Monday, December 8, 2014

Critics and Naked Emperors

Everyone's been abuzz about Jed Perl's takedown of bullshit artist Jeff Koons in the New York Review of Books. The first couple of paragraphs pretty much tell the tale:
Imagine the Jeff Koons retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art as the perfect storm. And at the center of the perfect storm there is a perfect vacuum. The storm is everything going on around Jeff Koons: the multimillion-dollar auction prices, the blue chip dealers, the hyperbolic claims of the critics, the adulation and the controversy and the public that quite naturally wants to know what all the fuss is about. The vacuum is the work itself, displayed on five of the six floors of the Whitney, a succession of pop culture trophies so emotionally dead that museumgoers appear a little dazed as they dutifully take out their iPhones and produce their selfies.

Presented against stark white walls under bright white light, Koons’s floating basketballs, Plexiglas-boxed household appliances, and elaborately produced jumbo-sized versions of sundry knickknacks, souvenirs, toys, and backyard pool paraphernalia have a chilly chic arrogance. The sculptures and paintings of this fifty-nine-year-old artist are so meticulously, mechanically polished and groomed that they rebuff any attempt to look at them, much less feel anything about them.
It's a classic naked emperor takedown; a commercially indomitable art world figure is well-known to be full of crap, but critics have been unwilling to publicly call a spade a spade. Perl lances the boil, to relief and rejoicing all around. The other critics seem like sheep - or even accomplices in a massive cultural fraud. 

But it's more complicated than that. There are reasons critics don't often call spades spades. Good reasons. I'll be as succinct as possible, though it's a topic deserving hundreds of pages.

If the NY Times' A.O. Scott called "bullshit" on all the bullshit movies he had to review, and panned all the formulaic Hollywood vehicles that came his way, he'd come off like a curmudgeonly snob. He's forced to give serious consideration to absolute crap week after week, because crap is what the public wants to see. He's a movie critic, and this is the movie business. You don't like it? Don't be a movie critic!

Perpetually telling the masses they're idiots, and that their movies suck, would be a futile enterprise. It would 1. make him look like a dingbat, 2. fail to serve the readers he works for, 3. make him an advancer of an agenda rather than a reviewer of films, and 4. eventually lose him his job. Again: if you don't like movies, don't review movies!

Even the august Roger Ebert privately confessed (even to me) that he was forced to spend most of his life watching and writing about utter drek. He certainly didn't rave about the drek, but neither did he one-star every soulless crappy film he came across. To have done so would have made him irrelevant, because audiences - even his audience - love soulless crap. It was his job to winnow better soulless crap from worse soulless crap. That's the gig!

Same for any other field of criticism. Music critics could spend their careers railing against blanded-out pre-fab hypercommercial pop music (or, for that matter, pretentious, redundant, self-aggrandized indie pop) if they'd like, but they'd become ranting dingbats, their agendas would overshadow their occupations, and they'd soon become irrelevant and unemployed. This is why critics have accepted their mandate to embrace and accept the full range of their purviews, declining to rage against certain segments, shitty though they may be. They cover it all, as if it was all worthwhile, regardless of private reservations and preferences.

Here's the twist. You might assume I'm clucking my tongue at the unfortunate tidal weight of crap in contemporary culture, and ruing the impracticality of shaming philistines who view, buy, wear, eat, and listen to horrendous junk. But if you go back a few decades, that's exactly what critics once did. Critics in early and mid 20th century America would rail about how Chinese food was for simpletons who needed their food cut into tiny pieces for them, about how abstract art was mindless squiggles, and about how the introduction of sound vulgarized film. These guys were embarrassing - windy pedants, choleric snobs, luddites, and reflexive cultural conservatives arrogant enough to project their personal preferences as grand truths. Ick.

I'm shocked at how few people remember that, until the 90's, food served in venues lacking linen napkins was unfit for serious critical consideration. My review of the Arepa Lady, respectfully paying tribute to a brilliant chef who worked from a street cart in an "ethnic" neighborhood", was published only with extreme trepidation by my editor at the time, one Sam Sifton (who cleared the bad taste in his mouth by publishing this screed in the same newspaper shortly afterwards).

It seemed, for a very long time, absurd on the very face of it to acknowledge "ethnic" chefs or genre cooks to be serious practitioners of culinary arts. Such workers might produce occasionally tasty treats for those too poor or too rushed to sit down for a real meal, that's all. Even one of the kings of egalitarian food criticism, Jonathan Gold, fought back (in the 1990s) at my insistence that anyone producing deep deliciousness deserved the very fullest respect, regardless of venue or milieu. Gold had written with passion about tacos and such, but he explained that such stuff isn't, like, serious cuisine!

It's since gone out of style for critics to anoint "seriousness". For the most part, everything's now on the table, nothing pushed out-of-bounds. Sure, criticism requires opining, and opining always involves prejudices, but smaller opinions are now the way - opinions about a given iteration, rather than blunt wholesale aversion. After all, anointing a critic's anointing power is just as crazily arbitrary as anointing musicals over comedies, or French food over Chinese.

A number of us fought bitterly against the notion of a vertical hierarchy in food, insisting that the entire spectrum deserved equal respect. So before I cluck my tongue at an art world phenom like Jeff Koons being given respectful attention in serious publications, or, say, Shrek being reviewed by serious critics sans evisceration, I recall what it looks like when critics deem themselves weightily above the fields they survey - not just opining on this or that creation, but dismissing swathes as unworthy of credulous consideration.

I despise Koons, and felt a certain catharsis reading Perl's takedown, but I know something Perl seemingly doesn't: raging wholesale against the Crap, while tempting, leads nowhere good. Those who take on the task never affect the popular appetite for it, and the very worst crap of all is generated when vexed cultural authorities vent spleens at all that's "gone wrong".

Along similar lines: language usage pedantry has also fallen out of favor. See Vanquishing the Language Pedants, The Ugly Roots of Language Pedantry, and No One Owns Grammar, No One Owns Usage. Or else simply view this beautifully done, light-shedding video by the great Stephen Fry, a recovering usage snob:

No comments:

Blog Archive