Saturday, April 09, 2016

when A.O. Scott declared "It's the mission of art to free our minds, and the task of criticism to figure out what to do with that freedom." I wonder if he wishes people hadn't used their freedom to enjoy the Avengers movie
Enough of that! It’s the mission of art to free our minds, and the task of criticism to figure out what to do with that freedom. That everyone is a critic means that we are each capable of thinking against our own prejudices, of balancing skepticism with open-mindedness, of sharpening our dulled and glutted senses and battling the intellectual inertia that surrounds us. We need to put our remarkable minds to use and to pay our own experience the honor of taking it seriously.
The real culture war (the one that never ends) is between the human intellect and its equally human enemies: sloth, cliché, pretension, cant. Between creativity and conformity, between the comforts of the familiar and the shock of the new. To be a critic is to be a soldier in this fight, a defender of the life of art and a champion of the art of living
This is rubbish.  The idea that the mission of art is to free our minds is patent nonsense.  When the aristocrats of Europe set up the artistic tradition known as opera was their aim celebrating freeing of the mind or celebrating the wealth and prestige of the aristocracy?  When the notion of socialist realism emerged in the 20th century was its goal really freeing the mind?  It might be more true to say the purpose of art has been to serve as propaganda for the prestige of empires and the role of criticism is to establish what even counts as art to begin with (per Noah Berlatsky's polemics).
This kind of stuff is common enough.
Never apologise for art. Art entertains and delights. It also shocks us into awareness.
But arts establishments and arts critics may decide that The Human Centipede isn't even really art after all. Fiona Maddocks might not grant the film the status of art or grant that status of art to Dora the Explorer. How often have arts critics complained about the tedious and dishonest bromides in childrens' entertainment when they can be bothered to treat it as if it were even possibly art by dint of reviewing it? But then do the adults who can't be bothered to watch art made for children because it's not even art suggest that "we" make art for kids that says, "Hey kids, you might grow up to get raped and murdered and your body left in a sewer and here's an episode of Game of Thrones"? 

Realism is not why anyone goes to the movies and it isn't even what people want from the arts.  If all you want is unstinting realism from cinema then you can watch eighteen hours of surveillance footage from a grocery story. It's one thing to contest that you'd like to not be able to recognize the artifice in the art and another to make the category mistake of declaring that unstinting realism is the only thing that imbues art with value. The declaration that the arts have as their mission to free the mind and that arts criticism has the mission of figuring out what to do with that freedom is another iteration of art as religion. 

What this kind of art-as-religion can't question is not what may or may not qualify as art according to this or that critic, it's the baseline of consumption itself. It's easy to say that the money spent on one military weapons platform would be enough money to feed a city and the same can also be said about film productions. Somehow the idea that $200 million that could go to an F-35 or a blockbuster film could end up distributed to food pantries seems equally moot. The mystery here is not that folks embedded in the military-industrial complex see value in their work, it's that people immersed in the mainstream of arts production don't see themselves as in the same spot. Both groups see themselves as defending civilization as we know it but the people in the military-industrial complex at least know that in what they do somebody's lives will end up ruined by the monetary displacement.  Soldiers know they're expendable on the field and that they have to kill people at some point.  There are ways that we sacralize what the soldier does to make that sacrifice seem worth it.  We have something sort of like that in entertainment but if Aphrodite is the goddess of beauty and love she is perhaps less like Mars, who will tell you you're not good enough when you wash out of boot camp--Aphrodite just ignores you if you're not special enough to gain admittance into the realm of vocational entertainers. 

A O. Scott's bromides about arts criticism as a role in the "real" culture war are ultimately stupid because he pits the highest against the lowest as he perceives them in humanity.  The trouble is that the things so many of us humans want out of life are trite.  What we want is the cliché.  Do people want to be able to sleep well at night?  Do people want to have enough food and drink to not die of deprivation?  Do people want to have sex with someone who wants to have sex with them, too?  How cliché.  To be a critic of Scott's variety is to inveigh against cliché without necessarily conceding how cliché the entire range of human desire has been since the dawn of humanity.  Conformity is what we curiously keep coming back to age after age, region after region.  When enough people conform to enough shared ideals in practice we have this habit of calling that history of such-and-such. 

And if a bunch of people genuinely enjoyed that first Avengers movie would Scott say he lost the culture war?  Or is the nexus of our trite desires with at their most minimally novel presentation in leisure activity sometimes called art closer to an accurate depiction of what art has often been than what A. O. Scott might tell us?

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