Saturday, March 26, 2016

revisiting a 2006 sermon from Mark Driscoll on Christians and suits; a mediation failure from 2013; and a trademark incident with MH legal counsel from 2011
Mark Driscoll
1 Corinthians 6:1-11
March 26, 2006

... Let me back up and summarize what Paul's saying. First thing he's saying is that a Christian anda  Christian that have a conflict, if it is a disputable matter, a secondary matter, a trivial matter, they should not rush off to court. They should agree on an independent third-party mediator or arbitrator to come in between them and work out the difference. The court systems actually use arbitrators and mediators to try and work out differences, and Christians should do the same. There's mediation and arbitration groups that actually do this.

Well ... interestingly enough.
the law office of Brian Fahling
December 24, 2014
Karen Cobb
Frey Buck P.S.
1200 Fifth Avenue, Ste. 1900
Seattle, WA 98101
Re: Jacobsen, et al. v. Driscoll, et al.

I have expressed to you since our first conversation regarding this matter last spring,
above all else, my clients’ desire to have their claims brought before a Christian mediator.

It would appear that's not how things panned out.  It would have seemed as if based on a sermon from ... a decade ago that mediation would have been preferable.
Most of the church's conflicts are trivial matters. [emphasis added] Weighty matters--totally different story. Trason, Al Qaeda, you know, terrorism and stuff--we don't do that, right? Like if you come home, and your roommate's like got big posters of Osama Bin Laden, is cooking meth, and there's a lot of ticking things in your room, you know, call somebody with a gun, right?  Don't call us.


What matters are trivial?  Most church conflicts?  Well ...

Clarification on some rumors that have been on some blogs
by Mars Hill Church on Saturday, October 22nd, 2011 8:34 pm 
Sadly, in addition to giving things away, we’ve also had things taken. We’ve had churches cut and paste our logo, take our website code and copy it completely, had ministry leaders cut and paste documents of ours, put their name on them to then post online as if it were their content, and even seen other pastors fired for preaching our sermons verbatim.

We’re not the only church called Mars Hill, and occasionally there arises confusion between us and other churches that share the “Mars Hill” name, particularly as we now have our churches in four states. This was the case recently when one of our members called us to find out if we had planted Mars Hill churches in the Sacramento, California area. We had not, but when we went to these churches’ websites, it was obvious to us how people could be confused. Each of these three connected churches in the Sacramento region—planted in 2006, 2007, and 2010—bore the “Mars Hill” name and their logo was substantially similar to the logo we’ve used since 1996.

When cases like this arise in the business world, it’s customary for a law office to send a notice asking the other organization to adjust their branding to differentiate it. This is commonly referred to as a cease and desist letter. On September 27, 2011, our legal counsel sent such a letter to these three Mars Hill churches requesting that they change their logo and name. [emphasis added] In hindsight, we realize now that the way we went about raising our concerns, while acceptable in the business world, is not the way we should deal with fellow Christians. On Friday we spoke with the pastor of Mars Hill in Sacramento to apologize for the way we went about this. We had a very productive conversation and look forward to continuing that conversation in the days and weeks ahead.
Ah ... so that thing with trademark and logo was worth letting legal counsel send a cease and desist to a church over and it was only after it became an international stink that Mars Hill realized that maybe the way they went about raising their concerns was not the way they should have handled things with fellow Christians?  Did they not remember Driscoll's own preaching from 2006? Or had by 2011 the matter of perceived or actual copyright infringement become something serious?  Because it's not like Mars Hill didn't run into some trouble when the 2013 plagiarism controversy erupted and the church ended up retracting The Trial study guide from the 1 & 2 Peter series.

Still, it's worth noting that in the history of the leadership culture of Mars Hill resorting to lawyers to send cease-and-desist letters happened.  It might be tough to complain that former lower level leaders at Mars Hill might feel something sufficiently wrong has been done to warrant a suit if Mars Hill a the top dog level was okay with a cease and desist letter going out over a trademark concern and only deciding that was the wrong way to play after it blew up in their faces as a public relations problem.

But let's get back to Driscoll's decade old sermon here. For those who didn't hear this sermon first time around this is one in which he declared that privacy for church members is wildly overrated and that Mars Hill wouldn't assure members of basically any privacy if they felt something needed to be reported to local authorities.  How often that actually happened may be difficult to establish but here's what Driscoll had to say about the distinction between sins (the domain of the church) and crimes (stuff the church should let the state deal with):

If a crime is committed, call the proper authorities. If a sin is committed, they won't come. [emphasis added] If you call 911, "They gossiped! Come over right now!" they'll be like, "They what?" "It says in Proverbs gossip is bad. They totally gossiped. Hurry!" They're not coming, right? You're on you're own. You're totally on your own, right, and you can't file a suit because of adultery or fornication or porn addiction or drunkenness, because those are not crimes. Those are sins, right? So a lot of things only fit in the church because we deal with sins. Other things fit in the courts because they're crimes.

You need to see a distinction between sins and crimes. You call the cops if it's a crime. You call a mediator or an arbitrator or the church if it's a sin. And you've got to distinguish those.
Also, this does not give the church to cover up crimes. [emphasis added] I mean, it's shocking that I need to say that, but some churches do say, "Well, if a Christian did it, then we'll deal with it, and we're not gonna notify the authorities." Because then they could continue to do it. They can move to another parish. They can quit their job, go to work elsewhere, adn there's more victims. It's not just about covering Christians; it's about protecting victims. God is a God of justice; he doesn't just want us to cover crimes. And I've seen some churches--in the name of protecting their own--actually harbor sexual offenders, rapists, pedophiles, that in no way should be protected. They should be handed over to the proper authorities, because their victims need help. 

... I think what Paul is talking about is first trying to work it out, and last resort--if absolutely necessary--you end up in secular court. We'll deal with some qualifiers for that in my next point, but there may be a point where you and another alleged Christian go into business. They rip you off. They take advantage of you. They steal from you. They do something that's illegal. You have the right to seek legal recourse. [emphasis added] This does not mean that if a non-Christian sues a Christian that you can't defend yourself. ...

In Brian Fahling's correspondence quoted earlier it's stated that interest in mediation was brought up as far back as the spring of 2013. Had mediation been reached anywhere between 2013 and February 29, 2016 perhaps the suit would have been considered unnecessary. Driscoll's been shown to have no plausibility for saying "we're not entirely sure who they are" as comments from Sutton Turner and Justin Dean in 2015, discussed here at some length, established that Turner and Dean did have a fairly clear idea which people they were dealing with for a couple of years.  For the record, both Turner and Dean have commented at Wenatchee The Hatchet and obviously know who blogs here.  They've been welcome to comment and clear things up, which Turner has done and Dean not so much. We might disagree about myriad things but Wenatchee The Hatchet does try to give folks a chance to speak on their own behalf if they opt for that. And if leaders at Mars Hill knew who Wenatchee The Hatchet was back in 2013 then they had time to arrive at some mediation with people elsewhere, or didn't they? 

This is stuff that might be worth keeping in mind now that Mark Driscoll's been named as a defendant in a RICO complaint. 

Blind Willie Johnson, "Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground" [on which my Lord was laid]

It's sort of a tradition at Wenatchee The Hatchet, to link to Blind Willie Johnson's meditation on Christ entombed, "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground".

 Hoping one day to compose a movement for string quartet inspired by this.

Friday, March 25, 2016

J. S. Bach, Matthew Passion, "Mache dich, mein Herze, rein", Dietrich Fischer Diskau

Of course, we're doing this link again.  Dietrich Fischer Diskau singing the baritone aria from J. S. Bach's Matthew Passion, "Mache dich, mein Herze, rein".  I'm very slowly working on an arrangement of this gem for voice (or bass instrument) and guitar. 

It is Good Friday, after all.  If you're a regular reader of Wenatchee The Hatchet you already know what goes up for Holy Saturday. :)

an old link in which Ted Gioia converses with himself about the dangers of critics who write for each other rather than the public and play the prestige game

Of course, you probably think jazz writers are the good guys here? I only wish that were true. Jazz critics are key factors in educating the audience and keeping the art form healthy. But critics need to realize that their main responsibility is to the audience. Not to their friends among the musicians, or to other critics, whom they try to impress. How many jazz writers today really demonstrate that commitment to the audience?
A half-century ago, the critical function got corrupted. This happened around the time art critic Clement Greenberg found that he could make his name and reputation by jumping on the bandwagon for Jackson Pollock.

What was so wrong about that?
Nothing was inherently wrong about it—at least at first. But the rules of the game changed, and critics learned that they could enhance their reputations if they were the first to jump on the next new thing.
Critics have to make choices. Do they write about the serious artist who is quietly building a body of outstanding work over a period of years? Or do they constantly jump from fad to fad, trying to pinpoint what is going to be hot during the next six months. I would suggest that a critic frequently must make a choice between these two goals. Either you focus primarily on work of the highest quality, or you try to anticipate the next flavor of the month.
"Did you ever have to make up your mind," as the old song goes. Many critics eventually decided to do the thing that enhanced their own reputation the most. Guess which choice they made.
You make it sound so bad.
In truth, the jazz critics handled this dilemma better than critics in other art forms. At least for the most part. Jazz has always prided itself on judging music by how it sounds. But that isn't always the case in other forms of music. I recently met a scholar who had written a paper on John Cage, and found that it caused some controversy, because he analyzed Cage's music on the basis of how it sounded, rather than on the basis of its "compositional strategies."
How strange, that a music writer would get called to the carpet for paying attention to the sound of the music. Isn't music all about how it sounds? Yet this tells you something about the state of mind across the fence in the world of contemporary classical music. Fortunately things never got quite that bad on the jazz scene. The jazz critics still listen to the music, for the most part, and are influenced by what their ears tell them when they write their reviews. Of course, that begs the question of how much they hear . . .

Sorry to cut you off. But does it really matter what the critics say?
It certainly does. When critics try to impress each other, rather than fulfill their responsibility to the audience, the audience feels shortchanged. And, eventually, the audience shrinks.
How often have you bought a CD because of a critic's recommendation, only to find that it was almost unlistenable? More often than you want to admit, huh? If you are a dedicated fan, you might keep on buying more CDs even after that experience. But many intelligent members of the general public, who might have become serious jazz fans, got turned away by this corruption of critical standards.
Reminds me ... Gioia's not just blowing smoke with that story about an analysis of music that might not deal with how the music actually sounds.  This has been a concern among music scholars and pundits for about half a century or so. 
Leonard B. Meyer
Copyright (c) 1967. 1994 by The University of Chicago
ISBN 0-226-52143-5

page 292-293
To put the matter briefly, insofar as total serialism lacks compositional (as distinguished from systematic or precompositional) redundancy, it cannot be analyzed, nor can it be described either in terms of simpler structures or in terms of common practices. All one can do--and it is significant that this is what has been done--is to exhibit its systemic, precompositional materials. [emphasis added] The situation is concisely, if somewhat vitriocally, summed up by T. W. Adorno: "One can not reproach the critic with not understanding these recent products of rampant rationalism, since according to their own programme, they are not to be understood but only to be demonstrated. Ask what is the function of some phenomenon within a work's total content and meaning and the answer is a further exposition of the system."
Of course total serialism isn't even remotely the same as what Cage was doing in terms of philosophical approach.  Total serialism and chance may have both embraced an anti-teleological practice and ethos but the way they aimed to implement that differed.  Of course for the untrained and uneducated listener it might seem impossible to distinguish between a work of total serialism and a Cage piece.  That's unfair but this is one of those weekends where I don't want to belabor that point.  Gioia's observation is that when members of the critical establishment decided to play the prestige game they betrayed the public good and even if you disagree with that point it still seems that it's a point worth bringing up.
A compositional strategy can be a super fun thing to discuss.  Haydn's monothematic approach to sonata forms is wonderful, for instance.  J. S. Bach's monothematic fugal approach is also something fun for me to read about.  What can be lost in academic discussions of how advanced certain forms and techniques could get is that there were expressive goals in mind.  Haydn heard music that bugged him because he heard a composer flitting about from tune to tune or from riff to riff and nothing lodged itself in the memory.  If you can't even remember what you just heard how will it touch your heart?  So Haydn, I would argue, had what you could polemically call a pop musicians sensitivity to and respect for the cognitive bandwidth limits of his audience.  Using his considerable experience and technique to serve up something fun for his audiences is one of the things I admire about Haydn.   
If critics within mainstream journalism could be said to have sold out to the prestige racket it could be even worse in formal academics.  Gioia has raised a question about why some are so sheepish about the possibility of musical universals.  The aims toward which this quest could integrate into traditional liberalism and humanities doesn't seem that hard to infer.  Or, I could put it in more Christian confessional terms, if there's no slave or free; Jew or Greek; male or female then we could (oh, yeah, I actually explicitly put it this way a few years ago) say there's no high or low, no indie or mainstream, no art or pop if Christ is reconciling all things to Himself and to God the Father.  This could even potentially play into certain academic arguments about whether race is a social construct or not and what that has to do with music.  If there's no such thing as race apart from language games then there's no black or white way to play an augmented sixth chord that derives from any essential nature.  That could mean that if Bubber Miley took up a Chopin riff that's fine and that if Eric Clapton makes a bunch of music inspired by Robert Johnson that's fine, too.  We seem to have this history where whites and blacks can borrow from each other's musical histories and we're often okay with it if we sense that there's genuine affection, care, and respect for the traditions. 
George Walker's never played what he or others would describe as jazz but thanks to the inveterate advocacy of Ethan Iverson I'm happy to report I like Walker's piano sonatas. 
The shame of jazz not being part of the musical canon to me is that anyone who spends some time on the history of Baroque music might well know there were a number of traditions and styles and that you'd have to learn more than one.  I've said this before but I see no reason why music students shouldn't learn both the "art" music and the "pop" music traditions as being complimentary idioms.  That a bunch of dead white guys in Europe pulled this off centuries ago during a time when they were trying to kill each other over territory disputes could be a potential guide in the 21st century in another hemisphere. 
There just doesn't seem to be any "need" for us to not cultivate a love for Haydn and Stevie Wonder at the same time.  I think musicians have been doing this for a couple of generations.  When I read that quote attributed to Jimi Hendrix about how he aspired toward a Handel, Bach, Muddy Waters flamenco sound I agree that that sound sounds worth pursuing.  Sign me up.  I believe that a fusion of 18th century contrapuntal techniques and blues licks is workable, even if it may take twenty or thirty years of steady experimentation and connection to the different musical traditions to get to that point.  If critics can play a harmful role it's  a harm comparable to scholars, of defending the little fiefdoms of punditry more than a quest for a shared world of beauty.  There are scholars and critics who are mainly interested in defending their own turf and jargon rather than making a case for how we could move forward.  They may not realize it but that's one of the values of arts criticism, in a tradition of arts criticism these kinds of things can at least come up for discussion. 
If the academics and journalists want to continue turf wars about style and appropriation it may be left to musicians to keep experimenting with formal fusions and the composer guitarist Leo Brouwer has said that musicians have pretty much been doing this regardless of the calcification of academic/critical concerns about bracketing styles off.  I don't know that we really live in an era of pastiche so much as we live in an era in which practical musicians with interests in egalitarian and reconciliatory aims have been seeking for successful fusion. It's possible to aspire to successful fusion from any given side of any conventional divide.  Jazz musicians can draw inspiration from classical music.  Classical musicians can draw inspiration from popular music and this isn't odd, it's more like the whole history of music in the world.

Friedersdorf at the Atlantic--on the Emory situation and the weirdly totalitarian tilt of some people concerned about chalk politics
Can you imagine how campus progressives would have reacted if a university president threatened to have someone punished or charged with trespassing for chalking “Obama 2012” or “Bernie 2016” on campus sidewalks? But these students see no need for viewpoint-neutral standards about politicking in presidential elections.

The shortsightedness of all involved is staggering. Set aside the brazen illiberalism of their actions and briefly consider this from a consequentialist perspective.

For starters, leftist activists are far more likely than anyone else to use sidewalk chalk and should be pushing to dispense with existing, rarely enforced campus regulations. The medium is unusually suited to the powerless, too: It is cheap, easy to use, and very hard to suppress. Yet they’re signing on to surveillance and punishment for chalk-wielding activism, as if it hasn’t even occurred to them that their allies stand to lose the most from future crackdowns, whereas Donald Trump 2016 could foreswear sidewalk chalk forever without suffering from it at all. I don’t know whether these students have an incoherent theory of how power works, or haven’t thought the matter through, but future leftist activists may rue their behavior.

What’s more, if the sidewalk-chalker is unmasked and punished, the effect will be to fuel the popularity of Trump 2016, not to undermine it. This is so obvious to everyone outside the bubble of campus leftism that I begin to wonder if activists at Emory don’t understand that, or just don’t actually care about outcomes beyond their bubble. [emphasis added]

At ages 18 to 22, many of us were less able to see the world through the eyes of others than in earlier or later years. I find it easy to forgive college students, whether activists or otherwise, when they display that quality. It doesn’t make them bad people. Still, good people can harm important causes. I wish the ideological cohort that makes privilege so central to their analysis would expend more effort reflecting on this fact: Those on track to earn degrees from prestigious universities are unusual in their ability to indulge rhetoric and actions without reflecting on how they will be perceived by fellow citizens or undermine the rights of the powerless.


Increasingly it seems that there's a constituency of some kind on both the left and the right that seems, ultimately, to have no problems whatsoever with totalitarian repressive gambits just so long as those activities are made within the ideological spectrum.  This kind of gets back to something Jacques Ellul warned about with respect to the long-term effects of propaganda as a political weapon wielded in any society, regardless of whether that society might be construed as capitalist, socialist, democratic, or otherwise.  When democracy has shifted from being a mode of governance to an etiological myth, Ellul wrote, it fundamentally ceases to be truly democratic in means and ends.  That was what he wrote back in 1965. 

If Ellul were around today he might well conclude that propagandistic aristocrats (i.e. innovators and owners in mass and social media) have finally solved the problem of the production of what Ellul described variously as "horizontal" (peer generated and distributerd) and "sociological" (in the water, so to speak) propagandas.  In the era of Twitter and Facebook Big Brother doesn't need to waste time with too much careful orchestration of propaganda if you'll voluntarily do it at your own expenses on your own time through Facebook.  There's nothing like this year's election cycle to reveal how readily people disseminate whatever propagandas they are for. 

At this point it strikes me that Revelation 17-18 described Babylon as a shorthand for the Roman empire, the greatest military and economic empire of the known world for that era.  The United States has the role of Babylon now.  If you want to ask who the antichrist may be then just ask yourself who YOU plan to vote for this year and THAT is your answer.  Neither capitalism nor socialism can save an empire if it is in decline.  There's a point at which the cumulative injustices can't be rectified by sharing a wealth that is the result of generations of fractional reserving banking of fiat currency and money lent at interest.  There may not be any real-world wealth to distribute after all.  There are partisans on the left and right who want to either make America great again or make it the kind of great they believe America ought to be.  There are civic religions that are blue state and red state but it is not necessarily for a Christian to swear loyalty to either capitalism or socialism.  Babylon will inevitably fall at some point.

Meanwhile, it seems as though some want to embrace what would be considered tyranny if it were deployed by someone else, wehther left or right.  Ellul seemed concerned that this dynamic was going to eventually saturate the United States and it would sure seem as though those concerns were well-founded.

Alex Ross at the New Yorker on pop culture remaking Richard Wagner in its own image ...

Full disclosure, I find the music of Richard Wagner so irritating I'd rather listen to a comparable number of hours of Stravinsky as a tonic.  Still, much as I dislike Wagner's music, Ross points out that popular culture has reinvented Wagner in ways that suit the times:

For decades, it has been claimed that Wagner’s anti-Semitism was murderous, even Hitler-like, in its intensity. The voluminous diaries kept by the composer’s second wife, Cosima, have supplied the main proof. The most dismaying exhibit: “He makes a drastic joke to the effect that all Jews should be burned at a performance of ‘Nathan [the Wise].’ ” An essay by Derek Hughes in the new issue of The Wagner Journal contests the prophet-of-the-Holocaust thesis, arguing that scholars have misread several entries in the diary as endorsements of violent anti-Semitism. For example, Hughes proposes that a passage long thought to record Wagner’s praise for a pogrom in Russia—“That is the only way it can be done—by throwing these fellows out and giving them a thrashing”—is, in fact, a commentary on the killing of anti-Semitic ruffians by Russian soldiers. On another occasion, Wagner expresses his “astonishment” over language employed in a “court case involving Jews”; this appears to be the infamous Tiszaeszlár affair, in Hungary, in which fifteen Jews were accused of ritual murder. Some of Hughes’s conclusions are arguable, but the case of Wagner is far from closed.

As for Wagner’s attitudes toward people of color, he was relatively progressive for his time. He made admiring remarks about Cetshwayo, the Zulu leader who humiliated English forces in the early stages of the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879: “Fate takes a solemn view—Zulus are also human beings like ourselves.” Several times he cast doubt on the project of “civilizing” non-Western peoples. He said that the American Civil War was “the only war whose aim was humane.” He condemned a “spiteful remark” in a German newspaper about Harriet Beecher Stowe, evidently to the effect that Stowe was “stirring up the slaves.” He praised Carl Schurz, who immigrated to America, supported Abraham Lincoln, and was elected to the Senate. On the subject of Native Americans, he seconded Cosima’s view that “I would give the whole of discovered America in exchange for the poor natives’ not having been burned or persecuted.”

Cosima’s prejudices equalled or even exceeded those of her husband, but after she took over the Bayreuth Festival she made a remarkable gesture, one that would have been unthinkable in post-Civil War America. As I revealed in a 2013 article, she hired the mixed-race singer Luranah Aldridge for an 1896 production of the “Ring,” casting her as—strange to say—one of the Valkyries. Aldridge, whose father was the great black actor Ira Aldridge, fell ill and was unable to sing, but Cosima remained solicitous toward her. Aldridge apparently lived for a time at Wahnfried, the Wagner home. Only many decades later did the Metropolitan Opera venture to put a black singer onstage.

So the irony of Wagner playing behind Iñárritu is not as acute as it might seem. A composer who lamented the slaughter of Native Americans may well have accepted the message of “The Revenant.” The racist edge that moviegoers have learned to detect in “The Ride of the Valkyries” is, in fact, an outgrowth of homegrown, all-American hatred. “The Birth of a Nation,” one of the founding documents of Hollywood cinema, is far less liberal, by any measure, than the “Ring,” an epic of godly greed and corruption. In linking the “Ride” to the Klan, Griffith and Breil wrenched the music out of context and distorted it beyond recognition. Its appearance in “Apocalypse Now” is no less grotesque, although there it serves to satirize American bombast and arrogance.

“The Ride of the Valkyries” is no anthem of male rage and violence. The opening of Act III of “Die Walküre” is a purely female spectacle, in which the Valkyries carry the hate-ravaged bodies of slain warriors. More than a few early listeners saw the scene as one of feminist empowerment. A passage in Charlotte Teller’s 1907 novel, “The Cage,” a tale of a budding writer who yearns for freedom, describes the Valkyries’ effect at a concert in Chicago: “She felt herself, struggling, breathless, to get higher and higher. . . . She felt herself strong and vital, astride a horse of Walhalla. . . . It was only a war-woman, a Valkyrie, who could bring a man into the home of the gods.” What happened in the intervening years? Pop culture remade Wagner in its own image.

Still doesn't mean I want to hear Wagner without the help of Bugs Bunny but ... fair enough. :)

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.

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.

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 ... .

from The New Yorker, on A. O. Scott's work and defenses of film criticism "This sounds a little like a butcher claiming to have gone into the meat-slicing business because he likes working with animals."
Since joining the Times, as a film critic, in 2000, A. O. Scott has come to lead what sometimes seems the earth’s last sovereign generation of mainstream reviewers. In the daily paper, he’s a virtuoso of the short-form judgment, turning out work that’s insightful, unfussy, and pyrite-flecked with bons mots. Sometimes he writes essays about broader topics in the arts, and those are usually some of the Times’ best weekend reading. In his first book, “Better Living Through Criticism” (Penguin Press)—a title to stir every Jewish mother’s heart!—Scott works to make a case for his embattled craft. He probes its past; he states his goals. He wonders, “Will it sound defensive or pretentious if I say that criticism is an art in its own right?”

It does sound a little defensive, though one understands the impulse. When Duke Ellington composed “The Queen’s Suite,” he was working from the blank page; he brought a previously unimagined musical offering into the world. Orwell’s hack, by contrast, produces his review by standing shakily on other works. Critics justifying their trade like to say that the judgment aspect of the job—the thumbs-up or thumbs-down—is the least interesting part: really, they just love movies or whatever it is they review. This sounds a little like a butcher claiming to have gone into the meat-slicing business because he likes working with animals. It is possible to honor and enjoy new work without grading and dissecting it. That is how many people live.

Scott recalls that he faced accusations of bad faith in writing about “The Avengers,” in the spring of 2012. He didn’t hate the movie, but he was irked by what he saw as its overprocessed, profit-seeking slickness. When the review appeared, Samuel L. Jackson, one of the film’s many stars, singled him out on Twitter (“AO Scott needs a new job! . . . One he can ACTUALLY do!”), and fans piled on. “The Avengers” went on to be one of the fastest movies ever to gross a billion dollars.

I've long viewed criticism as a beautiful art form that exists in an obligate symbiotic relationship with all of the arts.  Any attempt to defend criticism in a way that attempts to chicken and egg this whole set of issues is doomed to failure and intellectual dishonesty.

Something many readers/reviewers of Scott's book have come back to is a reference to a speech by Anton Ego about criticism from the Brad Bird film Ratatouille.  You might know the speech about how the bitter truth we critics must face is that there's more time, thought and effort put into a piece of common junk than the review written to designate it as such.  But for people who aren't film critics by hobby or profession the thing that can be missed is that Ego's little speech is in the form of a preamble to a glowing review of Remy's cooking. The part that's weirdly easy for film critics to willfully forget is the part in Ego's commentary about how far more difficult than to write a bad review of a junky thing is to champion the new.

Weird, eh?  How film critics who have complained about how there's no new ideas could even possibly take Ego's complaints more to heart than the advocacy.  Such is life.  One of the paradoxes of Ratatouille is that the critics who didn't perceive that the film posited a necessarily synergistic relationship between the arts and arts criticism latched on to one tiny part of Anton Ego's speech as if it stood for the whole when it very clearly didn't. It really does take less effort to make something bad than to say something is bad in many things in life.  

Beyond institutional affiliation, critics usually gain authority in three ways. They can be first responders: if they called the genius of Patti Smith before she was Patti Smith, their taste in other new music is probably of note. They can be scholars: someone who knows the canon backward and forward seems a sound gatekeeper for esteem. Or they can be seducers: they’ve wooed and won you with their work; you follow them because you like the way they think. The trouble is that each virtue is unreliable, and almost nobody fully embodies all three. We give critics broad mandates, and they’re constantly betraying our trust.

Seducers are rarely hung up on posterity or on their own self-justifying theories. They’re about evaluating in the now and showing you a good time tonight, baby. If Scott’s Times work didn’t already mark him as one of these, it would be apparent in how lightly he frets about his record. (“The only genuinely helpful guide to the practice of criticism would be a compendium of error and misdirection,” he writes, amiably.) Some people describe newspaper reviewing as “improvisational” criticism; you respond to what you see without the distraction of special preparation or theoretical commitments. A writer who can do that with charisma and insight, again and again, is a marvel. That is why it doesn’t much matter that “Better Living Through Criticism” is more slalom than argument. Building unified theories is not Scott’s job.

And it could be here that a person could ask whether or not building unified theories is really part of what criticism is "supposed" to do.  Let's put it in a more blunt way, do we really turn to criticism as a literary form in order to have critics do our thinking for us?  Watching for us?  Yes, absolutely, but thinking for us?  This is often what critics end up doing when they pronounce a judgment and it is the thing that an Anton Ego can be remembered for.

Why do we follow him, then? Scott did not go to film school. He has not made any movies. He may or may not have a detailed knowledge of the complete œuvre of Claude Chabrol. His powers of suasion come from his ability to make you feel that his experience was, or will be, yours. What the first responder and the scholar demand from us—“Defer to me; I see more than you do”—we give voluntarily to the seducer, who woos our consent. Possibly, this is why the “Avengers” misadventure so flustered Scott. We need not agree with every move a seducer makes—far from it—but the moment we decide that we’re no longer cool with this arrangement is the moment when authority disappears.

The moment gets lost when the seducer and the viewer turn out to have not been on the same page.  If there was a disconnect here, to play with my riff tonight on how all art is vicariously living through an art work, then when the seducer abruptly announces that some forms of vicarious life aren't really worth living, after all, we want to know why.  The scholar and the first responder at least have, respectively, a mountain of knowledge or the first opportunity to respond for the record.  We can show them some deference on journalistic terms.  If someone who adores Godard hates a Christopher Nolan film, fair enough.  That happens.  But if someone who is known for reviewing just about anything and being affable all of a sudden decides that something we enjoyed wasn't worth watching, well, it's back to what I was saying about vicarious living.  Who are you to say my children or my pet isn't cute?  The moment a "seducer" loses a connection to an audience can be thought of as the moment the target realizes how cheap the pick up lines are, perhaps, or that, even if these pick-up lines are great, how many other people have been told them before.

Maybe it becomes like the moment when you're in school and someone you thought was pretty cool suddenly makes an insulting remark about someone you like, or maybe someone you "like" like.  And then all of a sudden you're not sure you trust this cool kid's judgment any more.  And it's not like the cool kid came up with some reason, it's more of a reflex reaction.  It's always possible for someone to write a charming, persuasive and wonderful case about X and then completely drop the ball about Y.  It happens frequently. 

It's been interesting reading different critics react to Scott's book on criticism because what more often than not emerges is a sense that Scott has managed to make a defense of criticism that cumulative comes off as some mixture of question begging/special pleading.  There's a few more quotes about criticism and the arts we'll get to before long. 

from The New Republic, on A. O. Scott as the "last" of the power critics and a fairly inevitable rumination on privilege.
Scott maintains a jocular attitude toward Jackson’s barbs—he emerged from the fray, it seems, quite unwounded. And he does move, swiftly and humbly, from a defense of his person to a defense of his craft: soon we’re on to the value of “intellectual scrutiny” and the indispensable triumvirate of “vigilance, discipline, and curiosity,” duly leaving all things Marvel behind. There are broad pronouncements of America’s cultural inadequacy: “Anti-intellectualism is virtually our civic religion,” for instance, or “we trivialize art. We venerate nonsense. We can’t see past our own bullshit.” Which would tend to rouse the thoughtful reader. But it says a lot that Jackson felt obliged to set upon Scott in the first place. It’s a privilege of the position. Of course Scott was not the only critic who disliked The Avengers: Amy Nicholson, Stephanie Zacharek, and Karina Longworth, to take but three examples, each gamely registered their dissent. But Scott was the only critic who reviewed The Avengers for the New York Times. The eminence of Scott’s platform glistens in every word that he writes.

Scott’s book deals with this unusual position only glancingly. “At their worst, critics can be guilty of aesthetic and even literal homicide,” he writes. “They have the power to the shut down plays with bad reviews and to consign worthy books and their authors to cruel and unjust oblivion.” By “literal homicide” Scott means John Gibson Lockhart and the negative review of Endymion that allegedly “killed” Keats, whose actual cause of death was tuberculosis. But it’s the aesthetic homicide that today seems more dubious—at least for most of us. How many critics have the power to make or break a book or a movie or a play? Perhaps Pete Wells cleared some space from Per Se’s reservation book when he downgraded their luminous four-star standing to a meager two; but Wells, like Scott, speaks on behalf of an institution whose stature and influence confers upon its critics an authority scarcely enjoyed by their colleagues. Most critics cannot take it for granted, as Scott apparently can, that readers are interested in what they have to say.
Beyond institutional affiliation, critics usually gain authority in three ways. They can be first responders: if they called the genius of Patti Smith before she was Patti Smith, their taste in other new music is probably of note. They can be scholars: someone who knows the canon backward and forward seems a sound gatekeeper for esteem. Or they can be seducers: they’ve wooed and won you with their work; you follow them because you like the way they think. The trouble is that each virtue is unreliable, and almost nobody fully embodies all three. We give critics broad mandates, and they’re constantly betraying our trust.

a bit from Commentary on A. O. Scott's Better Living Through Criticism. and a sideways riff from me on how since all art is vicarious living anyway that arts criticism can be a second or third-hand mode of vicarious life

In an earlier day some believed that even attacking popular culture, which then often went by the name “kitsch,” wasn’t worth the time and energy put into it. Best to leave it alone altogether. Harold Rosenberg twitted (not, mind, tweeted) Dwight Macdonald for spending so much time writing about the movies. What Rosenberg thought of Robert Warshow’s interest in popular culture is not known. Warshow’s tactic was neither to attack nor exult in popular culture, but to explain its attractions. His two essays on why Americans were attracted to gangster and western movies are among the most brilliant things ever written on the movies and on popular culture generally.

Today the standard of highbrow culture has been worn away, almost to the point of threadbareness. For political reasons, universities no longer feel obligated to spread its gospel. Western culture—dead white males and all that—with its imperialist history has long been increasingly non grata in humanities departments. Everywhere pride of place has been given to the merely interesting—the study of gay and lesbian culture, of graphic novels and comic books, and more—over the deeply significant. Culture, as it is now understood in the university and elsewhere, is largely popular culture. That battle has, at least for now, been lost.

In “This Age of Criticism,” Jarrell was actually bemoaning the spread of criticism, which he felt was choking off the impulse to create stories, plays, and poems. He also felt critics were insufficiently adventurous, content to dwell lengthily on the same small body of classic works. His dream of repressing the field has come to be a reality.

And so we are left with A.O. Scott, whose key thesis is that criticism is “the art of the voice.” His own voice, in his reviews and in Better Living Through Criticism, is that of a man who vastly overestimates his own voice’s significance and charm. The Age of Criticism Randall Jarrell condemned is over and done with—but in a way he would not in the least have approved. Were he alive today, Jarrell might have to seek work reviewing video games. [emphasis added]

See, the thing is that writing about cartoons and comic books doesn't seem necessarily "low" to me.  I've got no problem writing about cartoons about superheroes in a way where I could reference G. K. Chesteron, Solzhenitsyn, or even quote Adolf Schlatter.  I could then comfortably turn around and discuss aspects of sonata allegro form in early 19th century guitar sonatas or share impressions I had about The Big Short.

So who's to say that if Randall Jarrell were alive right now we know he wouldn't be writing reviews of video games?  We can't know.  Mozart wrote vocal canons on vulgar textual riffs that might resemble a song or two about uncles from a South Park scene. 

If there's a puzzle to how Scott sounds like he's written about criticism as an art form it may be that a thread we'll see in reactions to Scott's book is that he's long on style and short on substance and by substance we could mean sticking his neck out a little more. 

Scott may be a film writer for our time if after all his circling about and encyclopedic riffing he ends up just advocating for ... his day job.  I'll get to this later but a complaint I am beginning to have about film criticism is that there's two pious bromides that appear in Christian and secularist film criticism.  The lazy pious bromide for the Christian is obvious--so-and-so is a Christ type or X plot point presents a parable of soteriology.  The secularist one is more devious because it's less obvious to those not attuned to it, but the pious bromide of secular film criticism is that a film ends up being about film itself. 

Well, let's play with an idea here.  All art is in some sense vicarious living and criticism is a way to live vicariously in a way that lets you experience art.  The trouble with the kind of defense of criticism as an art form A. O Scott seems to be fumbling toward, at least as we survey what writers have to say about his work, is that if art is a way of living vicariously and criticism is writing as an art form then we're talking about vicariously living about vicarious living and that only works if the third-hand life seems worth living.  Generally a whole lot of people who go through life tend to heed third-hand accounts of how people could or should live when the mediating party is a government branch or making claims of divine inspiration or military force or all the above.  In other words, vicarious living, assuming everybody is totally cool with vicarious living, needs to be, I don't know, vicarious enough to make the fact that it's not YOU living it not be so bad.  Scott may be emblematic of a breed of writer about the arts who wants a kind of sacralized art about art that could be, and here I'm just being a punk on purpose, showing a form of artfulness but in a sense denying the power thereof.