Thursday, July 17, 2014

On Being Done With Writing On "Culture"

The other day WaPo's Alyssa Rosenberg wrote a nice essay about " how we talk about politics is influencing how we talk about culture." It was about some of her own observations about how she thinks the world of culture writing has changed since she started.

I guess I would agree in someways with her take culture and politics but using her example Game of Thrones as an example, I diverge in an important way. As a fan I am totally open to people criticizing aspects of the show and in no way treat it as some holy writ that's beyond anyone's critique. Indeed, where's Strong Belwas or Donal Noye? Those are great characters and it's too bad they got cut out. But what I do find annoying is criticism, that like the bloviating of various political pundits, goes off course and degenerates into what you might call "cultural partisanship."

So for some it's not enough to say "I didn't like this scene", or "I wish they did X." Instead we get people like The Atlantic's Chris Orr calling the show "stupid and offensive" or other critics labeling it "dangerous" as if it's going to warp our children's' minds like so many Judas Priest albums in the 80's. It's at that point where I feel I have to draw the line and dismiss such criticism the same way i think that saying is going to doom Obama's presidency, indeed liberalism itself, (serious political commentators made these very claims!) is ridiculous hyperbole and should be ignored.

And in my view this is a major problem because "cultural punditry" is becoming how a lot of people, especially younger writers, are approaching writing about culture.

A classic example occurred a few weeks ago when the New Republic published an article detailing how Lana Del Rey's new album is a "sad indictment of post-feminism" that also "can be dangerous" and can "send out a sinister message."

Here I was thinking that Ultraviolence was Lana Del Rey's second studio album, instead it appears it was a political argument that failed somehow and will surly cause people to run out and commit school shootings the same way Marilyn Manson's music did.

It's hard for me to respond to this kind of (poorly reasoned) argument because it's not really about art at all. Or at least about how I understand art. Instead it's about art as a political argument. And sometimes art can be that, but sometimes it really isn't. What's the social and political argument of Othello? Don't let your daughter marry a black guy? Kill your wife if you suspect her of infidelity? Don't trust your best friend? Men can't be trusted?

You can write an argument that Shakespeare is making these arguments, but it really doesn't hold up that well at all. After all the tragedy is driven by the fact that Othello is overly suspicious of Desdemona and too trusting of Iago. Othello is an outsider because of his birth and color, but still is one of Venice's best soldiers and gets to marry the daughter or a prominent Senator. Iago's motivations are famously unknown. Thus in Othello trust can be necessary and destructive, men can be dangerous (Iago) but women can be naive (Desdemona) etc. etc.

So no art doesn't have to be a political argument. It can be a lot more than that.

Indeed I'd argue that what great art does isn't tell you want to think, it makes you simply think about stuff. So trust can be an important part of a relationship, but blind trust can be foolish. So the world has it's share of dangerous liars who will try to deceive you like Iago, but also it's Emilia's who will help protect you. Thus Lana Del Rey's music isn't suppose to argue that having your boyfriend punch you is great, she's instead exploring different types of relationships indeed different ways of thinking about what love can be. Love that can make you very sad, love that can feel like being kissed when emotionally you are actually being punched.

These are pretty basic ideas here, it's a shame they've been ignored or forgotten.

In other words I'm open to arguments about why someone thinks King Lear is better than Othello. But I'm going to dismiss someone who calls Othello "stupid and offensive" or "dangerous" or "misogynistic" because Othello kills Desdemona. And why? Well because these plays aren't about politics in the second decade of the 21st Century, they are about a lot more than that.

Which is a long way of saying I'm not going to be reading much cultural criticism for a while. If I want to read about politics I'll read about important people like Hillary Clinton, not unimportant people like Lana Del Rey. And if I want to read about culture I'm more interest in reading about how Lana dodged the dreaded "sophomore slump" and made an even better second album than her first great one.

Also for what it's worth the lyric that "he hit me and it felt like a kiss" is a Phil Spector lyric from the 60's, performed by The Crystals. So yeah Lana isn't saying she likes getting punch by her boyfriend, she could just be referencing pieces of pop culture from previous eras (which she does a lot of). Or doing something else entirely. In fact maybe you should ask the artist her intent instead of making a "sinister" one up for her.

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