Burning Off Truth: The Misconception of Modern Criticism
Art exists to express the truth.
When I began working in the arts half my lifetime ago, that was what I believed, and that was what drove me to devote my life to art in whatever way I could.
I believed that art might even be capable of illuminating the truth for me when I didn’t know it, and in many ways, it did.
Art gave me a potent feeling of what the world looks like through the eyes of other people. It gave me an idea of life’s beauty.
And it also gave me an idea of life’s ugliness.
Art teaches us a great deal about the ugliness of life. It teaches us how to look at it with our eyes wide open, and dares us to pass our own judgements.
In doing so, it shows us who we are; how we think.
A great work of art does not pass judgement for the audience. Its morals remain opaque so that ours might be strengthened.
But for many people, art has ceased being a means for them to learn about their own morality, and has instead become a mirror in which they expect to see their own morals reflected.
More and more, people are becoming unwilling to be challenged, and more willing to see those who present them with challenges as agents of evil.
In modern society, the line between a questioning word and an act of aggression is being increasingly blurred, and this climate is reflected often in modern criticism of art.
There is an expectation in the current climate that art will reflect the politics of its audience, and that art will reinforce their beliefs about the world.
Though this belief is not necessarily misguided in its intent, I believe it sets an unhealthy precedent for a society that aims to be founded on honesty and integrity, to say nothing of openness and trust.
First of all, art is not necessarily a political entity.
Art is an emotional entity. It shows the world as it appears to the artist. For some artists, their politics define the way they see the world, but for many others, the emphasis is on what they feel when exposed to an image, or a sound.
This is difficult ground to walk on. An artist cannot take in the whole of the world without finding a few jagged edges.
Life is not clean or fair. Life is often beautiful, but not so often kind.
What then, is the artist expected to do when the world doesn’t express itself in terms of good or evil, or right and wrong?
Do we expect our artists to lie to us and tell us instead that the outside world is exactly what we wish it were?
Many people seem to expect this of an artist.
The most recent trend in the world of criticism, both amateur and professional, seems to be that no work is free of controversy.
Many critics seem devoted to watching films, reading books, and analyzing paintings with the specific purpose of finding something offensive.
Our current climate has influenced a journalistic climate that craves hysteria, which has in turn created a pop cultural climate that only sells if it reflects that hysteria back at us.
A climate of hysteria can only exist if the people believe not only that evil exists, but that evil must be eradicated.
And when that evil is hard to define, our climate of hysteria can only exist so long as people keep looking for an evil to topple.
For many people, art provides an infinite well of evils to destroy.
In many cases, the judgement is fair.
Many lazier artists express a view of the world defined by stereotypes, rather than an expression of what they see around them.
Artists like that should be called out, because the methods they use should be observed honestly.
But it must also be noted that often, what the artist expresses is not what the artist considers to be morally right.
For example, in Martin McDonagh’s excellent recent film, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” one of the characters does many things that are deeply questionable.
The character Jason Dixon is a racist, violent police officer who suffers a major tragedy that leads him to a good deed.
The movie was blasted by many critics for giving a racist character with many foul traits a redemption arc.
Many have even threatened to “boycott the Oscars” if “Three Billboards” wins best picture this year.
This means many people are perfectly willing to punish the artists if they don’t like the art.
It is important to note, however, that the film does not pass judgement on Dixon’s character, nor does it expect its audience to like him. It simply shows who he is and what happens to him.
What this says about the film’s critics, more than anything else, is that they don’t believe a bad person can be redeemed. That when someone does something bad, they cannot become good.
This belief harkens back to the beliefs of the era of McCarthyism, where communists—and former communists—were sought out and purged in this country in the 1950s.
At that time, interestingly enough, while many artists were forced out of work for saying how they felt and what they saw around them, there was a lot of art that reflected the political feelings of the time and pandered to what people wanted to believe about the world.
It was called propaganda, and it was very popular with the state.
Consequently, it wasn’t hard to make, and audiences ate it up.
But propaganda is not, nor can it ever be honesty.
If an artist is expected to express someone else’s worldview for them, then the result can only be propaganda.
And if the artist must fear that they are not saying the right thing, then they can never be honest.
They can only make something that’s easy to stomach, and as author Flannery O’Connor wisely said, “The truth does not change according on our ability to stomach it.”
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