what’s happening, and why, and why does it matter


A few times now I’ve praised a couple of pieces by Grantland’s Bryan Curtis, in which he reflects on the sudden way in which social progressivism became the default orientation of mainstream sports commentary. In one of the pieces, Curtis writes

“Something pretty interesting has happened to sports opinionating in recent years…. A certain opinion — and I’d argue that this is, in nearly every case, an opinion that falls on the lefty side of the political spectrum — is articulated. It surfs Twitter. The opinion builds momentum until it becomes, with a few noisy exceptions, the de facto take of the entire sportswriter intelligentsia (perhaps the wrong word)…. It’s something like the sports-page equivalent of community organizing.”

In his follow up, he writes that “the sportswriting class had gone from holding a range of political opinions to fusing into a single, united liberal bloc.”

I liked these pieces in part because they do what I keep asking for in nonfiction writing: asking questions instead of answering them, thinking through and around a subject rather than simply thinking from point A to point B, and avoiding pat or trite answers about what this all means. He doesn’t quite lament or criticize this condition, and despite what you might think, I’m told that he’s a progressive guy himself. But I think he did a real service in trying to open up a conversation to say, “this is a thing that’s happened, and it’s going to have consequences, and we should talk about it even though it probably makes progressive people uncomfortable to do so.” Unfortunately, few people seem to have taken him up on it.

I would like very much to have a similar conversation about our artistic and cultural writing, the book reviews, movie criticism, TV recaps, music coverage, and similar. Because it seems to me that the progressive takeover that Curtis describes in sports media has been, if anything, even more comprehensive and obvious in the world of art and culture criticism. 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.

These predictions are almost never wrong, and it can now be expanded far beyond the usual suspects like Salon to general interest publications of all stripes. Indeed: the only places where I now expect to encounter artistic criticism that does not stem from an explicitly socially progressive standpoint is in explicitly conservative media — which tends to mean more explicitly political artistic criticism, just coming from another direction, which doesn’t solve any of the potential problems.

Now: despite what many people will assume, I am not here to  say that this is all bad, that it stems from insincerity or signaling, that the people who do this are bad people, or that we should stop producing this kind of work. I am trying to follow Curtis’s lead in saying: this has happened, and we should probably talk about why, and about what happens because of it, and what comes next, and how it will affect what comes next. I can see people who find this all a natural, healthy, and benevolent evolution, but I cannot imagine an honest person disputing that it’s happened. Not after the Iggy Azalea cottage industry in our media, for which I could easily find another two dozen examples.

Unfortunately, I am exactly the wrong person to ask for this discussion. My reputation (which as always is a prison of my own making) means that some people who are already inclined to see the hand of progressive politics in everything will agree with me, whereas everyone who is actually involved in the production of this kind of work won’t bother to read this or will dismiss it out of hand if they do. “There he goes again” is not a productive way to start a conversation! But I do wish someone of greater prominence and preemptive buy-in would talk about it.

Part of the problem is that, these days, questions of progressive practice are so often derided as inherently conservative; we’re living in an era of teams. This debate has been made explicit by the endless, wearying #GamerGate fiasco. As I said at the time, #GamerGate is a terrible movement made up of alternatively terrible people and deeply misguided people, and yet one which hit on one or two truths on its path to being a symbol of all that’s wrong with “geek” culture. Unfortunately, precisely because the movement has  behaved so horribly, those true complaints hiding within the misogyny and insanity get reflexively dismissed, and understandably so. (I thought that the #NRORevolt phenomenon on Twitter last night was similar, in the sense that the hashtag was the product of some of the very worst human beings alive, and yet was a reaction to a genuine reality those people have discovered: that National Review and similar GOP-mouthpiece publications have never served the interests of the members of the white working class who vote Republican, but rather the plutocrats that actually control the party.) In a similar way, because those who are most inclined to complain about the politicization of artistic criticism are those that hold opinions considered offensive by the people who make up our cultural writing industry, questions about this change never penetrate. As in so many other things about the intermingling of our media and our politics, there is a baked-in missile defense system that precludes the people who need to be reached from being reached. I was criticizing a particularly lackluster example of this kind of writing on Twitter a few months back, and I got the inevitable rejoinder, “you sound like #GamerGate.”

This thinking seems to preclude several different points of view that strike me as legitimate and worth thinking about. Like

  • That there are many people with left-wing or progressive political sympathies who recognize that art can be interrogated for its political beliefs but nevertheless want to read art and culture criticism that does not consist primarily of explicit progressive political complaints;
  • That there are many people who are undecided on a given political question, or indeed on the entire social progressive platform, who might be reached by cultural inquiry but who find the heavy-handedness and explicit righteousness of this type of work off-putting;
  • That there are conservative or apolitical readers who would like to read more cultural commentary that does not involve an explicit rejection of their politics and who have suddenly found the world of artistic criticism has dramatically shrunk;
  • That a time-honored and cogent school of thought suggests 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;
  • That many of those who have traditionally belonged to that school of thought have been people of impeccable left-wing credentials;
  • That the degeneration of artistic analysis into political list checking provides incentives for creators of art to serve those interests, rather than actual aesthetic goods, a surefire way to create terrible art;
  • That it’s very easy for art and cultural criticism to appear powerful in its ubiquity and explicit politics, but to actually serve as a kind of political silo, one from which no actual progress can emerge to impact a world filled with injustice and inequality;
  • That everyone already knows what the internet’s opinion will be on Miley Cyrus, on Jonathan Franzen, on Kanye West, on the Entourage movie, and sundry other pre-digested cultural artifacts, and so you’re left wondering why anyone bothers at this point;
  • That after years of reading this stuff, it’s become incredibly boring.

I don’t mistake any of those for inarguable positions. I recognize that they themselves reflect underlying value systems and ideological preconceptions. I think reasonable people can reasonably object to any of them. But they all stem from first saying “this has happened, and we should talk about it.” And this has happened, and people should talk about it.

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