Monday, November 10, 2014

Ask JKM a Question: Can critics appreciate something that is truly "new?"

A regular reader, David writes:

“I am a long-time reader and here is my question to you. Is it possible for critics to embrace new forms of art?

David, your question is an important one, and something I often attempt to be mindful of. The broadest answer is that critics are people too, and like every other professional, they can run the gamut in terms of how they behave or react.

We do not live in a vacuum, and the works of art that all of us encounter on a daily basis do not arise from the void. Instead, those works look and sound as they do for a reason, and that reason has much to do with historical context.  

So, perhaps it is unlikely in the first place for a critic to be faced with a work of art that is truly new. The form itself may be new, but the art fits in somewhere along a historical continuum.

For example, knowing that J.J. Abrams loves the work of Steven Spielberg as well as the Star Wars films is a crucial doorway to an interpretation of his film-work. 

Or, our understanding that John Carpenter grew up loving Westerns, and was a fan of Howard Hawks, serves an entry point for a deeper analysis of works such as Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) or even In The Mouth of Madness (1994).

In cases such as these, you certainly want a critic watching a film who understands context and history, and can compare and contrast works of art with older ones. We have, literally, thousands of years of literature and over a century of cinema to compare to.  Why not compare and contrast? Why not draw on the past?

Does this mean that critics can’t truly reckon with something new?  

I don’t believe so, though there is always -- I would readily acknowledge -- resistance in some critical circles to new forms of art.  

We saw this resistance with television. 

At first, TV programming was written off as an inferior cousin to film, designed merely to sell detergent. TV was not considered “art” until fairly recently, and mainly that was because of a paradigm shift towards niche programming (like Mad Men, Sons of Anarchy, Dexter, or The Walking Dead).  

It is impossible not to look at those series as works of art, as something akin visual novels. Sons of Anarchy is actually a perfect example. I don't know that there have been, historically, many series about such a conflicted group of anti-heroes and their travails over such a long period, so in that sense it is "new" or "new-ish" (if we take into account The Shield or The Sopranos).  But one way to view the series is as a dedicated re-parsing of Shakespeare's Hamlet. So again, context helps us understand and appreciate a work of art more. It is therefore the job of the responsible critic to bring up comparisons that are helpful.

Today, I would apply the same argument to video games. There are clearly critics out there who refuse to accept the idea that video games can be works of art, in part because of the “interactivity” factor, I presume.  

I would suggest that this is a short-sighted point of view. 

Just one example: Minecraft is inspiring a creative young generation on a scale today that makes the Star Trek fandom of the 1970s and 1980s look like a small gathering of friends. 

Those who love Minecraft create music videos of it, craft their own worlds in the game, and find other ways to express their artistic side, using it as a starting point. For examples, there are adventures of original characters in the Minecraft world, like Stampy or iBallistic Squid, and they are the "creation" of talented individuals inspired by a video game.

But because the video game format is (relatively) young, I don’t see critics rushing to discuss it in terms of its artistry, but rather in terms of its “play-ability.” Certainly, the late (great) Roger Ebert, whom I admire very much, was dead set against the idea of video games as art. This is an example of critics not having nearly enough vision, in my opinion, and not seeing the possibility of a newly-born form.

In just one generation, this argument will look short-sighted, and wrong-headed.

So critics have failings and biases, for certain. 

But good ones seek to recognize those limitations and overcome them. This is a battle I have fought and still re-fight, occasionally. It is all too easy to shit on the new generation of horror films, for instance, either torture porn or found-footage.  But I have discovered that if I let myself engage with the material, there is great artistry in both of those sub-genres. 

Again, however, I contextualize those “new” things in terms of the culture, and in terms of historical context.  

Perhaps the short answer here is that critics need to reference the past to understand the present, must remember the old to assess the new, but sometimes have trouble countenancing forms (like video games) that don’t possess immediate or clear antecedents.  

In defense of critics, broadly, I don’t believe they are alone in this. The very existence of the Internet has raised all kinds of questions for government and businesses, for example.  Is it a public utility? A service? A basic human right? A publisher?  People are still trying to figure that out, just as critics are still trying to figure out video games, and to a degree, television.

Lastly I don't much like the word "critic."  I much prefer to be known as a writer who appreciates art. But generally I think that critics can look at new (or newer) forms in a way that is rewarding, but to do so consistently, one must constantly check ones' own biases at the door.  Some critics are better at that than others, and it has nothing to do with age or generation. '

Instead, it's about practiced objectivity, and self-reflection.

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