Cultural Commentary in 10 Easy Lessons
December 15, 2002 9:12 AM   Subscribe

Cultural Commentary in 10 Easy Lessons "....there's an astonishing abundance of cultural criticism these days -- in magazines, newspapers, web sites, blogs, television....if you removed the five or 10 most abused forms of criticism, there would be a deafening silence. Or perhaps room for other kinds of commentary to grow..." With so much published and available these days. it's damn near impossible to sound original.
posted by Voyageman (16 comments total)
11. Criticize the critics. If you're a critic, then criticism is the most important thing. Lament the current state of criticism, naturally exempting yourself. Lists are always a cinch to write: shoehorn your competitors into 10 easy-to-denigrate categories. Avoid actually making the effort to uncover and champion interesting work. For extra bonus points, claim that the lack of real commentary leads to a lack of interesting culture, cleverly reversing the priorities between artist and critic.
posted by fuzz at 9:27 AM on December 15, 2002

*clap* *clap*
posted by Pretty_Generic at 9:41 AM on December 15, 2002

fuzz is right. I read a lot of magazines and webistes looking for interesting things to check out, but most of what I see is a whole lotta "been there, done that" yawning--mostly from people who have 'been nowhere, done nothing, and half baked unreadable theorizing.

The only positive talk I see is either copied press kit hype or what Nik cohn once called "praising with faint damn" reviews along the line of "this isn't so bad." To actually thoughtfully offer up something as an example of what's good or meaningful, seem to mark you as an unbelievably gauce rube these days. This guy is no help, he's here to deflate the deflators. Whoopee. How about actually doing something to improve it like, writing about something you think is good or better yet, stop criticizing for a few minutes and try to actually contribute something for once.
posted by jonmc at 9:45 AM on December 15, 2002

fuzz, I read your posting first, and enjoyed it, and even applauded it, finding it fairly eloquent and taking it on faith that it referred to real defects in the article.

Then I read the article, and I can't see any of your points in it anywhere. The writer doesn't do any of those things, such as "naturally exempting" himself. He identifies certain common types of cheap, formulaic criticism, which is a useful and illuminating thing to do. You say that "lists are a cinch to write." Yes, and absurdly simplistic observations like that are a cinch to make. Some lists are easy to write, such as laundry lists or lists of the books on your shelf. Other lists, ones that require thoughtful analysis to discern the categories in the first place, are perhaps not so much of a cinch.

He doesn't "Avoid actually making the effort to uncover and champion interesting work", except insofar as that isn't his brief or his intent. One might as easily say that you "avoided" giving to charity this morning by having breakfast and reading the newspaper instead.

Finally, he doesn't, as far as I can see, "claim that the lack of real commentary leads to a lack of interesting culture". Perhaps you're referring to some other article.
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:15 AM on December 15, 2002

I think it is a useful article - it is always helpful to remind ourselves of common flawed arguments, so that they may be more easily spotted.

A more generic list of fallacies, not confined to critics, is here:
posted by SNACKeR at 11:00 AM on December 15, 2002

George_Spiggott: Hmm, I'm criticizing an article criticizing critics, and you're criticizing my criticism. MetaMetaMetaMetaFilter?

Here's the long version of what I really meant:
I wasn't actually claiming that he was doing everything I said (in particular, I never intended to say that he had won the extra bonus points). I was more complaining about the premise of the article, and the attitude it represents.

Yes, it's briefly useful to point out the mechanisms of cheap, formulaic criticism. But after several decades of this kind of self-congratulatory analysis, being "media savvy" is getting to be a form of cheap, formulaic criticism. There's an implicit idea that mainstream cultural commentary articles actually matter, and if only we had better commentary then the world would be a better place.

The proper response to someone like Ann Coulter is not to cleverly skewer her. All that does is enable you to join the chorus of warring career pundits. The proper response is just to ignore her. Turn off the damn television, and go off in search of what really matters to you.

What galls me the most is the claim that these problems are due to abundance. This is an article in the Washington Post compaining about all those other writers who have invaded the WashPo's turf. Just like accusations of media bias, all this does is perpetuate the myth that there's no sense in going outside of the major media outlets. The Web has given us infinite possibilities to explore, and people are still wasting their energy worrying about the mainstream media.

We don't need better criticism, we need to stop pretending that critics matter. Once upon a time, that's what MeFi was originally about.
posted by fuzz at 11:10 AM on December 15, 2002

One could also argue, fuzz, for the much needed revival of thoughtful--not nice, but intelligent--criticism in an age where most people have an outlet if not an audience for public criticism (ie the internet as an example). Criticism has turned into a dirty word (dare some say a lost art?) and I personally wonder if it's the quality of such dialogue or our complacency to filter it out of the mud in which we wade.
The author, even in criticizing the critics, is trying, I believe, to raise the bar of what is and should be expected of such writers.
Others have called upon such critics to be held accountable for their works and encourage dialogues between performer and critic (of course therewithin lies a bit of a catch 82. Only the more esteemed critics have the opportunity to engage in such dialogue thus leaving the little man with a blog at a disadvantage if indeed it is intelligent rapport with the subject of criticism he so desires).
posted by G_Ask at 12:37 PM on December 15, 2002

Mmm, G_Ask, that opens the discussion up.

We have very different philosophies, I guess. I'm less in favor of the idea of dialogue between artist and critic, and more in favor of abolishing the whole concept of "artist" and "critic" (and "audience", while I'm at it).

Everyone can have something to say, everyone can take a little from other people's works and remix it into their own. Anyone can send an e-mail to an "artist", who can respond on his blog and treat everyone as a collaborator. The only way the "little man" is at a disadvantage is with people whose sole reason for creating is to gain approval from the critical media establishment. These "artists" and their self-important idea of professionalism are just as obsolete as the idea of the critic. It's already happened with writing, the next step is music, and film will follow.

In a world of creative abundance, the traditional role of the critic in establishing a common ground for discussing works, and using it to separate the good from the bad, just plain disappears. A critic is anyone with a blog, or a MeFi user account. The result is the ugly spectacle of the old guard of pundits going to war with each other in a vain effort to reestablish their primacy in defining the terms of intelligent discourse.

We need filters, not critics, and lots of different ones, not just a single monolithic idea of "accountability". Most of the bad criticism described in the article results from the idea of "responsible criticism". The article really describes 10 symptoms of trying to adopt the authoritative voice that characterizes big media.

I love this messy world that has no need for critical authority. When I go searching for ideas and commentary, I hope to find personal, involved expression, not yet another rehash of standard media discourse. That's why I read MeFi and other blogs, and just ignore the mainstream media entirely.
posted by fuzz at 2:09 PM on December 15, 2002

12. Criticise the critics of the critics. I thought the article was a good read. It pointed to ten all-too-familiar mechanisms used by critics that have little or nothing to do with the work in question. For me - on the ball.
posted by nthdegx at 2:37 PM on December 15, 2002

I was all ready to jump on the article in a fuzz-like manner until I actually read it; I thought it was much better written than the usual thumbsucker. Come on, this is funny: "The critic is saying that you, the reader, are worried about the wrong thing; but that means the critic is worried about you being worried about the wrong thing, which, to be blunt, is rather a silly thing to worry about given that there are people starving in Africa." And good criticism is a valuable thing; it's true you can find it in blogs as well as traditional media, but that doesn't mean the latter are now useless.
posted by languagehat at 3:11 PM on December 15, 2002

“using it to separate the good from the bad”

Maybe your idea of criticism is limited. I agree with you about “media establishment” critics, they are operating in very limited capitalist/consumerist sphere of art appreciation and criticism. Certainly there is a dominant mode of criticism which operates in a strictly consumerist mode, the Eberts, but they were a reaction to strictly consumerist art, the culture industry, the utter sameness of everything type stuff. Some critics take Britney Spears and Avril Lavigne seriously because they operate in a sphere in which that type of music is not only serious but fundamental. It really doesn’t matter how that came about (culture industry again), just whether one wants to take part and therefore legitimize it.

That sort of culture industry art/music is dependent on a structure exterior to its being. Spears requires a massive marketing machine to be taken seriously — her work (it certainly isn’t even her solitary endeavor) is neither autonmous nor independent. You cannot judge that sort of stuff without judging the entire structure upon which it rests.

A critic is at his best (in my mind anyway) not when he’s passing judgement on a work — an inherently political act — but analyzing and contextualizing. Kennicott’s list is all about rhetorical mechanisms to make a critique look like it isn’t passing judgement while it is doing just that and nothing else.

I gotta say though, number 10 in the list is right on the money. For every up-and-coming trend piece printed you can find another that says the opposite. That sort faux-reportage can be very political, as Laura Bush showed the US after 9.11, telling everyone divorces were down, adoptions up, and other such, in retrospect, lies.

“I'm less in favor of the idea of dialogue between artist and critic, and more in favor of abolishing the whole concept of "artist" and "critic" (and "audience", while I'm at it).”

Without an artist or an audience (which a critic is nothing more than), there can be no art. I’m not sure I want to live there. If you mean an adherence to specific and illegitimate professionalized critical authority then yes, bam, I’m with you again.
posted by raaka at 3:17 PM on December 15, 2002

Cheers to different philosophies, fuzz, although we're not entirely in disagreement. My reply was a bit quick and not from your widened view of "critic" vs "artist" vs "audience" (my own tapping away at the keyboard was grating to my nerves).

My initial response was based partially on its author, who I happen to respect and who has himself been used as an example of why criticism is indeed necessary and thought-provoking. jonmc asks a valid question re why not stop criticizing and go out and do something about the state of ____ ? Kennicott has actually written and discussed these very ideas (something he referred to as "activist" audience work, to paraphrase).
Are you against criticism or authority? Personally, I think Critics Critiquing Criticism is my new favorite genre.
posted by G_Ask at 3:23 PM on December 15, 2002

To follow up on SNACKeR ,and to make this a post that can be returned to in the future, here is Fallacies which appeared in Metafilter some time ago.
posted by Voyageman at 3:41 PM on December 15, 2002

I loved the

© 2002 The Washington Post Company

at the bottom of the page. The double entendre, while probably unintentional, is priceless.
posted by MidasMulligan at 7:07 PM on December 15, 2002

13. Restatements of Sturgeon's law. "While there are a handful of good X, most of them suck." Except stretched out to 6 paragraphs.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 9:01 AM on December 16, 2002

Oh, and I liked the article overall, but I have to take issue with #7, the straw man as whipping boy. Exemplified by "Some people think quilting is just for grandmothers, but don't tell that to the Men's Stitching Society of East Rutherford."

Yes, when anyone consciously thinks about the stereotype, they will realize that it can't be true. But the point is that people often don't consciously think about the stereotype, and until they read an article such as this one, the unconscious stereotype will continue to prevail in their minds.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 9:06 AM on December 16, 2002

« Older Santa needs some sophisticated adult entertainment...   |   Holiday geek shopping ideas Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments