How reprioritizing aesthetics in formal criticism can save the world

Socially conscious criticism doesn't take artistic expression too seriously; it doesn't take art seriously enough

Published April 22, 2017 8:30PM (EDT)


As I plunk down at a too-high bar stool in a coffee shop to write this screed, I’m assailed, out of the corner of my eye, by a headline of a local alt-weekly paper spelled out in big, black, all-caps font: HOW FASHION CAN SAVE THE WORLD. 

The article itself looks at how sustainable, salvaged haute couture can reduce the environmental imprint of the fashion industry, which is all well and good. But the headline itself is more telling. It’s a prevalent theme of late -- i.e., that fashion/music/movies/TV shows/that podcast you like can somehow “save the world,” or at least leave some impact on the social/political world as a whole. Such criticism is the subject of a recent, widely shared Vox piece, “Hot takes and ‘problematic faves’: the rise of socially conscious criticism.”

In the detailed, well-argued essay, Jaime Weinmann examines the emergent culture of socially conscious criticism, in which a TV show like HBO’s “Girls” is railroaded for its “monochromatic vision of Brooklyn” while a movie like Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” is lauded for making “unsubtle points about the dangers of being black in America and the hypocrisy of white liberals.” Weinmann argues that such criticism merges the aesthetic and political, bringing issues of representation (see: the panic over “whitewashing” in recent films “Dr. Strange” and “Ghost in the Shell”) and apparent political correctness to the fore. 

The primary concern of contemporary criticism is not whether a given cultural object is good or bad, but how that object reflects the realities of the social world, and how it can potentially (re)shape that same world. For Weinmann, “this new turn of criticism, this emphasis on the politics behind art, may be better for a work's reputation than criticism that ignores politics.”

Certainly, “Get Out” provides a solid example of a work whose repute emerges from its perceived “correctness” and not from its crackerjack operations as a well-made piece of genre cinema that productively splits the difference between allegorical horror of “The Wicker Man” and the cheeky social satire of “The Stepford Wives.” As Weinmann notes, the politics of “Get Out” are so patent, suffusing the very DNA of the picture itself, that outright ignoring them would be tantamount to critical suicide (to say nothing of the social media drubbing one would likely receive for doing so).

The problem with the argument — and the whole culture of “socially conscious criticism” — is not that it privileges politics over aesthetics. It’s that it tends to totally ignore aesthetics, and form, and craft. It values art purely on the basis of its perceived political efficacy or usefulness. And in doing so, it does a disservice to both art and politics.

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The “new turn” in socially conscious criticism, it should be said, is not at all new. That contemporary critics and practitioners of scorching hot-takery fail to historicize this is not that surprising. The popular term “woke,” often used as a pejorative lobbed at people performing social consciousness online, implies this very kind of blinkered thinking. It’s as if, just now, a generation of writers has arisen bed-headed to the very idea of politics itself. In their haste to bring this new awareness to bear on cultural criticism, they neglect to consider the long history of such thinking. It’s hard to see clearly when your eyes are still heavily crusted with sleep dirt.

Modern critical writing, thinking and theory is marked by turf wars between formalists and those who wish to interpret works of art in their larger social context. In the early 1970s, literary scholars like Kenneth Burke and Hazard Adams (and later, Franco Moretti) drastically revised the prevailing mode of “New Criticism,” which regarded texts as self-contained worlds, by considering the social and historical contexts in which these texts were produced and read. This movement was termed “sociological criticism.”

Around the same time, the great English-Canadian film critic Robin Wood afforded previously maligned genres (horror movies, specifically) with serious critical attention, dividing them into “progressive” and “reactionary” camps that more or less reflected liberal and conservative political ideologies. Even earlier, Marxist thinkers of the Frankfurt School fled Nazi Germany, landed in Los Angeles and studied mass culture as an appendage of totalitarianism that (to paraphrase the seminal work by Frankfurt scholars Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, “The Dialectic of Enlightenment”) toxified society with its sameness. 

What the new socially conscious criticism — which isn’t really new so much as it is accelerated, in which the same way that the internet and social media accelerate pretty much everything — take from this genealogy of thought is an underlying belief that all media is inherently political. What such writing so often forgets is the emphasis on aesthetics and form as the very expression of that political potential.

In 1977’s "The Aesthetic Dimension," philosopher and critical theorist Herbert Marcuse synthesizes this long history of theory on the relation between art and politics into a (relatively) clear thesis: that art is valid not in its ability to represent (or shape) the social world, but in its ability to stand outside of it. As he writes in his introduction, “I see the political potential of art in art itself, in the aesthetic form as such.” For Marcuse, it wasn’t just that aesthetics — form, style, craft, the very way a work of art is made and presents itself — could reflect the political. It was that all these things were political in and of themselves. In rising above (or in Marcuse’s words, “transcending”) their social and material bases, works of art held potential to radically oppose those very bases, and to reshape the public consciousness.

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Maybe some examples will help make sense of this idea. When motion pictures became the rage in the United States in the early part of the twentieth century, there was a genuine moral panic about their professed deleterious impacts on impressionable audiences (read: women, children, the working class). It had little to nothing to do with the contents of a given film strip, but with the medium itself, and its tendency to rouse audiences in rowdy urban nickelodeons. Until 1952 in the U.S. movies were not afforded the constitutional protections of the First Amendment granted to other arts, precisely because they were seen as too vivid and corrupting. (For more on this check out Tom Gunning’s edifying essay “Flickers: On Cinema’s Power for Evil.”)

There are also the legendary stories of audiences running out of the way of a moving train at early movie screenings, or rioting when Igor Stravinsky premiered his ballet “Rite of Spring” at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris in 1913. Musical sub-genres from hip-hop (with its repurposing of turntables as themselves musical instruments) to noisy, violently unlistenable black metal (with its aesthetic assault against the very idea of music) have likewise formally reoriented our expectations of the very idea of art. In so doing they challenge that rigidity and sameness from which the governing political regimes draw their power and tacit authority. Such art invites us to consider new forms, to conceive of alternatives to the grinding status quo.

It’s not merely that art can do this. This is what art is. Its function is to transcend the constraints of functionality. These are true, radical stakes of art and culture. These are the real “politics behind the art.”

What’s troubling and dispiriting about contemporary socially conscious criticism is that it forgets all of this. Instead of considering forms and alternatives, it narrows the possibilities of thinking and critiquing, playing squarely to the bland, destructive ideology of modern liberal democracy. If they’re not altogether ignored, then aesthetics are at the very least instrumentalized: marshaled in the service of one or another ideology instead of affronting, or even flicking at, the existence of that ideology. We talk about casting, about release strategies, about how Kendrick Lamar’s “DAMN.” was made with beats created on an iPhone 6. We talk about industry and play into the marketing buzz in a way that renders art itself irrelevant.

There’s no doubt that a more rigorous formal criticism is hard work. At the very least, it’s harder work than dismissing a movie out of hand for casting choices that are perceived as egregious or racially insensitive. It’s also harder than wildly inflating a work’s “radical” (usually equivalent to “conventionally liberal”) political content when it manages the modest feat of not being wholly appalling. But yoking art to the project of a given political agenda — even if it’s the “good” agenda of representation, identity politics, and so on — isn’t just dreadfully boring, it’s fundamentally antithetical to the very project of art. The problem with this line of thinking and writing is not that it takes movies and TV shows and albums recorded on iPhones too seriously. It’s that it doesn’t take them anywhere near seriously enough.

By John Semley

John Semley lives and works in Toronto. He is a books columnist at the Globe & Mail newspaper and the author of "This Is A Book About The Kids In The Hall" (ECW Press).

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