In Defense of Aesthetic Criticism

Vox explains the new political pop culture criticism:

But whether it’s superficial or perceptive, today’s pop cultural criticism can’t seem to ignore social issues.

Another excerpt, on how today’s “your fave is problematic” approach differs from Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris’s art-for-art’s-sake critical stylings:

Writers like Kael or Andrew Sarris (who disliked the anti-McCarthyite Western High Noon and preferred its conservative Republican counterpart, Rio Bravo) had a sort of art-for-art’s-sake approach to culture. A work of art — serious or popular — isn’t supposed to be judged by how much you agree with it, but by how it makes you feel and whether it can convince you of its validity. An artist who tried to score some sort of political point was cheating, using indignation to achieve things their own technique couldn’t.

The major problem with political criticism of the sort defended by this Vox piece is that it ages so poorly. D. G. Myers, borrowing from Paul Graham, used to refer to such message-oriented fiction and criticism as partaking of “moral fashion” (CW on that last link, kids: Myers was really not woke); like fashion, social morality badly dates. In thirty or forty years’ time, such moral criticism will look completely circumscribed by its own period’s assumptions and tastes, while criticism and art that are alert to complexities and energies in excess of the univocally ideological will fare better.

Consider, for example, the fate of second-wave feminism. Its basic propositions—that gender is an ideological imposition upon biological sex to enable the exploitation of the female sex by the male; that fiction and criticism should devote themselves to the critique of gender in service to the championing of the biologically female sex—dominated critical values when I was a student but run completely counter to the labile and voluntarist understanding of gender that is today urgently considered correct. I find that ’70-style feminist criticism (and the literature it promoted) tends to come across to the most advanced of my students today as a species of damaging essentialism, if not actually hate speech against the variously gender nonconforming.

Critics completely in tune with today’s progressive (i.e., tomorrow’s regressive) thinking should not delude themselves that they will be exempt from this fate. As Samuel R. Delany comments in “The Politics of Paraliterary Criticism”:

Yes, either by modern standards or the standards of their times, the politics of many of the modernist giants was appalling. But so were the politics of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens and Percy Bysshe Shelley and (for all her admirable feminism) Virginia Woolf. And in tend or thirty-five or eighty-five years, so will the politics of Anne [sic] Beattie, Don DeLillo, Jayne Ann [sic] Philips [sic], Richard Powers, Jori [sic] Graham, and William T. Vollman [sic]. Doubtless so will be mine and [Scott] McCloud’s. The way critics have traditionally dealt with this problem since the academization of literature shortly after World War I (which, for many people, means the invention of literature as we know it day) is by a critical move that McCloud knows well. Indeed, it is necessary for anyone who loves the potential of a genre but wants to see it develop, change, and grow…The division of content from form is a necessary (but only provisional) critical fiction.

Delany’s prophecy proved correct: his ’80s-style pro-sex queer-Marxist third-wave feminist agenda, which led him to support NAMBLA, has lately come under fire as an apology for pedophilia. His “Politics of Paraliterary Criticism” essay is from the mid-1990s, so it has only taken about 25 years for his own politics to come to seem, at least to some, as appalling as those of Pound or Eliot.

Moral convictions alter with the decades, while strong representations of perennial experiences and compelling arrangements of artistic form remain to speak, in astonishingly different ways, to each decade. This is so obviously—and even empirically—true that I do not really see how anyone can deny it, unless you find Oedipus the King incomprehensible or unendurable because we no longer expose infants.

But I would never argue that criticism should not account for the social and political dimension of art, nor does my own critical writing do so. Rather, I argue that only the aesthetic critic can explain ideology as it manifests in and by artistic form. As Delany observes, at a certain level, form begins to function as content, so that if you are not attending to aesthetics you are not really attending to politics either. For this reason, aesthetic criticism can usually provide a more subtle account of a text’s ideology, including its ironies and contradictions, than content-based message analysis can.

For instance: is the Vox article’s prize example of today’s socially-conscious art, Get Out, really so enlightened when you consider that its narrative structure offers mounting incentives for its male protagonist to slaughter—and for the audience to cheer him in slaughtering—its female villains as its emotional climax, or that it accomplishes this incitement of desire-for-misogynist-violence through various formal film devices to collapse traditional conservative signifiers of femininity—domesticity, neoteny—onto whiteness to render both equally sinister and worthy of destruction in the persons of white women? Granted, even the message-analyst should be able to see that the film is a polemic against miscegenation. Not a bad movie—in fact, a very effective one for its genre—but an insalubrious fantasy all the same. It is probably more effective for being an insalubrious fantasy than a polite reflection, as Pauline Kael would no doubt tell us were she here to do so. The latter verdict, by the way, is the kind of thing that aesthetic analysis tends to come up with; it is why Kael could prefer right-wing fare to left-wing fare when the former was aesthetically more vital, as it sometimes is.

I want films and poems and novels to tell me how it really feels to be alive to any given sensibility at any given time, not how moralists insist it should feel.

Finally, you would think it would give the mavens of identity politics pause to reflect that aesthetic criticism was, at least in the English-speaking world, largely the invention of queer and/or female artist-critics before it was routinized by the academic New Criticism—Pater, Wilde, Woolf, Cather. James Baldwin wrote an aestheticist manifesto in “Everybody’s Protest Novel.” He understood that a critical insistence on what his own time saw as moral and political rectitude would harm the ability of black writers no less than (or even more than) white writers to narrate their own visions. Whereas, from Tolstoy to Franzen, whenever straight white men have dominated the literary world, they have insisted on strenuously political social message novels!