Criticism

A little meta-criticism

I grow suspicious when someone praises a work of art by saying “It’s not about X, it’s really about Y,” where X is the immediate subject matter and Y is some lofty theme that is supposedly embedded in the subject matter. The problem I have with this form of praise is that it can be applied to anything, anytime, because a critic can always claim to have identified a deeper theme anywhere; and that’s not to say that thematic connections are always fabricated by the critic, but simply that themes of sufficient generality do have apparent manifestations everywhere – that almost anything in life can be seen as comment on impermanence, or love, or hubris, or whatnot, if you really want to look at it that way. It seems to me that critics wax enthusiastic about the implicit themes in a work of art when they happen to like the work, but in pointing to such themes as the basis for their approval of the work, critics mix up cause and effect: it is because they like the work that they feel compelled to construct a justification for their belief in its aesthetic superiority, and in the making of this justification, they invariably discover a connection between the work and some theme that would confer importance upon it. For example, there could be a guy next to me and I hear him burp. Now, my previous interactions with this person, along with his impeccable reputation, may have convinced me that he is a great artist, and there may be something in his particular style of eructation, which when assessed with immense charity, sounds somehow captivating: I liked the burp. I could then go around saying that this burp wasn’t really about the release of gas from the stomach. Actually, it was about gender stereotypes. It was a parody of machismo, it was a daring provocation that challenged listeners to reconsider the very idea of crassness. Did it sound unpleasant or make you uncomfortable? It was supposed to do that. Good art pushes boundaries. Would you say the artist should have excused himself? You prude! You anti-belcher! Are you blind to the hidden meaning of this gaseous release? It was a deep burp! Now of course if the critic didn’t like the burp, the critic can just as easily marshal one of those negative tropes that may be applied anywhere, anytime: yes, the artist burped, but he didn’t burp in an interesting way. The burp was shallow, its style overwrought, its content conventional. The burp was not a paradigm-redefining burp – it didn’t tell us anything new about the act of burping, or about the world in which we burp. What theme did it grapple with beyond the narrow domain of dyspepsia? This was a burp that did not truly come from the artist’s gut, er…. well… Yes, yes, the artist burped; yes, in fact he’s a virtuoso of the art of burping, but he does it mechanically – there’s no feeling in it, no soul, only hot air!

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