Thursday, March 24, 2016

Leon Wieseltier's--A. O. Scott, Critic Without a Cause--a sidelong rumination on the failure of arts criticism that makes merely the arts and itself its own aim

Earlier this evening I was mulling over the idea that every work of art and every form of art is ultimately a form of vicarious living.  Criticism, as an art form among art forms, is essentially the same way.  We read criticism of the arts to live vicariously in a way that lets us have a sense that we're experience the arts.  So if that's true then a bad review is a critic's way of saying some lives aren't worth living even vicariously ... which could explain humanity's reliable habit of reacting negatively when someone does not praise something we love.

If criticism can have some kind of crisis it might not be that powerhouse critics in mainstream or indie publications are a dying breed, it might be that thanks to the tools of mass media and social media together the prospect of vicarious living can be taken care of in other ways.  Critics can be thought of as bloggers with a powerful institutional sanction that bloggers don't have.  That inverts the paradigm of what critics are in social and institutional terms from what vocational critics may sometimes think.  Complaints that mainstream critics and criticism ignore this or that realm of the arts or things depicted in the arts can be seen not as a complaint that criticism shouldn't exist but that, by dint of what they ignore or what they reject, critics and scholars represent an institutional mainstream that decides this or that kind of life isn't worth living, even vicariously.

That seems to make sense, too, of concerns about how white the Oscars are.  It's not that we don't somehow have people willing to see a movie with a bunch of white people in it.  That's not necessarily the problem.  The problem is that if art is vicarious living and the entertainment industry is about producing art then when groups of people find that there's no correspondent to themselves that comes off for some people as though the entertainment industry, at the production side rather than the criticism side, is saying by negation that some lives aren't worth living vicariously. Critics can get caught in the crossfire by saying some lives, so to speak, shouldn't have been born, or that they can come under fire wen they are blind to the reality that there are more lives to be lived vicariously in the arts then the ones they happen to like. We live in an era the internet can elucidate for us, if we let it, an era in which we can see that for many a critic it's the same as for many a viewer, we call something art to which we can impute ourselves and if we can't we are strongly tempted to not call it art.

Some critics get this, of course, and get that it is institutional sanction rather than individual voice that can help define a critic's voice. Without that institutional endorsement vicarious living by itself is hardly special. We have video games.  We have blogs. We have instagram. We have twitter, we have forms of media that allow for interactive branding in a way that makes the vicarious living of the arts a little, well, less vicarious and more interactive. A defense of criticism as an art form will at some point have to be the same kind of defense of the value of the arts, historically an array of leisure activities taken up by people with time and money to spare, and how you defend leisure activities of the sort all the arts have generally been when they aren't explicitly religious or political propagandas of some kind?  How do you make the case for vicarious living?  Because that, really, is ultimately what a defense of both art and art criticism has to do.  For someone who is religious for whom there are canonical texts and a tradition of wisdom literature in which vicarious learning is encouraged this part is actually pretty easy! 

But what about someone who isn't religious and who thinks he/she doesn't want to go through life living vicariously?  How do you  make a case for the arts and arts criticism to someone who, let's just be blunt and polemical here, doesn't realize yet that they are already living vicariously?  That could be a case for the value of criticism as an art form.  Whether or not A. O. Scott made this kidn of case about the arts or arts criticism is tough to know for sure without reading the book itself.  But tonight's intellectual game is to circle around Scott's book through things written about it to see wehther or not, if that were his point at any point in the book, it came across.

So with that in mind, let's turn to another writer discussing A. O. Scott's Better Living Through Criticism.
Where is the crime in partisanship? Intellectually honest attachment is as common as intellectually dishonest detachment. There are parties, moreover, to which it is an honor to belong. A sense of correctness about one’s considered opinions is not mental dogmatism—it is mental self-esteem, the confidence that comes from having gone to the trouble of rigorously defending a view, and it is thoroughly compatible with an awareness of one’s fallibility.

Scott describes criticism as a realm of “intuition, judgment, and conjecture,” but he has a dubious gift for judgment that shirks choice. [emphasis added] His likes and his dislikes are never confining, or all-in; they do not inhibit his lighthearted promiscuity, his Arts and Leisure roaming, which in his pages looks merely like curiosity and an appetite for his profession. As for the sciences, modesty is hardly all they teach: They progress by defying the limits of what is known, and they owe their excitement in part to the immodesty of the astonishments that they claim to know.

So let us learn to stretch again. The impossibility of perfect certainty does not condemn us to a vapidly uncertain life, to a life of small thoughts about small things, as if all we can be are metaphysicians or shoppers. It all depends on the scale that we elect for our questions, on how high we aim. What we do not need now is another cheerful exhortation to aim low. Scott disdains, for the partiality of their perspectives, the pessimism about movies that was expressed by some of his precursors. Yet there is more wisdom about the art of cinema to be found in the complaints of Agee and Farber and Kael and Denby and Thomson than in Scott’s garrulous and complacent musings, precisely because they state an allegiance. They are animated by large principle and an unembarrassed grand view of the art. They are criticism. Scott believes in criticism, and he believes in art, pleasure, beauty, and truth, but most of all he believes in brunch.

So if we play with this idea that art is vicarious living and arts criticism is vicariously experiencing art then the value of a "voice" depends on what the voice is saying, not just how it says it.  Perhaps there is a problem that's easier to see in what a person chooses to live for when the process of vicarious living that is historically called arts appreciation or art history comes up and we're not sure what the reason for living vicarious is because we're not sure what the reason for living is.  After all, if you're living vicariously through the arts but it's not clear what you're living for more of living vicariously doesn't clear up what inspires you to keep living.  Critics who have a point of view they are committed to can simply be said to be people who have articulated what they consider to be the reason to keep on living, whether you agree with it or not.  So far it seems A. O. Scott has tried to mount a defense of living vicariously without necessarily attempting to say why anyone should keep on living, at least to go by the way writers have wrestled with his book and found it unsatisfying.

If the advantage of not selling out for an idea means you don't end up looking like some crazed true believer a disadvantage might be that it sometimes seems as if the people who have a change of heart and then go for broke are the ones who change the shape of the world we live in. If some guy named Paul didn't have what he described as a change of heart about this Jesus guy and Christians the history of Christianity and the Western world might have looked ... slightly different.

Freud may have turned out to have been wrong about more things than he was right about but consider how much influence he had on the world before a ton of people reached the previously described conclusion about his ideas.  Sure, there's some little part of me that wishes Beethoven hadn't written the Ninth but had written the Op. 111 and the late string quartets all the same but I grudgingly grant the Ninth Symphony it's place in music history.  I find Wagner's music insufferable and a few of his views contemptible but ... Wagner's influence on music is so unavoidable for anyone who digs deeply into Western musical history you have to contend with his influence even if you can only abide his music with help from Bugs Bunny.

I've been writing about how for at least some critics they want to be able to invoke a moral power for the nature of what it is they do.  I confess that as much as I love criticism as an art form I am doubtful about that alleged power.  I don't think criticism necessarily has the power to change people's hearts and minds.  You can help someone consider a new way of thinking about something or observing something, you can even get their attention by drawing attention to something they may have never considered thinking about before, but you can't make them think about anything.

One of the ironies of writing about arts criticism is that when I started blogging a decade ago what I set out to do was blog about the arts, the blog was supposed to be spending time on what could be described very broadly as arts criticism.  That is, to put it plainly, not why anyone would have likely heard about this blog.

There were plenty of times when I thought I wanted to just stop blogging about the stuff I'd read or heard or seen to do with the life and times of Mars Hill Church and its leadership culture.  This week I would resolve to get back to writing about music or film or cartoons.  This month I'd stop writing about that church stuff or about my objections to Driscoll's mishandling of biblical texts or his awful habit of couching his most idiotic applications and interpretations of biblical texts into twee narratives about his kids and I'd get back to writing about music or film or whatever.  You know, the kinds of arts criticism that arts critics like A. O. Scott might suggest is a powerful way to write about the arts and all that. 

Funny thing, though, blogging about Mars Hill and its leadership culture and what I considered to be grotesque errors in judgment about financial models and treatment of church members seemed more important than writing about movies or TV shows.  It's not that you can't write about those things, obviously; it's not that you couldn't write about local events in the life of a nationally famous church and write all that arts criticism, too.  But having spent so many years writing what so many have thought of as a watchblog I guess I'm in a position to feel that arts criticism, wonderful and helpful though it is, must still ultimately be regarded as, at best, an interesting side project to the activity of responsible journalistic work and, at worst, a mere adjunct to the marketing or promotion (whether by support or opposition) of products. 

Let me explain that by way of a brief aside.  For those of you who don't happen to own a copy of the first volume of Space Ghost: Coast to Coast you'll have to go see for yourself that the press blurbs on the back of the volume were from the nastiest and most dismissive reviews of the show when it first appeared on television.  When the punchline is about the very nature of the medium itself not everyone is going to be in on the joke or find the joke funny even if they "get it".  But the nastiest put-downs of the show ended up being part of how the show promoted itself to its loyal fanbase.  Even when you blast something that can be co-opted into the marketing paradigm. In the last twenty-some years it might be tough to find someone in the megachurch scene who understood this kind of dynamic more clearly than Mark Driscoll. It was easy for him to co-opt criticism of him into his persona and branding--it was apparently more difficult to co-opt reportage of the history of real estate transactions and subsequent leadership appointments into that persona.

So, yeah, this blog was supposed to be about arts stuff, and it was supposed to feature what could basically be described as arts criticism.  It still does ... but it's become known for other stuff.  But that other stuff is not necessarily different in substance, is it?  When I've written about Ellul's writing about propaganda and political campaigns and apply that the methodologies of megachurches and the public media activity of Mark Driscoll, proposing that today's megachurch pastor (if in name only) is less a pastor in any historically understandable sense of the term and more what Jacques Ellul would have called a propagandist, that can be taken as a type of criticism.  Yes, ,I'll admit to that.  I'll not only admit to that I'll dare to say that it's the sort of criticism of the contemporary pulpit that I believe needs to be made and to be made regardless of the red state and blue state worries people have in an election cycle.  Propaganda is not just about "us" vs "them", it's also about you and me.  We can be propagandists any time we circulate stuff we think is witty on social media.  It's too easy to point to a Mark Driscoll and be skeptical when he says he wants to make a difference rather than a point.  Yeah, we may say he wants to make a difference AND make a point ... but then so do we.  Don't we?  I used to be part of Mars Hill.  I used to believe in what I thought it was doing and what I believed it stod for.

But over time I came to the conviction, perhaps too slowly and too unsteadily, that what I thought was a church had been transformed into a giant fully integrated mass media marketing machine, a propaganda machine that was promoting the celebrity of just one guy who was not Jesus.  When I reached this conviction I didn't set out to tell people to stop attending Mars Hill.  I didn't tell them they were bad because they went to that church or because they probably voted Republican or because they were Protestant or Calvinist or whatever.  What I started to do was document things as carefully as I could.  What I began to discover was that the secular press and the progressive press in particular had failed, utterly failed, to keep track of what had been going on.  A few outliers here and there, maybe, seemed to get what was going on but a secular press and a progressive press was too bound up in its ... prejudice, to recognize what it was looking at.  There are writers to this year who still believe Mark said something or other about Gayle Haggard and to those writers it won't matter I've debunked this half a dozen times in the last eight years.  But for those authors, whatever their political or religious alignment, who DO care about that sort of thing, I've made a case.

But then the Christian press largely failed, too.  The role of the critic would be easier to describe in glowing terms that border on sacralizing the role of the critic as an observer if I thought there was any basis for it.  I'm afraid often I don't think it matters as much as the more vocal critics who defend criticism think it does, and I say that as someone who has repeatedly said I love reading criticism. 

I feel like the problem is that arts criticism that praises itself is solipsism.  Arts criticism that reduces the sum of the arts to glorying in what great stuff arts are supposed to be able to do seems like solipsism.  Do I begrudge people who write criticism about violence in superhero stories or complain about how women get depicted in comedies?  No, not at all. But at the same time, writing about those things in films isn't the same level of enquiry or, yes, criticism, as documenting the life and times of something like Mars Hill.  The trouble with film criticism isn't that it doesn't matter, it's that film critics can buy into their own hype as readily as film makers buy into their own hype.  I just don't have any gift for spinning yarns or writing fiction.  I don't tell stories in a way that gets or keeps the attention of readers if the stuff that I'm suggested to do is to make things up.  People are too mysterious as they are for me to pretend to myself I understand the human condition so well I can just invent characters out of some ether, tell stories about them, and have any reason to think people will care about what these imaginary people say or do.  I know some people are totally into that and think that by doing that they are doing the most important artistic sort of thing on earth.

But if we're going to talk about observing what's actually around you and observing what's been said and done then if "that" is art, then today's "art" might be more readily found in a watchblog than in film reviews.  I wish it weren't the case but it sometimes seems to be the truth. 

This blog isn't a watchblog, was never intended to be a watchblog, and isn't really going to be a watchblog as such in the future.  But you know what?  People in the press and on the internet have declared this blog a watchblog.  So it hardly matters how many times I say otherwise, does it? Yes, I used to be a member of Mars Hill.  I got to meet the three co-founding elders years ago.  I thought Mark was kind of a self-aggrandizing fratboy jackass but I really liked Mike and Lief and I trusted them.  Maybe I shouldn't have trusted them so much.  I saw a church I spent about a decade of my life in turn by turns into something that looked like a promotion machine for just one guy, one guy who isn't Jesus.  Because I actually am a Christian; because I believe that the confession of the Christian faith is more than just a red-state or blue-state civic religion that finds Jesus useful for election cycles and then abandons anything he may be recorded as having said that doesn't fit what we already want to do; I decided that I had to document what I saw and heard and read. 

I felt obligated to skip over a lot of arts type stuff I would often tell myself I wanted to do instead because it felt more necessary to write other things.  It's pretty easy to say I didn't like this or that movie for these or those reasons.  But documenting the history of real estate acquisitions for a local church and noticing which guys involved in what transactions seemed to keep getting plum jobs in the upper echelons of leadership?  Not just anybody could do that.  let's try to set something straight here, the most refined arts criticism is still a subset of journalism and if you're going to do journalism that matters you have to be willing to commit to the work of covering things that impact people's lives.  You also have to be willing to see that you may have been profoundly, embarrassingly wrong about what you committed yourself to.  So for me when I find film critics talking about how "important" film criticism is and how important criticism of the arts is for the arts I want to believe them but I can't.  I do actually think that for as little impact as I have had as just some blogger that documenting the history of Mars Hill was more important to do than to write about which episodes of a Star Trek series I liked or didn't like. I  mean I could get to that, too but ... .

It can feel as though critics praising criticism are protesting too much.  We want what we wrote to matter because we want to matter.  I don't blame anyone for that.  But one of those basic Christian ethical paradigms is to love God and to love your neighbor.  When over the last, oh, ten years, there were times to decide whether to write film criticism or arts criticism or not I'd write.  But I wrote, obviously, and I obviously wrote at some length, about churchy stuff. 


Well, you've every reason to not believe me but it was because I loved the people I met during my time at Mars Hill, whether I was always very nice to them or not, or whether I agreed with them all the time or not.  I felt it was a moral obligation before God and neighbor to document as carefully and as accurately as possible what it was that happened, so far as a fallible mortal can do so.  I didn't ask anyone to leave Mars Hill and I didn't tell anyone to leave.  What I did do was invite people who called Mars Hill home to reconsider the narrative, to reconsider the history they had received.  Challenging people to consider whether Mark was responsibly handling biblical texts can be considered a kind of arts/literary criticism, to be sure. Furious commenters used to say "all you ever do at this blog is criticize".   One or two times I even got the "You will have to stand before God and explain every word you've said about Mars Hill and Pastor Mark." 

If only those people could have recognized that was precisely why I wrote so much.  I don't want to stand one day before God and my neighbors and only be able to say that I saw and heard and did nothing.  I'm not the sort of Christian who has never bothered to read Leviticus and if you wonder why that matters I'll explain it very soon.  In his long pulpit history Mark would make jokes about his particular likes and then he'd say: "I got a verse!  It's biblical!"  For him it would be something about why his wife was supposed to have long hair.  Me?  Well, if I played Mark's game at the same level but wanted to do a better job at it, I could suggest there's a "verse" that can be a defense of what some people call the watchblog.  It's even in Leviticus.

Leviticus 5:1 (NIV)
“‘If anyone sins because they do not speak up when they hear a public charge to testify regarding something they have seen or learned about, they will be held responsible.

I can't say that, looking back on the last ten years of blogging, I wish I'd done more movie reviews or music reviews instead of writing about the life and times of the church formerly known as Mars Hill.

No comments: