The Left’s Poverty of Good Cultural Criticism

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There’s a reason why I’ve been dedicating so much Internet to push back on bad, or just plain lazy, commentary on this season of Mad Men; and it’s not because I’m a slobbering fanboy (well, not solely because I’m a slobbering fanboy). Because the show is such a locus for cultural criticism right now, it’s a good jumping off point for discussing the condition of pop culture crit at large, especially left-oriented pop culture crit. And as you might be able to guess from my previous posts on the subject, I would evaluate that condition as, “pretty poor.”

Of course, not all the criticism I’ve been hitting comes from the left. Katie Roiphe is, well, Katie Roiphe; her whole shtick revolves around being “counterintuitive” enough to hook in her New York Times-reading audience, but still bland enough that her writing won’t actually challenge them on any level. As for the National Review piece, conservative criticism is just too easy a target (Big Hollywood, anyone?).

(Aside: I am being slightly unfair here. As with conservatism at large, there is some smart and interesting stuff going on around the margins, albeit from people who have been explicitly exiled from the tent. For example, I do enjoy right-leaning libertarian Peter Suderman’s movie reviews.)

But the left could stand to learn some cautionary lessons from the right’s excesses. For example: their complete subjugation of art to ideology, so that every work of film and literature is evaluated on the basis of how conservative it is. This is little more than aesthetic Stalinism, and it’s why evidently sentient, self-aware human beings will sometimes end up championing Red Dawn as a cinematic masterpiece.

On the left, we have not done much better, and Mad Men is a perfect example of what went wrong; rather than being dug into as the rich subject for literary criticism it is, it’s been batted around like an ideological tetherball. Are the female characters sufficiently feminist? Does this show glorify drinking and adultery? Is Christina Hendricks too sexy or not sexy enough? And so on. It’s criticism by checklist.

There is obvious merit to evaluating the gender politics of a work of art, but only if we acknowledge some shades in tone a little more subtle than sexist/anti-sexist. And besides, treating any work of art as if how it approaches these questions is the whole conversation is ludicrous. The anti-Semitism on display in The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, and The Merchant of Venice is, in all three cases, contemptible; but no one who claims to respect and appreciate literature should ever deign to classify The Merchant of Venice as “an anti-Semitic play,” as if every single line of dialogue was just another morsel of crude, anti-Jewish invective. Doing so would constrict our understanding of the play’s considerable merits; and, indeed, our understanding of ourselves, and art itself.

The same goes for popular culture. It’s not enough to say, “This movie is good because it features strong female characters.” That may be a part of what makes it good, yes—but as I wrote in my previous post, real art is less about answers that it is about impossible questions. Good criticism grapples with those questions, and, in doing so, challenges the critic’s most deeply held principles. Maybe one day, we’ll see more of that on the left and fewer of these dull-as-rocks reaffirmations of our policy positions.

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