Thursday, October 1, 2009
You know that saying, “everyone’s a critic?” It’s truer than ever now that everyone has a billion platforms from which to mouth off about whatever strikes their fancy. The only problem is what passes for criticism these days.
Take NPR writer John Powers’ assessment of Mad Men. He begrudgingly enjoys the show thanks to the multifaceted Joan character rising above the show’s glaringly false authenticity. He hopes “young people don't actually think Mad Men captures what things were like back then.” As if that matters.
Mad Men is not too glum—if anything, it’s funnier than ever this year—and its narrative effortlessly explores psychology and philosophy more than textbook history. But even if Powers and his ilk are right that the series fails to capture the ostensible optimism of the early ‘60s, this is not a valid criticism. Art is not supposed to do what you want it to. Art fails on its own terms.
It seems we pick up the practice of criticism—at first anyway—from the media and prominent critical personalities like Roger Ebert. Nowadays, Ebert’s reviews tend to tip toward plot description and away from critique, while his fevered blog posts feature far more fallacies—converse accident, red herring, non sequitur—than they should. Meanwhile, The Daily Show is such a zeitgeist icon because it’s one of the only news shows—yes, geezers, The Daily Show reports factual news stories—that capitalizes on a vast video archive to visually convey contradiction and hypocrisy, from Glenn Beck's assertion that Obama is racist and his simultaneous retraction to any number of social conservatives caught up in sex scandals. Finding a violation of one’s own values? That’s what criticism is all about.
Amateur criticism has really taken root in the reality competition subgenre. American Idol, Top Chef, Project Runway and the rest dedicate vast portions of screentime to counterfeit criticism, cotton in sheep’s clothing. “Too pitchy, dawg” is not helpful or funny. But Runway frustrates me most, with its judging panels theoretically critiquing physical objects, tangible pieces of art, the way we all do at museums or the movies. So it’s all the more trying when Nina Garcia tells Gordana she wanted something less wearable, or when the panel tell Uli they wanted to see more prints. The artist is not beholden to her critics; the responsible critic is beholden to the constraints established by the artist.
To the non-solipsist, “It worked for me” or “I just didn’t like it” are meaningless. For instance, in my view, The Brothers Bloom cultivates suspicion in its audience, thereby invalidating its attempts at sincerity. Ergo, it’s not a complete success, but the valuable criticism is in the analysis, not the final grade.
Gore Vidal recently made waves with his assertion that Americans “have emotional responses” in place of critical thinking. Surely he doesn’t think his blanket is absolute, but the point stands. Television criticism, even among my favorite critics, often descends into a half-baked justification for the simplest of immediate reactions. When it comes to sitcoms, it’s just an appreciation of the best jokes.
It’s high time to bury the boredom criticism as well. If you’re bored during one of Rivette’s marathons or even a 50-minute episode of Mad Men, it has more to do with you than the work. Of course, boredom can stem from a piece’s needless repetition or monotony. But the “it was too long” attack needs a sturdy reinforcement.
All this righteous finger-wagging is exhausting. It’s just that there are plenty of logical arguments against Mad Men or 30 Rock without resorting to irrelevant gripes like “all style, no substance” or “too many guest stars." If you want to attack Mad Men for being too preoccupied with presentation, it helps to move beyond the surface yourself.