Thursday, March 24, 2016

Noah Berlatsky in petty and less-petty mode about the obligate symbiotic elationship between arts and criticism.
The fact is, criticism is not parasitic on art. Quite the reverse; art is parasitic on criticism. As scholar Carl Freedman points out, “The poems, essays, and some of the letters written by Wallace Stevens are literature, while the insurance policies and office memoranda also written by him are not.” For art to be art, someone has to make a critical determination that it is art, and not, say, a laundry list, or an advertisement, or an instruction manual.

The fact that a laundry list or an advertisement or an instruction manual displayed in an art gallery could be seen as art only underlines the point. Anything can be art if you view it as art—which means that it is the critical act which defines art, rather than art which defines criticism. “. . . [T]he foundational act of criticism . . . is the selection of an object, the willed decision to look,” A.O. Scott argues. But that’s surely also the foundational act of art. Art is where the critic looks for it.


This comes across as too precious. Art and art criticism are obviously as bound but separable as the hydrogen atoms are to the oxygen atom in a water molecule.  They're separable and yet separating them can have atomic results; we can observe that they're separable but when we do historical work on the arts we tend to tandem the art and reception criticism.
A fission of the two is obviously possible and people on the arts and criticism sides love to engage in nuclear fission for their various reasons but pretending that one is parasitic on the other is dishonest even if it makes for an entertaining hat trick of criticism.

The arts and arts criticism are obviously, OBVIOUSLY in obligate symbiosis since the dawn of the human race. The debate would only tend to be what the nature of the symbiosis is for specific case studies.  Mutualism?  Mainstream arts and criticism. Commensalism? Perhaps indie, since indie film criticism benefits from both the mainstream and indie arts without being inherently harmed or helped. Parasitism? Perhaps it is here that the old saw about criticism being parasitic on the arts might emerge.  Criticism of art depends on art to exist here.  If it's not being made then it can't be attacked in a review.  Conversely, though, a good chunk of art has a parasitic relationship to art criticism. Any time someone wrote a song attacking criticism or critics that's art in a parasitic relationship to criticism and critic.

I like this version of the argument a whole lot more!
Commercial art and commercial criticism form a perfect circle of niche attention and promotion. The fact that that niche is considered “mainstream” just serves to neatly erase the choices being made. People are used to thinking of sci-fi fandom, or romance fandom, as a particular audience and market, focused on a particular genre. But mainstream obsessions like “Mad Men” or “Game of Thrones” are seen as the important thing that needs to be covered, not for the particular group interested in “Mad Men” or “Game of Thrones,” but for the general interest of the general reader. The mainstream sees itself as covering the news that matters rather than functioning as part of a particular market. Which is perhaps why The Mary Sue, avowedly a fan site, is able to break out of the cycle and make a critical decision to dump a show they don’t want to support, while Rosenberg, at the mainstream Washington Post, is less able to see the way that marketing and criticism are, in our current moment, inseparable.

But to meet Berlatsky's proposals at the level they're proposed at, the burden of proof is on him to suggest that arts criticism and marketing have ever been separable.  And in the sense that criticism and arts have a synergy and that "mainstream" can be defined in whatever way critics might define it, there's a possibility that every critic in some sense aspires to have her or his opinion be able to become the mainstream or at least influence how people think about what mainstream "ought" to be.
Boyhood or the new Avengers movie? I could give a shit. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night or Crumbs? Yes, please. And it’s not even that I’m actively boycotting the former. I just don’t care. They coast on the assumption that these are stories that matter to everyone; they don’t. I think it’s important to say that, repeatedly, out loud, and point to alternatives, until the alternatives become a new mainstream that reflects the actual world.

So in that sense every act of criticism reflects an aspiration to an empire, and by empire that's what we'd conventionally call "mainstream". There has never been a critic in the arts who has not in some sense sought to delineate the boundaries of an empire, even in offering a criticism of an empire.  As it was so simply put above, there are those who repeatedly point to alternatives in the hope that those alternatives become a new mainstream.  "Mainstream" will always equal "empire".  Not all critics are entirely reconciled to the reality of that but that is what's going on.

We live in a curious era in which film critics like to talk about films as being about the art of film.  There's a place for that but it's also okay to suggest that films are also about other things. 

One of the threads in the reactions to and interactions with the ideas in Scott's book is that many who engage in criticism seem eager, really eager, to affirm the value, nay, the essential nature of what it is they like to do.  It's easy to simply assert that art is parasitic on criticism as if that even means anything (which, of course, it does) but if there were no arts at all would arts criticism inspire art?  Besides such a polemic as Berlatsky's ignoring (at times) the obligate symbiosis between arts and criticism there's not exactly an explanation for why a person would undertake either but that's not necessarily unique to Berlatsky's approach.  It's more emblematic of something else ... .

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