ARE ARTISTIC STANDARDS ENOUGH?

Alek Felstiner has posted a response to my response to his comment on my post on how progressives should criticize cultural products (based on what they endorse, not what they expose).

I’m inclined to tread lightly in terms of boycotting cultural products based on content (I’ll tread heavily when it comes to a boycott initiated by the workers who made the stuff). Among other reasons, it’s harder to critically engage with something in a robust way if you can’t watch it, listen to it, or read it. But I don’t see hypocrisy in making a legal defense of speech combined with a moral condemnation. I can see the downsides of a world in which moral scolds construct social norms placing an ever-greater percentage of art outside the range of what’s acceptable to browse, but I don’t think we’d be better off with a social norm against moral criticisms of art.

There’s a whole spectrum from condemnation to light critique, and whatever the level of criticism I’d generally rather see it directed at the artist than at the audience. And if criticism of particular art makes people more likely to pursue – or create – something better, I don’t think that’s a bad thing unless the criticism was wrong (in which case we should criticize that criticism). Alek has pointed out the difficulties involved in saying what’s right or wrong when it comes to discerning the author’s intent or predicting the audience’s response, but I think we’re still better off speaking up about what we find good or bad in the work. And we should recognize that art often subverts some conservative ideas while reinforcing others on the same topic (see The Cosby Show or Queer Eye for the Straight Guy).

This goes to the desirability of making moral criticisms of art in addition to/ distinction from artistic ones. This is what Ann Powers takes up in the piece Alek recommends. (I’ll have to defer to Alek, who was able to criticize the blackboard showing the evolution of rock that showed on screen for 5 seconds in School of Rock, on Powers’ questions “Could there have been a David Wojnarowicz without the Velvet Underground? Or a Karen Finley without Little Richard?”) I agree with Powers that Democrats, especially elected ones, are often equivocal or disappointing or incoherent when talking about art. I agree with her that art that exposes tensions and ugliness is often more worthwhile than art that leaves you with a feeling of harmony. But I don’t find her “Defense of Nasty Art” persuasive at defending Nasty Art in general (or art in general for that matter) against moral criticism. It’s more compelling as a case for the moral value of some of the art others have deemed immoral.


Powers argues that it’s good for art to give voice to the rage of marginalized people. She argues that dark art is more honest than optimistic art. She argues that liberals are wrong to prefer art depicting victims to art depicting (vengeful) violators come back to haunt the yuppies. She argues that the art that most upsets our sensibilities often does so because it confronts us with urges we’re ashamed of. She argues that the experience of shock is part of a healthy mental diet. You can agree with all of that (I mostly do) without embracing her (much-quoted, judging by Google) conclusion that

Not all art that claims to be transgressive is worth caring about. But you can’t tell the bullshit from the real by setting moral standards. You have to set artistic ones.


My original post was driven by a frustration with the right-wing moral judgements that seem to dominate discussions about morality and art (much as right-wing values swipe the shorthand “moral values” in politics). But part of where my frustration comes from is the conviction that instead of counting the number of breasts we see on TV, we should criticize TV shows that downplay rape or reinforce the myths of white male victimhood. Art is political. It’s a zone of contestation. It tells stories that subvert, solidify, or showcase values. Those stories may be ambiguous, or silly, or ironic, but that doesn’t leech out the political content. The political content of art has moral meanings and implications – it can afflict the comfortable and it can afflict the afflicted. Most art has progressive and reactionary aspects, and my goal isn’t to eliminate great swathes of art or audience – it’s to drag the reactionary aspects into plain view we can contest them and respond to them with more speech and more art.

What bothers me about Powers’ conclusion is the sense that if we zealously pursue great art, the political and moral questions will take care of themselves. That’s the same confidence that bugged me when Baffler writers would assert that selling-out always leads to terrible music, or when people smugly say the worst thing about that racist joke is that it’s not really funny, or when my high school piano teacher (no Holocaust survivors in her family) opened a recital after Columbine by saying that human beings who appreciated great music would never kill people. In each case, the potential for works marked by artistic greatness and moral shortcomings is sidestepped. But I think it’s that potential – the Bill Maher joke about Hillary Clinton that’s both funny and sexist, the 24 episode (early seasons) that’s gripping and also pro-torture – that most often leaves us, as Alek says, feeling pissed-off and conflicted.

I believe progressivism makes art artistically better, because I believe progressive ideas about people (White people are not intellectually superior, women don’t all secretly want to be raped, poverty is not divine punishment or character-building exercise) hold more truth. But we need to be able to make political judgments of art that may differ from our artistic judgments, even as they influence them. Right-wingers have much more of a shared set of vocabulary on this than left-wingers do. To the extent people on the left have differing values they bring to art or expectations from it, the vocabulary may vary. What I really care about here is not a system for rating the political content of works of art relative to each other – it’s a discourse in which problematic stuff in art gets identified, criticized, and wrestled with, especially when it’s popular, especially when it doesn’t flag itself as controversial. And as we do that, we should notice the patterns in what we see on TV or at the movies and what what we don’t, and we should talk about why.

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One thought on “ARE ARTISTIC STANDARDS ENOUGH?

  1. It doesn’t seem like we’re disagreeing too much, but I do see a gap between what you and I are after here. It’s actually not that surprising. You seem most concerned with developing a framework that allows us to critique the political content of art in such a way that leads to (in simple terms) better art and better politics. I get that. And I completely support that effort, as my previous posts made clear.

    I do occasionally dabble in reading and writing what you might call “criticism,” and it’s certainly an aspect of my personality. But ultimately, I’m always trying to draw lines. To me, making a “moral judgment” means deciding not just what is “moral” to express, but what is moral to do. In my view, a boycott should be as natural a result of moral judgment as a vocal critique.

    That’s why, in proposing that we refrain from making moral judgments about art, I limited that proscription to the question of what is or should be legal, publicized, supported, or participated in. And that is why I consider it hypocritical to vehemently defend the legality of certain forms of art, while just as vehemently urging people not to consume them. I don’t believe it’s hypocritical to “criticize” art, obviously, and that criticism would by necessity include a political and ethical or moral dimension.

    But to me, “moral criticisms of art” — what you suggest — means moral judgment of art. And, as a result, endorsement of “moral” art and rejection/exclusion of “immoral” art. Otherwise what exactly is a “moral criticism?”

    You propose that “the political content of art has moral meanings and implications – it can afflict the comfortable and it can afflict the afflicted.” I’m wouldn’t follow you that far. Art has political and moral content, absolutely. It often has explicit and implicit messages. For example, the most common explicit messages I see right now on TV are plurality and tolerance, and the most common implicit messages I see are “class does not exist” and “everyone aspires to heterosexual norms, if not pairings”). Art can certainly have moral “meanings,” to the extent that it delivers a message to the audience (explicitly or implicitly) about what is “right.” But “implications?” “Affliction?” That language suggests that watching a show that downplays rape causes the audience to downplay rape. Or that watching a show that perpetrates the myth of white male victimhood encourages white males in the audience to identify as victims.

    I think your proposed solution – dragging reactionary ideas into plain view and contesting them, either via criticism (eh) or different art (much better), is the right one. At least, that’s the right way to make more progressive and better art. I don’t believe that such a project has anything to do with making a more progressive society, except in the sense that a flourishing and contested art world makes society better. If 24 dealt with torture humanely, and Modern Family allowed its gay characters to have sexual urges like all the rest of its characters, that would make TV better, but it would not diminish the bloodthirst or homophobia of Americans. Or, rather, we have no reason to think it would.

    I don’t mean to suggest that art and society are disconnected. Just that – unlike economic and military actions, and some political or social actions, the connection is too multivariate to apply “morality.”

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