Artillery Row

Criticising the critics

Ideology has triumphed over art

When I was a teenager and trying to find out about film, I used to read movie reviews on The World Socialist Web Site. There, any film was reviewed on whether it offered an effective critique of existing capitalist power relations — even Ken Loach was seen as falling short sometimes — as opposed to whether a movie was, you know, any good. 

In 2022, it sometimes feels like all art reviewing has become the World Socialist Web Site — only in that case at least it had the honesty to make its politics explicit in its name. Previously engaging review sites such as Vox, The Guardian and The Onion AV Club have all become The World Social Justice Website, and they are now assessing works in all disciplines in line with wider social justice criteria. Does the artwork highlight social justice issues? Does it adequately meet Equality and Diversity briefs? Is the artwork, in one of the words of the age, problematic?

The director’s ethnic identity plays no role in your enjoyment of the movie

As an example, take this review of an episode of House of the Dragon, which describes Game of Thrones as seeing everything through a “regressive colonialist lens”, condemns the “killing of one of a handful of queer characters”, and then goes on to mention the backlash to the backlash against discussing representation of Game of Thrones. The whole thing is like encountering a slightly tortured undergraduate who, whilst having some interesting ideas, hasn’t quite worked out how to organize them, and is pretty much useless as a review to anyone who does not think it is the primary role of a Game of Thrones prequel to advance anti-colonialist discourse. It’s a show about dragons.

Complementing this is an excessive critical emphasis on who is making an artwork. Take the recent reboot of the 1990s horror classic Candyman. The film was, as much critical reception was keen to tell us, the first film to open at number one at the US box office directed by a Black woman. Excellent. First of many, we hope. Unless you were enough of a rube to sit there in the cinema, slurping your Coke Zero and telling other patrons “this was made by a Black woman, you know!”, the ethnic identity of its director plays no role in your enjoyment of the movie, however. It certainly doesn’t change that the film was bad — muddled, poorly paced and above all, fundamentally unscary; unlike the original, a terrifying work of urban horror which was, I feel obliged to point out, made by a Jewish bloke.

This new critical paradigm of identity before output also leads to artworks themselves being overhyped. There’s a currently fashionable genre which I would call “Guardian Art”, works like Fleabag and I Hate Suzie. Usually centred around a female protagonist, such works are distinguished by sexual frankness, underwritten male characters and a somewhat on-the-nose thematization of social justice issues. They are invariably reviewed extremely favourably in, well, The Guardian. Whilst they all have substantial merits there’s something convenient about their being hailed as great works whilst they so precisely match up with current media discourses about identity. This is symptomatic of an arts sector with much more porous links to cultural theory than before. To paraphrase an acquaintance, such works have an air of the “filmed dissertation”.

I’m not a homophobic weirdo, but I don’t like rom-coms

Creativity is democratic; a pauper can make a work as transcendent as an aristocrat. To which the common social justice response is yes, but historically only certain privileged groups have been allowed to speak. The task of culture now is to give historically marginalised groups centre stage. A noble aim — we should hear from different voices. That bears no impact on the critical reception to what they say, however. If a person with a protected identity comes up with a turkey, there’s no prejudice involved calling it so. We can see the absurd endpoint of the idea that not liking something is an expression of prejudice in the director of the recent gay-filmed romantic comedy Bros blaming “straight people” for its poor box office and saying “anybody who isn’t a homophobic weirdo” should go see it. Personally, I’m pretty sure I’m not a homophobic weirdo, but I do admit that I don’t like rom-coms.

The whole problem comes, like so many things on the liberal left these days, from a lack of pluralism. Due to their own lack of intellectual diversity, the people writing these reviews are apparently unable to see why someone could like films and also not share in a wider social justice project. It’s absolutely fine, when reviewing an artwork, to consider wider social concerns in your assessment, but to make them the determining factor in your verdict means that review is only of use to someone who shares your world view entirely — and I mean entirely, because the reviews are not just slanted liberal left but to a highly specific part of it.

This issue doesn’t arise if we review instead on the basis of how effective and enjoyable a piece of work is. I’m not advocating anything more revolutionary than that. Such a utilitarian definition of the critic’s role has to be preferable than where we are now, caught in a hopeless tangle between “Is this thing good?” and “Do I approve of its wider politics?” It’s very often, with honourable exceptions, impossible to tell whether a reviewer honestly likes an artwork or thinks they should be seen to like it. The one person who has to be clear about that is a critic.

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