little things that just don’t matter,” goes a Quasi lyric often quoted by my partner, “still could get me mad as a hatter”. Yes, folks, we’ve been putting it off for a long time, and I’m not any happier about it than you are, but it’s time we finally had a talk about the intersection of cultural criticism and social justice, specifically as it has come to be used on the internet to identify and isolate anti-progressive elements. That’s right, kids: we’re going to talk about the ‘problematic’. I wouldn’t blame you if you bailed out this very second — and don’t come back until November, because tomorrow we’re going to talk about ‘allies’. Way to ruin everyone’s Halloween, me.
First of all, let’s get this out of the way: yes, I am a white (well, mostly), straight, cisgender, American male. I’m not a Christian, but I was raised in a Christian environment; I don’t have much formal education, but I’m educated; and I don’t have much money, but I’m not impoverished. Those things are all markers of a particular kind of privilege, and for a lot of people, they mean that anything I have to say on certain subject can’t be taken very seriously. (The kyriarchal oppression I’ve experienced due to class, politics, and status are negated by all that other shit, I guess.) So there will be a tendency amongst the kinds of people who are more sympathetic to the kind of approach I’m criticizing today to dismiss what I’m saying as the defense of privilege, or the shedding of delicious male tears, or as just a slightly less gross form of mansplaining. That’s fine. It’s always our choice who to listen to and who not to listen to, and I’m in no position to demand that anyone pay attention to me. There’s certainly a vast body of writing I don’t pay any attention to, and I don’t feel the loss of it.
Second, I want to make it clear, in case basically everything else I’ve ever written hasn’t done that already, that I am not against political and social interpretations of art, or of applying a social justice model to the cultural critique. Indeed, I’m not just in favor of it, I think it’s absolutely necessary; I’d even go as far as to say that it’s unavoidable, and that anyone who says they aren’t incorporating their own political, social, economic, sexual, and other biases in their judgment of art is either lying or is making judgments that aren’t worth listening to. Our societal biases seep into everything that we do, see, and say, and every critic I respect is cognizant of that and makes it part of their work. I’m not for a minute arguing that we shouldn’t approach art with the expectation that it answer to our social needs.
But we must also approach art, and the artists who make it, if not with humility at least with a certain degree of respect, and we must understand that what we want to get out of art is an entirely different thing from what they may want to put into it. What they want isn’t more important, but it is vitally important, if we want to make art and have art that does something more than just confirm our prejudices, that we give it the benefit of the doubt, and approach it as if it is part of something larger than ourselves. With that in mind, I want to talk about a few tendencies of social-justice criticism that have become fairly common (especially on the internet), and why I think they’re doing a disservice to the critic’s art. Rather than range far and wide for examples — though plenty more can be found, after even the briefest of searches — I’ll focus on two of recent vintage: this Jezebel piece, in which the author (a white male, but he receives vigorous support in comments from an African-American female colleague) expresses his disappointment that the upcoming Coen Brothers film Hail Caesar appears to have a predominantly white cast; and this article from the Awl in which the author (a woman) asks why so many male critics are “bothered” by Joanna Newsom*.
1. EVERYTHING IS PROBLEMATIC. The most common complaint in articles of this sort is that this or that element of the book/movie/TV show/album/comic is “problematic”, which means that it violates, or seems to violate, some element of the critic’s personal ethic. Leaving aside the fact that “problematic” has at this point become so overused that it’s practically meaningless (it’s easily as worn out by now as are knee-jerk rock-crit words that everyone makes fun of, like “seminal” or “angular”), it never had much meaning to begin with. All art is problematic — or, at least, all good art is. Good art is supposed to upset us, surprise us, challenge us, shock us, make us ask uncomfortable questions. Its job isn’t to make us comfortable and assure us that we’re right about everything. And that leads us to:
2. PROBLEMS HAVE SOLUTIONS. You can’t call something problematic unless you have some clear idea of a solution; otherwise, it’s not a problem, it’s just a fact of life. If you are going to make a complaint about anything — but particularly about a work of art — you should have a clear vision of what a better version of that thing should be. What exactly do the Jezebel writers want Hail Caesar to look like? How can the cast incorporate minorities in a way that makes sense? Surely they aren’t just asking for black cast members for the sake of having black cast members; that’s tokenism, and it’s a lot worse than leaving them out to begin with. What is the vision of art these critics have, and why aren’t they describing it to us? If they don’t have a preferred model of what their subject should look like, it starts to seem like they’re just looking for reasons to be offended. Which brings us to:
3. RESPECT THE ART, IF NOT THE ARTIST. Maybe you don’t think the Coens are brilliant filmmakers. Maybe you don’t think their movies — the majority of which have had numerous and excellent roles for black, Jews, women, gays, and people of color — deserve any special pleading. Maybe you think, as the Jezebel writers do, that defending their work is simply another case of white people protecting their own privilege. That’s your prerogative. But for art criticism to mean anything — for it to be anything but the sniping of special interests — you must approach the art with a certain degree of respect, and that means giving the creators permission to create the kind of work they want to create. You cannot dictate the terms of art to an artist, unless you are the one paying for it. There is a world full of black artists who would desperately love the kind of attention for their films this article gives the Coens; why not give it to them, instead of excoriating a pair of already-successful filmmakers for not making a movie they aren’t trying to make? It shows no regard for art, and is intellectually dishonest. Which means we have to mention:
4. BE HONEST. The article on Joanna Newsom violates almost every tenet of good critical writing there is, but its most egregious crime is its dishonesty. The author states at the very outset that she is trying to find out why so many male critics have a problem with Joanna Newsom; that she arrives at no answer is pretty obviously due to the fact that most male critics don’t have a problem with her. In fact, not only is Newsom one of the most celebrated musical acts of the last decade — by both male and female critics — but also, most of the reviews the author cites in support of her claim are actually raves of Newsom’s work, and pretty strong raves at that. She cherry-picks the articles so selectively for the one or two critiques or qualifications that it seems like the entire male critical establishment is dead set on destroying Newsom’s career, but a close look at the source material shows that of the eleven articles she directly quotes, ten of them are extremely positive. This is simply deceitful, and shouldn’t be encouraged by any serious reader. The reason, finally is:
5. LEAVE ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT. One of the hallmarks of both of these pieces is that they don’t allow for the situation to get better. What is the ideal outcome for these scenarios? There doesn’t appear to be one. If the Coens leave black characters out of Hail Caesar, they’re racists who are ignoring black audiences; if they put black characters in it, they’re engaging in tokenism, pandering, or caving to pressure. The author of the Awl piece attacks critics for comparing Newsom to other female artists, because it’s sexist to assume a woman can only be influenced by other women; then, in the same paragraph, she attacks critics for comparing Newsom to male artists, because it’s sexist to say a woman can only do what a man has already done. This is literally a no-win situation, unless you make the hard-sell argument that Newsom emerged from the sea foam like Aphrodite, born of nothing, devoid of influence. As Katherine St. Asaph — herself a very insightful critic — points out here, it’s also harmful to both female critics and female artists, since it essentially wipes women out of existence if you can’t refer to them to contextualize another woman’s work. If you’re cutting off every possible angle of escape, you’re doing neither the art nor the audience any good.
Again, there is an absolute need for social justice criticism; and its increasing commonality is proof that it’s effective. But the social justice should never trump the criticism, just as critics must never put themselves above the art they review. The two should work hand in hand, and when they lose sight of each other, neither aspect has any value.
*: It can, and has been, argued that these pieces are both ‘clickbait’ — that is, that they are deliberately provocative nonsense designed to do nothing more than provoke outrage and generate hits for their websites by drawing in offended readers. That may in fact be the case, but even if true, the fact remains that such articles do draw in large numbers of viewers, which means they’re effective — which, in turn, means they’re worth analyzing.