22 August 2012

In Support of Honest Cultural Criticism

Dwight Garner recently wrote a piece for the New York Times Magazine in which he makes "A Critic’s Case for Critics Who Are Actually Critical." Mr. Garner laments the decline of honest literary criticism. He lambastes the "mass intellectual suicide" of dispensing with critics altogether. He rails against the intellectual dishonesty of the uncritical, "solicitous communalism" of the literary world on Twitter. He criticizes -- with insight and respect.

Mr. Garner could just as easily be railing against the decline of true criticism in any type of popular culture, especially among young adults. Cantankerous critical mainstays like Pitchfork and the AV Club keep chugging along, but most of what passes for criticism among the kids these days  looks more like the invective-laden meanness of Vice. In place of honest criticism, there seems to be a slow onslaught of clever blogs and scene sites with a surfeit of foaming at the mouth for mediocre, derivative cultural output.

There is a growing attitude among young adults that criticizing someone's favorite song is somehow offensive to the someone (and the song). We are left with friendly interviews that read like ad copy. We are fed too many concert recaps written by people who walked in the venue with their opinions set in stone. (Even my favorite source of new music, NPR Music, puts out positive stories about the carefully-selected music it shares -- criticism only by omission.) This attitude yields writing that declines to grapple with cultural signifiers and thereby fails to enlighten or challenge its audience.

Members of the Internet generation (precious flowers all) are sharing more and more original output through social media. If the kids have a hard time criticizing carefully cultivated cultural products, they will struggle mightily to criticize the work of a real person to their digital face. They will find it even harder to so with insight and respect. We should not, however, sink into blind adoration for the second-rate. We should not waste our time on junk when there is so much cultural content from across the world at our fingertips. Someone needs to call a spade a spade.

I have strong opinions about culture. I am not afraid to criticize the banal, the formulaic, and the dull. I will (generally) do so with respect and insight. But I am in the minority, and I get far too much scorn for making my opinions known. People sometimes dismiss me as too picky or too pretentious simply for voicing a different approach.

Honest criticism (in print or in conversation) means rolling up your sleeves and finding a way to engage productively with even the banal, the formulaic, and the dull. To Mr. Garner,
"[Criticism] means making fine distinctions. It means talking about ideas, aesthetics and morality as if these things matter (and they do)."
Yes, books and music and film are supposed to be entertaining. They are also supposed to make you think. To broaden your perspective. To challenge you. Even if tastes are idiosyncratic -- and they are quite that -- I wonder why so many people like the narrow, the unthinking, the unchallenging. Perhaps there is not enough good criticism to direct them elsewhere.

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