What’s the role of the critic in our common pursuit of meaning through culture, and community through taste?
Consumer entertainment offered a lifeline for many people confined to their homes during the coronavirus pandemic. Streaming services mean that enormous libraries of films, TV shows, and video games are available from our living rooms, providing solace and distraction from loneliness and isolation. Meanwhile, online networks facilitate virtual forms of social interaction, including myriad opportunities to air our views through blogs, social media, and merchant websites. While a professional caste still pronounces upon films and other forms of popular culture, the internet has triggered an unprecedented efflorescence of commentary and critical expression from the general public. The vast majority of those engaged in this critical activity do so in an entirely voluntary, unpaid capacity. What motivates people to do this—and what does it mean for the art and craft of criticism?
There is a sense in which the new culture of popular criticism reflects an earlier process within the art world itself. Today, professional critics can be challenged by “Joe Blogs” in the same way that “high” culture was once disrupted by the popular assertion of “low-brow” tastes that lay outside the traditional artistic canon. As with the avant-garde a century ago, one way that many of today’s critics have responded to this challenge is to deploy increasingly outré critical theories. Specialist perspectives that were (more or less) carefully developed within academia can be wielded as blunt instruments by professional gatekeepers anxious to deter the uninitiated masses from trying to horn in on critical debates. Moreover, the aura of esoteric knowledge helps sustain positions of moral or intellectual authority—even if the topic at hand is simply the latest Marvel movie.
At a time of widespread anxiety about “social justice”, socially conscious criticism has come to the fore. Many critics have an earnest desire to advance the common good. However, the profession’s uniform adoption of morally crusading rhetoric is also a form of “occupational closure”: the process whereby those involved in a trade find ways to limit and control new practitioners, in the manner of a medieval guild. The implication is this: in the age of the internet, anyone can write about culture. But not everyone has the special knowledge needed to make the world a better, fairer, and less hateful place when doing so. David G. Hughes has described this phenomenon in psychological terms as a “defence mechanism against the essential impotence of the critical profession and its all-too-bare cultural irrelevance.”
When mainstream critics fail to cater to demand for heterodox perspectives, they provide an opportunity for intellectual entrepreneurs prepared to rebut or ridicule the establishment consensus.
While it is unrealistic to pretend artistic judgement can be entirely divorced from political views—let alone moral principles—at some point, cultural commentary informed exclusively by politics ceases to be criticism and becomes activism. Political commentary makes an important contribution to our appreciation of popular culture. But when writers deliberately blur the lines between criticism and activism, they become the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing. The deceitfulness of such activity inevitably repels many who are not already indoctrinated into the author’s perspective. This becomes a particular problem when the critical establishment lacks “viewpoint diversity” and starts to seem monolithic to outsiders.
In Western societies that are increasingly divided over social values, readers are primed to react negatively if they believe professional critics are closing ranks around an ideologically motivated consensus—either a positive one (The Last Jedi, 2017) or a negative one (Joker, 2019). People who feel lied to, patronised, or manipulated are liable to become alienated from legacy media. And when mainstream critics fail to cater to demand for heterodox perspectives, they provide an opportunity for intellectual entrepreneurs prepared to rebut or ridicule the establishment consensus. This dialectic between critics and audiences is one of several factors driving the “culture wars” that, in recent years, have begun to destabilise Western democracies.
In short, critical anxieties may be exacerbating real-world antagonisms. But there are other reasons why people choose to write about culture on blogs or social media; not everyone is trying to fight a culture war. Many are instead using quasi-public online spaces as the arena for a much more personal process. Reading the views of other people about a shared experience, and articulating our own, can be relaxing—if not outright therapeutic. By helping us organise and process our emotional response, it helps us realise what we find meaningful. Meanwhile, taking the time to reflect on the entertainment we consume is also an important exercise in mindfulness. Streaming services and free-to-play video games are designed in a way that makes it easy to binge on repetitive content for hours or days on end. Overindulging in such activities quickly leads to negative psychological and physical effects. But maintaining a blog, for example, can help stave off the “death of affect”—the depression and ennui that sets in once our overstimulated senses become dull to things we once enjoyed.
And there is another important aspect to this activity, one that is captured in the very term used to describe the forums and message boards that provide its locus: “community”. The search for community helps explain why consumer culture has come to play such a central role in our lives—even before the pandemic kept us at home; and why we spend so much time obsessing about films and other forms of entertainment. It also points to perhaps the most basic function of culture—one which many critics would do well to remember.
For the past fifty years, consumer taste, not participation in a shared cultural inheritance, has come to provide many young people with their sense of stability and identity.
Over the twentieth century, and especially in the decades since the 1960s, Western countries saw the advance of modernist political and cultural attitudes which questioned traditional customs and institutions (like religion and the family) that were inherited from previous generations. Whatever their negative aspects, such institutions had provided a sense of belonging for many millions of people across long stretches of historical time. Their decline, and especially the collapse of religious belief among traditionally Christian populations, has meant that ever-larger numbers of people, most notably in metropolitan areas, have become unmoored: both from local communities that were once organised around church and parish, and from the symbolic world of ideas inhabited by their ancestors.
For the past fifty years, consumer taste, not participation in a shared cultural inheritance, has come to provide many young people with their sense of stability and identity. In his book Whiteshift (2018), political scientist Eric Kaufmann explains the proliferation of countercultural identity groups like hippies, punks, and metallers since the 1960s. Modernist cultural movements like these, which emphasise “novelty, immediacy and diversity of experience”, were “necessarily disconnected from older multi-generational communities of ethnic group and nation.” Young people, especially in urban areas, began to hive off into “lifestyle enclaves”. The cultural commentator Christopher Lasch was an early critic of this process, and he opined that “We are fast losing the sense of historical continuity, the sense of belonging to a succession of generations originating in the past and stretching into the future.” Lasch saw the untrammelled individualism of late capitalism unleashing a Hobbesian war of “all against all”, where the pursuit of happiness was transformed into “the dead end of a narcissistic preoccupation with the self”. Lasch believed this served the economic and political needs of capitalist modernity: once the economy can meet everyone’s basic needs, tastes for new consumer demands must be constantly cultivated by advertising and the media. In a post-Christian society, consumption becomes the answer to loneliness, sickness, and death:
Is your job boring and meaningless? Does it leave you with feelings of futility and fatigue? Is your life empty? Consumption promises to fill the aching void; hence the attempt to surround commodities with an aura of romance; with allusions to exotic places and vivid experiences; and with images of female breasts from which all blessings flow.
The Culture of Narcissism (1979).
Lasch’s analysis might suggest that the constant need to air our views, and to have them validated and projected back to us, evidences a narcissistic impulse—a psychological pathology reflecting a social malady. It also assumes that capitalism uses advertising to brainwash people into consuming worthless content which they do not need, in order to keep them complacent: “The tired worker, instead of attempting to change the conditions of his work, seeks renewal in brightening his immediate surroundings with new goods and services.” Elsewhere, Lasch condemned the “offensive” assumption that cultural radicals “understand the needs and interests of the masses better than the masses themselves.” Nevertheless, at times his views mirrored those of many post-1960s New Left intellectuals who were influenced by Theodor Adorno and the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory, which construed mass culture as a tool deployed by the “culture industry” to mollify the masses and keep them in their place.
Hollywood is not a level playing field, and mass marketing influences what people choose to see. But the general public are not “blank slates” desperate to consume any old rubbish that industry moguls see fit to put in front of them. While advertising and distribution affect our decisions about how to spend our time and money, so too do our pre-existing beliefs, values, and preferences. Thus, while the box office is not the best barometer of artistic merit, it does provide valuable information about which films connect with large numbers of our peers. Such films may have special importance, even serving as a window to the public psyche.
The bonding aspect of the religious life points to something significant about the role that popular culture plays in the lives of people today—especially when they organise themselves into “communities”, in the real world or online.
Since the late nineteenth century, diverse thinkers have considered how art or culture might help fill the void left by God in a secular society. For better or worse, many “millennials”—people of my own generation—now rely upon consumer culture for sense-making where their great-grandparents might have relied on the Bible. At its best, art has the power to give meaning to our lives, providing role models and metaphors which help us understand ourselves and the world around us; and even to express things we already knew but could not otherwise articulate. This applies even to well-realised juvenile works like Harry Potter (“Which house are you—Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, or Slytherin?”). Few would claim that such works (despite their merits) are sufficient to replace religious texts—not least because mortal creators are liable to disappoint exalted expectations. Fans who invest their favourite works with totemic moral significance can feel intense betrayal if, in their eyes, the author fails to uphold the ethical expectations they imagined those works had established. Such an artist might come to be seen as a “false prophet” or heretic, provoking the same rage directed, in a different context, against a once-idolised footballer who leaves one club to join a hated rival.
Extreme forms of “fandom”—whether in sport or other fields—assume many of the behaviours associated with religious observance. This points to another important corollary between religion and culture. Religions are not only important for their cosmologies—the intellectual and metaphysical systems which purport to explain the nature of reality. The sociologist Emile Durkheim explained that religions also bind people together in moral communities, uniting adherents through ritual in a common life based around shared ideas of the sacred. This is more than can be claimed for most forms of cultural expression. But the bonding aspect of the religious life points to something significant about the role that popular culture plays in the lives of people today—especially when they organise themselves into “communities”, in the real world or online.
People crave to be around others who value the same things they do. We assign value to our cultural tastes, which is why they are such an important foundation for friendship—and not just within “lifestyle enclaves”. It matters to us that our friends like the same things we do, and it would be hard (if not impossible) to be friends with someone with whom we have little or nothing in common. The philosopher Sir Roger Scruton explained why this happens: that a preference becomes a value when it matters to us deeply whether others share and accept it.
Our aesthetic preferences become values just as soon as we find ourselves in them – just as soon, in other words, as they become part of the attempt to create a place for ourselves in the world, and to situate ourselves among our fellows.
The Aesthetics of Music (1997)
This means that aesthetic preference—taste—is not merely narcissistic or inward-looking. It also has a social purpose. Each of us can recall the flush of excitement we feel when realising we are in the company of someone who loves something which is deeply important to us. So, when someone shares their aesthetic preferences, they are not necessarily seeking attention or validation (although this certainly happens). They might just be looking for community—“to situate ourselves among our fellows”.
The present era is not the first time that social change has disrupted established norms and attitudes. In early nineteenth-century Britain, many commentators were alarmed by the social dislocation resulting from rapid industrialisation and urbanisation, when great masses were uprooted from rural regions where their ancestors had lived for generations. In this context, the poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge became perhaps the first writer to engage with the public role of humanist intellectuals in industrialised societies. Coleridge argued for the importance of a class committed to “the harmonious development of those qualities and faculties that characterise our humanity.” Besides a small number of intellectuals working at the “fountain head of the humanities”, Coleridge advocated a much more numerous order who were:
[D]istributed throughout the country, so as not to leave even the smallest integral part or division without a resident guide, guardian, and instructor; the objects and final intention of the whole order being these – to preserve the stores, to guard the treasures, of past civilization, and thus to bind the present with the past; to perfect and add to the same, and thus to connect the present with the future; but especially to diffuse through the whole community, and to every native entitled to its laws and rights, that quantity and quality of knowledge which was indispensable both for the understanding of those rights, and for the performance of the duties correspondent.
On the Constitution of Church and State (1830)
For Coleridge, intellectuals should aspire to preserve, improve, and pass on the achievements of past generations. In doing so, they would help maintain the compact between the dead, the living, and the unborn: the same topic which, 150 years later, concerned Christopher Lasch.
Coleridge saw this responsibility devolving to a class of specialists he dubbed the “clerisy”, who (reflecting the religious culture of the time) bore an intimate relationship to the established Church. As society has become more secular, the power and influence of religious clergy has continued to decline. But intellectuals—those whose work begins and ends with secular ideas—have come to play an ever-greater role in directing social affairs. After Coleridge’s death, one of the most prominent thinkers to engage with his concerns, including the social function of intellectuals, was the liberal icon John Stuart Mill. But Mill conceived a rather different role for the intellectual than the Coleridgian one outlined above. For Mill, intellectuals were an elite whose special knowledge and insight enabled them to point the way to a brighter future.
No government […] ever did or could rise above mediocrity, except in so far as the sovereign Many have let themselves be guided […] by the counsels and influence of a more highly gifted and instructed One or Few. The initiation of all wise or noble things, comes and must come from individuals; generally at first from some one individual. The honour and glory of the average man is that he is capable of following that initiative; that he can respond internally to wise and noble things, and be led to them with his eyes open.
On Liberty (1859)
Obviously, some inventions and discoveries are made by individuals. But we are misled by a natural tendency to imagine that complex systems must have been designed by some conscious mind. In ages past, it was generally believed that things like language, or the human body, were the product of intelligent design. But they were in fact the outcome of unconscious processes of evolution.
The self-flattering vision of today’s intelligentsia is more akin to Mill’s perspective than that of Coleridge. Although some modern intellectuals see themselves as custodians of a fragile and precious cultural inheritance, many instead behave as if they belong to an anointed elite tasked with upbraiding the benighted masses. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this places them on a collision course with the preferences and attitudes of ordinary people.
Critics are a special kind of intellectual, interested in works of human creativity: and they differ from intellectuals in other fields because they address subjects that are of direct and ready interest to the general public. Most of us don’t spend our leisure time studying economic history or analytical philosophy, and choose instead to watch films, read books, or attend exhibitions. This means that cultural critics can be more readily “held to account” than intellectuals working in fields which are comparatively insulated from public feedback, even if those fields also, in the end, affect everyday life. Critics are influenced by the same types of trends and fashions as other intellectuals, but their public-facing position means they are more likely to find themselves on the “front lines” when those ideas come into conflict with the beliefs and values of the public at large.
Most of today’s critics are less influenced by the ideas of Lasch, Adorno, and the New Left than were culture writers of the previous generation. Indeed, whereas left-wing baby- boomers were more likely to hold mass culture in disdain, millennial critics have “turned Adorno on his head”, and commonly solicit the favour of corporate America while lobbying for established brands and franchises to adopt their favoured causes. As such, the two perspectives appear to have diametrically opposed attitudes towards popular culture—alternately the enemy or agent of social progress. But they in fact share a low opinion of the consumer as a mindless sap, prey for indoctrination by elites. Both strategies are ostensibly conceived to advance the cultural interests of ordinary people. But neither literary guerrilla warfare “exposing” a popular film’s pernicious ideology, nor proxy political activism conducted via mass culture, are genuinely conducive to the public interest.
Critics are right to believe that culture should be an egalitarian and moral force. But this does not mean it should serve as a way to further political or other partisan concerns. Following Coleridge, the Victorian critic Matthew Arnold held that “men of culture are the true apostles of equality”:
The great men of culture are those who have had a passion for diffusing, for making prevail, for carrying from one end of society to the other, the best knowledge, the best ideas of their time; who have laboured to divest knowledge of all that was harsh, uncouth, difficult, abstract, professional, exclusive; to humanise it, to make it efficient outside the clique of the cultivated and learned, yet still remaining the best knowledge and thought of the time, and a true source, therefore, of sweetness and light.
Culture and Anarchy (1869)
Arnold’s “men of culture” were not activists or propagandists, but educators, conduits of knowledge and learning. Education is intended to cultivate the mind so that, as we grow, we become better equipped to engage with and understand the complex works that have been judged by successive generations as the best of human culture. One of the reasons why a series like Harry Potter can experience such phenomenal success is that most children are able to spontaneously generate an imaginative connection with its universe and characters. In that sense, the barrier to entry is lower than reading Shakespeare—an experience that requires additional investment, but which provides richer and more enduring rewards. It is by following this tried and tested path that people move to new stages of intellectual life.
Each generation is impelled to interpret and add to its cultural inheritance, and critics contribute to that process. Professional critics exert themselves on behalf of others by engaging with a wide variety of works. Traditionally, people have trusted critics to help them direct their valuable time and attention where it can best be expended; and have relied on their commentary and analysis to help them understand the greatest works of the day in all their richness. This gives critics power. They can encourage some trends and movements, and discourage others. This can have significant long-term consequences, establishing or burying the reputation of individual artists and even entire schools. Ultimately, this shapes the story each generation tells about itself.
Critics have the opportunity to cultivate public taste, and in doing so, they can play a vital role in the endeavour to build a more cultured, more civilised society.
Through taste we strive to realize the implied community which gives sense to the aesthetic experience: our matching of thought to thought and image to image is also a matching of person to person, the active creation of the first-person plural to which we aspire.
The Aesthetics of Music (1997)
Spontaneous efforts to share aesthetic preferences and form “communities” around meaningful stories evince a positive human instinct towards the “first-person plural”. That is the implied community that provides a stable basis for other necessary activities, such as politics, whose dynamics might otherwise pull us apart. But if culture is treated merely as politics by other means, those communities start to fracture. The knowledge and passion of critics are better applied for a nobler purpose. — Edward Weech