Thursday, March 24, 2016

from Alissa Wilkinson's review of A. O. Scott's book on film criticism--types of criticism, inspired me to think about the pious bromides of film critics Christian and secular

What is the critic's goal? It's a high one, almost pretentious in its seriousness. But having shown himself willing to be wrong, Scott dives in here, too, reminding us that along with thumbs up and down, the critic's job is to "redirect enthusiasm, to call attention to what might otherwise be ignored or undervalued. In each instance, though, whether we're cheerleading or calling bullshit, our assessment has to proceed from a sincere and serious commitment. Otherwise it's empty and reflexive."
Scott isn't writing from or toward a religious framework, though it's a deeply humanist one. But it's worth noting that what he's saying is essentially—to use terms borrowed from Andy Crouch's Culture Making—that criticism is at once an act of creation and cultivation. That is, the critic creates some new work that has as its goal to cultivate what already exists: to make orderly rows of the wildly overgrown garden of cultural production. It may clear the weeds around an overlooked flower that's being crowded out of the sun; it may point out how several varieties of tomatoes are related to one another and how they differ from one another; it may pluck out the thistles and prune the bushes in order to give vitality to the better fruits. Criticism is hard work, but important to the health of a culture; "it is only a slight exaggeration to say that criticism, broadly and properly understood, can be the engine not only of aesthetic reassessment, but also of social change," Scott writes.
Let us switch gears for a moment. To say that evangelicals have had a fraught relationship over the past century with entertainment and the arts is so widely observable as to be axiomatic. But change is afoot. Christian publishers now actively seek books on the arts; CCCU colleges are starting to build programs in the fine arts and media production under the leadership of trained, practicing, believing artists; organizations and conferences have sprung up at churches, on campuses, and in communities that focus on encouraging the pursuit of beauty and shaping Christians' imaginations; there is even an active (if at times artistically dubious) community of Christians seeking to make movies that reflect their faith. Making art as a Christian is not as lonely as it once was.
Along with this shift toward creation, many evangelicals have sensed a need to "engage culture" by writing about it. In hot pursuit of cultural engagement, we have turned out reams of articles, reviews, commentaries, and essays on entertainment and the arts. A careful observer might divide the lion's share of this writing among three categories.
One type—which frequently influences its readers in positive ways—is philosophical or theological reflection for the layman, intended to inspire readers to pursue and value beauty and creativity as a gift from God, a reflection of the Imago Dei. Often this focuses on encouraging the Christian reader to recover an appreciation of the arts and the Christian artist to make work that reflects God's glory. You can find this sort of writing in books like Madeleine L'Engle's Walking on Water, Philip Ryken's Art for God's Sake, and Makoto Fujimura's Refractions. They often focus on bringing beauty back to its transcendental companions: truth and goodness.
Another form this takes involves using a work of art primarily as an object lesson designed to teach us something about our own spiritual lives. This often gets called "criticism," but it's much closer to proof-texting. For instance, a writer might say, This television show is about the search for truth. Christians search for truth, too. So from the show we can learn something about how we ought to seek truth. Here the television show is merely a conduit toward something that applies to us directly. At its best, this can serve as a devotional aid or a sermon illustration. But it has a darker side as well; writing about this tendency in Mockingbird in September 2014, Will McDavid observed that it trains us to "crave a Christian take on everything, a personal angle, and we want it fast, easy. And a prefabbed complex of ideas provides that for us." Observations of this kind can stay shallow, and our understanding of the work of art can as well, while we tell ourselves we're "engaging."
One final form—frequently considered criticism, probably because it defaults to a stance of criticizing—consists of extracting "content" from works of art (usually films) and making lists of them, largely divorced from context. You could call this the "counting swear words" tactic, which is employed by both the MPAA and a number of Christian outlets. Some of the content may be deemed offensive, and warning signs are duly posted (nudity, violence, profanity). On other occasions the content fits the political or religious ideology of the reviewer, and therefore the item in question is given the thumbs up. There may be plot summaries or brief historical overviews, and usually a statement of evaluation, based largely or solely on those content issues.
We've produced all these in spades; I've probably written all three varieties myself. But what evangelicals have lacked on a broad scale is a vibrant culture of criticism. We know how to criticize, even critique, but true critical engagement with entertainment and the arts has been restricted to small pockets that take hits on all sides. We don't know what criticism is, or what it's supposed to do. We don't read it, support it, or produce it, and in many cases, we actively disparage it as harmful to our mandate to be creators.
Of course, I'm overstating the case. Books & Culture itself has raised a vibrant standard for criticism that stems from an evangelical perspective. Publications like Image and Christianity Today have published and encouraged the development of critics for decades as part of their mission, and in the past few years, upstarts like Christ and Pop Culture, Mockingbird, and The Curator have worked hard to foster new, young voices.
Yes, that's an unusually long excerpt there.  Wilkinson outlines three types of film criticism that we're likely to read or maybe even produce.  The first category of criticism could be described as a general defense of the arts as an intellectual and moral enterprise.
What she describes as the second category of criticism, however, could be a new fad in Christian cultural writing.  I'll put it this way, this kind of criticism can be loosely described as any literary endeavor to present something that is popular or well-regarded as a potential soteriological parable.  Insert Christ figure here!  Describe the entirety of the plot and the character relationships as some kind of parable about salvation here!  This is the most boring sort of criticism to read for me, as a Christian, because I can read that kind of review before I've gotten past the headline and the byline.  What this tells me is someone thinks something is popular enough that they're going to take a stab at articulating the basics of Christian soteriological doctrines by turning a pop culture powerhouse of some kind into a teachable moment. 
See, I've yet to see any Christians do that for Game of Thrones.  Long ago when I was at Mars Hill I lobbied unsuccessfully to get the South Park episode "Christian Rock Hard" presented for discussion.  For those of you who have seen it you already knew the reasons I might have suggested it just from that last sentence alone.  If you haven't seen it, well, no worries.
But that's still a case where preconceptions and jokes about Christians in the United States can invite direct discussion.  This second category of criticism Wilkinson described, the kind that transforms any sufficiently popular cultural item into a soteriological parable, I dare you to try doing that with an episode of Archer or The Venture Brothers. Look, I adore the films of Hayao Miyazaki but I'll never for a second pretend the ideals he's promoting in any of his films could be identified as Christian in any fashion. The trouble with what Wilkinson described as the second category of arts criticism as done by Christian critics, at least, is that it is all too often opportunistic and selective. 
And the third type of criticism can often be slightly better.  If you don't like something because of violence you can at least say you don't like the glorification of violence in Daredevil.  Fair enough.  The character Matt Murdoch basically admits he's a sadist and we tend to not want to root for those, do we?  But then a lot of our protagonists these days are so riddled with character flaws that the protagonists of our contemporary shows would have been the villains in the entertainments of half a century ago, wouldn't they?
But, dear reader, I have a proposal here--as easy as it is to rip on Christian arts criticism in category two for just insisting that anything and everything is a soteriological parable, there's a secularist variation and it tends to come across as transforming any given film into a film about the power of film as an art form.  If criticism in the arts and of the arts can seem to have a hard time this is hardly because arts criticism is bad overall--let's play with the idea that if critics within the arts writing about the arts descend too far into what Richard Taruskin described as "shoptalk" about the techniques of a given art form rather than what they may mean for ordinary people then criticism as an art form becomes toxically solipsistic.  Arts criticism becomes a defense of arts criticism, a defense of itself that constitutes special pleading and question begging that presumes its own necessity. 
If the lazy bromide of the Christian film critic is to declare that this or that movie is "about" a character who is a Christ-type then the lazy bromide of any secular film critic could just as well be declaring that films are ultimately about the art of film and its power to change our lives.  Yeah ... and that's possibly why I haven't wasted time watching the Academy Awards in twenty-five years.  In an era in which Frozen inevitably wins Best Animated Feature against The Wind Rises it's not that tough to opt out of hours spent watching an awards ceremony that I could spend fine-tuning counterpoint in a chamber piece for guitar and woodwinds.  For every film critic who bemoans that kids' movies keep trafficking in the same old "you can be anything that you wanna be" what would they like as an alternative?  Reconcile yourself to the reality of how brutally and arbitrarily unfair the world is and learn to conform to the greatest levels of power and peer pressure possible so as to reduce the risk of premature death?  Can you name a film for kids that gets that message across?  There must surely be one. :)
Rest assured, I'll keep reading film reviews and concert reviews.  For folks who can't drive to a show because they don't own a vehicle or can't drive one due to disabilities then one value arts criticism has is that if we're going to go sit on public transit for a couple of hours we'll want to get some idea whether the movie we're about to see that might not be as long as the amount of time we'll spend on public transit going to and coming back from the act of seeing it is going to be worth the trouble.  There's a sense in which any critics who write about the arts are priests, really, or pastors, and they need to have some appreciation that if they're going to make a pronouncement about something they should be able to articulate a reason that accounts for the possibility that we may all have seen the same thing and reached different interpretations of it.
In arts criticism there can be this steady habit of deigning something to be art so long as it conforms to the ideological/political/religious convictions of the critic doing the criticizing.  This can be where critics can exercise bad faith. It's inevitable that at some point a critic will react to something.  I can remember a beautifully title piece that was called "Scott Pilgrim vs the Unfortunate Tendency to Review the Audience".
One of the troubles critics can produce for themselves is when they, as noted in the link above, set out and review not so much the film they just saw but use the film they just saw as a pretext to complain about the kinds of people they think enjoyed the movie that they didn't then that suggests that mainstream film critics can have a weakness not unlike the Christian film reviewer who might fit into Alissa Wilkinson's third category of criticism writing that fixates on bullet pointed reasons to not see this or that film because of an offended sensibility. 
What's been interesting for me considering criticism as an art form is that while I've seen people attempt to articulate high and mighty reasons for why arts criticism is so valuable my perspective is slightly biased by having blogged for years.  If you were to ask me what I like to blog about I'd say cartoons and music for the guitar, particularly by composers from central and eastern Europe.  But what is this blog actually known for?  Yup, documenting the life and times of Mars Hill and Mark Driscoll.  Driscoll made a lot of hay over the year about "critics" and he's leveraged a pejorative definition of what criticism is.  I view criticism as an art form full of beauty and able to express serious thought.  While the secular press and Christian press went about a decade not doing as good a job as I would have hoped in covering the life and times of Mars Hill I turned this blog into a platform where I felt that the subjects got the kind of serious attention they deserved.  What film critics would like to believe they can do is highlight something that matters that, were it not for them, would not be on the table for discussion.  Having blogged for years about Mars Hill I would suggest that what film critics ought to know better than a mere blogger is the likelinood that 1) you won't say something that matters and 2) you may say something you feel matters about something that doesn't matter and you have to live with that.  People who are hobbyist critics may be more reconciled to this than those who technically get paid for it. 
I love criticism. I love reading it and I love writing it.  When I ramble on about the connection between Jacques Ellul's writing in the mid-20th century about propagandists and propaganda and connect that to the history of Mark Driscoll in public ministry it's because I believe it's important in the 2015 election cycle that we try to recognize how pervasive propaganda really is in our culture.  Arts criticism is simply another form of propaganda, in a way, one with a potentially luxurious and respectable pedigree ... but I do have my doubts Noah Berlatsky will ever be able to prove that arts criticism and arts marketing are ultimately separable.
For all the words spent on trying to articulate how powerfully important arts criticism is or why we "need" it, what if we play with the opposite idea?  We don't need the arts to live happy lives and perhaps every form of art is a leisure activity taken up by those who live in an empire stable enough to permit that leisure activity.  It might be a more powerful case for the beauty and value of criticism as an art form if we didn't have critics attempting to sacralize it. I mean, sure, I totally get why a Christian author would see a Christian reason to write arts criticism!  :)  What I don't get is why anyone without a truly religious commitment to participate in the arts and the criticism of the arts would think that a borrowed sanctity would be sufficient to defend arts criticism, which could be described as a leisure activity commenting at length on the products of leisure activity ... unless we're talking about industrial design.

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