Discover more from Political Currents by Ross Barkan
It's Fine to be a Snob
Taste and standards do matter
Credit is due, as always, to the literary critic Christian Lorentzen, who struck at yesterday what I had been feeling for some time. “It’s part of a critic’s job to be hostile to certain cultural artifacts when their taste demands it,” Lorentzen wrote, “it’s another thing to be hostile to criticism or to creativity itself. That’s being a philistine.” The context of Lorentzen’s declaration was a reaction to the Times columnist Pamela Paul’s lamentations over the fallout of American Dirt, a best-selling novel that Paul believes is a victim of, for lack of a better term, cancel culture. I am not going to litigate cancel culture now—my stance is that it very much exists, but impacts the powerless far more than the powerful—but Lorentzen takes the view that American Dirt just isn’t a very good novel and literary critics did their due diligence by panning it. I would agree, but I think his argument wrestles with another great current in the culture that won’t go away: the overwhelming fealty to poptimism and the concurrent indulgence in grievance culture.
A few months ago, I took note of the minor clash between Simu Liu, the star of the Marvel movie Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, and Quentin Tarantino, the famed director. Tarantino lamented, in a straightforward way, the Marvelization of Hollywood. “You have all these actors who have become famous playing these characters, but they’re not movie stars,” he said. “Captain America is the star. Or Thor is the star. I mean, I’m not the first person to say that. I think that’s been said a zillion times, you know, but it’s like, you know, it’s these franchise characters that become a star.”
“If the only gatekeepers to movie stardom came from Tarantino and Scorsese, I would never have had the opportunity to lead a $400 million plus movie,” Liu shot back. “I am in awe of their filmmaking genius. They are transcendent auteurs. But they don't get to point their nose at me or anyone.” He proceeded to add that he loved the “loved the 'Golden Age' too.. but it was white as hell.” (Never mind that Martin Scorsese’s company recently restored a classic 1970s Iranian film or that nonwhite film stars were prominent in Hollywood before the 2010s). For me, what was most intriguing about Liu’s rejoinder was his belief that Tarantino and his ilk “don’t get to point their nose at me or anyone.” They don’t get to. That era has passed. Liu, who starred in a film that grossed $432 million worldwide, must not be critiqued; these are snobs, after all, and what place do they have today? The implication is none at all.
What is it about grievance? It is, among emotional states, the one we profess to want the least, a gorge-drop into outright failure. Once you’re aggrieved, you’re wronged, and the battle back to a state of rightness is one we all, if pressed, would rather avoid. Isn’t it better to feel, at least, you’ve been treated with fairness? Yet the age of grievance barrels on. In politics, in business, in the arts, the titans and would-be titans want you to know they aren’t truly on top, that truer power structures, both visible and unseen, are constraining them, unfairly so. Grievance is never in short supply. And in this culture, the victorious must feel this way. Why? Perhaps because total victory isn’t enough. The critical infrastructure of the twentieth century has been mostly eviscerated. Conglomerates, algorithms and cynical marketing campaigns determine, for the most part, what cultural artifacts the public consumes, whether they be the working-class or the left-liberal professional class. Most news organizations, long ago, laid off their full-time book, film, and art critics. The blog culture that briefly served as a tastemaker for the 2000s music scene, with Pitchfork reigning as hegemon, is long gone. Social media has ensured fan bases are ever ready to eviscerate the lonely critic with a limited following who attempts to critique their favored artist or intellectual property. Poptimism—the belief that pop music and pop artifacts in general are worthy of intellectual engagement and interest—evolved from the reasonable view that the films, TV shows, and music that reach a mass audience can also have great merit to the view that they must have great merit, and to imply otherwise makes you an embittered dissident, virtually without value.
This is where I clear my throat and say I enjoy books, films, TV shows, and musical acts that are enormously popular. I find Harry Styles’ “Watermelon Sugar” and Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” and Sia’s “Cheap Thrills” quite catchy. I like the Star Wars films. I’ve seen several seasons of “Selling Sunset” and can get behind TLC’s offerings. I think it is fine and well to consider Watchmen one of the great novels of the twentieth century, and I thought the 2019 HBO adaptation was strong. If I don’t enjoy mass-market novels and I’ve never picked up Colleen Hoover, I am glad others read them and that there is still a culture built around the written word. In my own line of work, I strive to make art that can be appreciated on a critical level and also appeal to a broad number of people. That was the goal here. If I have a snobbish view on books, I believe it’s good also to have teenagers read novels that were intended for adults, not merely children. But I want YA fiction to be a thriving industry. May a thousand flowers bloom.
The adherents of poptimism, though, do not allow for that nuance. They do not know how to function when any number of critics decide that the films or books or music they venerate are, in fact, not worth immortality. Long ago, there was an influential rock critic press that delighted in tearing down enormously successful musicians and bands. There were problems with this rock critic press—they wrongly dismissed certain albums and they were dominated by white men—but it is important to remember that this culture once existed, that those who achieved pop fame did not also earn reflex deference. In the early 1970s, Paul McCartney, the front man of the most famous and successful rock band in history, found his early solo work savaged by critics. These critics, in my own view, missed the mark—Ram is a great album—yet it must be acknowledged that it’s healthier for a culture when even rock gods can be brought to heel. The Beach Boys, who have grown into my favorite band, were favorite punching bags of the late 60s rock press. This was a year removed from the release of Pet Sounds, one of the great pop albums ever made. If these critics erred, they were still allowed the psychic and commercial space to render judgment, to offer dissent, to contribute to a multi-faceted conversation that made for a comparatively vibrant time.
Today, there is merely the hostility to criticism itself. Pop acts, in this growing monoculture, must be safeguarded. Marvel and superhero films, which have dominated to such a degree that they have mostly stamped out the concept of delivering films created chiefly for adults to mass cinema, should be revered, and their actors, so well-compensated already, must be treated as demi-gods or, at the minimum, very talented individuals on par with the Pacinos, Jacksons, and De Niros. And novels like American Dirt should be deferred to, because how can publicity machines be wrong? All of this may persist, in part, because the critical infrastructure has been eroded and social media has made conformists out of most of us, instilling the holy and ever-present fear of ostracization. There’s also, for even the pop glitterati and their followers, the human need to feel they have not conquered all. They are, in their own minds, the scarred protagonists, the unlikely victors, the anti-heroes. Anti-heroes are often doomed at the start of their quests. If the star believes he is doomed, the success is all the more gratifying, even heroic. What the star has done is not just commendable or remunerative—it is righteous. If the critic is to have value anymore, it is to think clearly and challenge this righteousness with precision. It is to do the necessary job of a critic.