Friday, 22 February 2013

How Should We Criticize Art?

An Art's Four Campfires Redux

While looking at my stats today I discovered that a computer game blogger has recently picked up my post about Art's Four Campfires, in which I explain Scott McCloud's idea that there are four distinct sets of values which motivate artists and shape the work they create. I was excited that someone was finally trying to answer the open question I had about how one could apply these campfires to computer games; while I sometimes play computer games (I recently played through Bastion and quite enjoyed it), I do not have nearly enough experience with them, or with even close to enough genres, to be able to talk intelligently about their form in a way that a Four Campfires analysis would require. However, I could not remember why I had found McCloud's idea interesting in the first place, so I re-read my other posts on the issue (here and here) and realized that the Four Campfires can support, and provide a partial vocabulary for, the kind of discussions of art (books, movies, etc.) that I would like to see happen instead of the ones that often do happen.

In case you either forget or weren't around when I first wrote my first Four Campfires post , I'll encourage you to take the link back (here again) and skip to the summary I gave of the Four Campfires. (They have bold headings and are rather short, so don't be daunted by the length of the post.) For the rest of this post I will assume that you know what the Campfires are.

The first thing I want to note is that the Four Campfires are of very little use in a proper literary criticism setting.* While once upon a time literary criticism was, on an institutional level, at least partly about deciding which works are good and which works are bad, which works canonical and which works non-canonical, that is no longer the case. So in my employment of the Four Campfires, I am departing from my department, so to speak, at least temporarily, because I think the Four Campfires are most useful when making value-judgements.

One of my pet peeves when reading a discussion of art (whether books, television, movies, etc.) is when the critic devalues the art for failing to do what that critic wants the art to do. So, for instance, if a person criticizes a television show because its storyline is incoherent or because its visuals are sub-par, I can get annoyed. Specifically, I get annoyed when someone criticizes a work because it fails to do something other than what the work appears to be trying to do. If a work seems guided by a Classicist ethic, supported by Animism, then expecting it to push boundaries is unfair. If a work seems guided by a Formalist or Iconoclastic ethic, then expecting it to have engaging characters or a coherent plot is unfair. Enjoying a particular experience more than another is perfectly fine, but to criticize a work for being a different kind of work than you enjoy is not.

I do not, however, think that criticizing is never warranted.** I think there are two kinds of situation—and, joyously, they are frequent—where criticizing is warranted. The first is when a work is seems to be attempting a particular goal—say, an Animist one—and fails to do so. In this case, you can discuss how the work seems to fail at its own goal. As an example, many people feel that shows like Lost and Battlestar Galactica failed in their final seasons to tell compelling stories, and I would take compelling storytelling to be a primary goal of both shows. Alternately, I found 300 to be an astoundingly ugly movie; my brother assures me that the composition of each frame is nearly perfect, and so if I can take that to be an indication that the director had Classicist goals, I can feel comfortable criticizing 300 for its failure to meet those goals. (I could of course be wrong in that assessment—maybe I have poor taste—but in that case my criticizing will be inaccurate rather than misplaced.)

The second kind of situation in which criticizing makes sense is when a work has negative ideological content. It is in this sort of situation that criticism overlaps with criticizing: in literary criticism, one of the things we do most often (though there is a lot more to it than this) is read texts as embodying and/or containing ideological content. The contention is that absolutely all texts have some discoverable relationship to ideology (or, if you don't like ideology, to worldview or cosmology or belief). Not all authors intend to make claims about the universe with their texts, but nonetheless their texts do make some claims. One of the functions of criticism is to uncover this content. Often scholars in literary criticism will make explicit or implicit value judgements about that content. In this sense, the criticism of and the criticizing of a text overlap.

For instance, I find 300 an ugly movie, but if I'm going to criticize it (which I sometimes do) I'm probably going to do so on ideological grounds. To wit, it is not only sexist, but it also overwrites classical history in order to disguise its misogyny. Furthermore, I often make long arguments about the movie's abuse of history in order to promote ideals, obviously of an “American” character, that are mainly used to justify imperial violence. (I had written out that argument in a draft this post, but it took up too much space and is not necessary for this conversation). Whether or not the director intended to justify American foreign violence is beside the point; 300 does it anyway and someone needs to criticize it for doing that. If a piece of art is sexist, racist, homophobic, or whatever, criticizing the text for that ideology is warranted regardless of the artist's goals. That said, I will not criticize a work for failing to espouse the particular claims about the world or ask the particular questions about the world that I would like it to espouse or ask; my criticizing is reserved for what the work does do or tries but fails to do, not what I would have like it to do.

To summarize, I get annoyed when people criticize art for not attempting the same goals, or holding the same aesthetic values, as themselves, but I am all for criticizing art for failing to achieve its apparent goals or for espousing, intentionally or otherwise, dangerous ideology. To bring this back to McCloud's idea (which was really just a pretext for ranting on this topic), what I like about the Four Campfires are that they produce a vocabulary for the kinds of values which an artist can try to achieve; if I were to start criticizing the Four Campfires (more than I already have), I would say that they simply do not produce enough of a vocabulary. But maybe they don't have to. Maybe they are just a starting point.

(And now that I've thought this through, I'm noticing that I'm doing for aesthetics in this post what I tried to do for ethics in a recent set of posts. Oddly—or maybe not oddly, since aesthetics and ethics are different things—I am much more willing to come to clear conclusions in art than I am in morality. What is odd, I guess, is that in aesthetics I derive my certainty from ethical grounds, which I shouldn't be able to do when I am less certain about those very ethics. But it's only an apparent contradiction, not a real one; while I am not sure how I can be certain of particular ethical beliefs, I know that I am certain of them.)

*On the note of number, I'm not sure whether to treat “the Four Campfires” as plural (because there are four) or singular (because it's one conceptual tool). I'm going with plural because it makes more sense syntactically, but it's maybe worth pointing out that I'm thinking about it as a singular tool. Also, if I missed an instance of singular use when editing, at least you'll know why it was singular in the first place. It has nothing to do with my usual habit of writing too quickly and not editing it enough.

**I am using “criticizing” instead of “criticism” because, in my vocabulary, “criticism” is the kind of thing that scholars do in English departments, and it bears more resemblance to the colloquial meaning of “analysis” than to the colloquial meaning of “criticism.” I repeat that reviewing books and determining their artistic merit is not that discipline's primary function. I realize the verbal "criticizing" is awkward but it's all I've got.

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