Critics: Endgame

If there’s no earth, there’s no art. How do you engage in cultural criticism at the end of the world?

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | May 2019 | 9 minutes (2,309 words)

It’s a strange feeling being a cultural critic at this point in history. It’s like standing on the deck of the Titanic, feeling it sink into the sea, hearing the orchestra play as they go down — then reviewing the show. Yes, it feels that stupid. And useless. And beside the point. But what if, I don’t know, embedded in that review, is a dissection of class hierarchy, of the fact that the players are playing because what else are you supposed to do when you come from the bottom deck? And what if the people left behind with them are galvanized by this knowledge? And what if, I don’t know, one of them does something about it, like stowing away their kids on a rich person’s boat? And what if someone is saved who might otherwise not have been? If art can save your soul, can’t writing about it do something similar?

The climate report, that metaphorical iceberg, hit in October. You know, the one that said we will all be royally screwed by 2040 unless we reduce carbon emissions to nothing. And then came news story after news story, like a stream of crime scene photos — submerged villages, starving animals, bleached reefs — again and again, wave after wave. It all coalesced into the moment David Attenborough — the man famous for narrating documentaries on the wonders of nature — started narrating the earth’s destruction. I heard about that scene in Our Planet, the one where the walruses start falling off the cliffs because there is no ice left to support them, and I couldn’t bring myself to watch it. Just like I couldn’t bring myself to read about the whales failing to reproduce and the millions of people being displaced. As a human being I didn’t know what to do, and as a cultural critic I was just as lost. So when Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation launched “Covering Climate Change: A New Playbook for a 1.5-Degree World,” along with a piece on how to get newsrooms to prioritize the environment, I got excited. Here is the answer, I thought. Finally.

But there was no answer for critics. I had to come up with one myself.

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Four years ago, William S. Smith, soon to be the editor of Art in America, attended the Minneapolis-based conference “Superscript: Arts Journalism and Criticism in a Digital Age” and noticed the same strange feeling I mentioned. “The rousing moments when it appeared that artists could be tasked with emergency management and that critics could take on vested interests were, however, offset by a weird — and I would say mistaken — indulgence of powerlessness,” he wrote, recalling one speaker describing “criticism as the ‘appendix’ of the art world; it could easily be removed without damaging the overall system.” According to CJR, arts criticism has been expiring at a faster rate than newspapers themselves (is that even possible?). And when your job is devalued so steadily by the industry, it’s hard not to internalize. In these precarious circumstances, exercising any power, let alone taking it on, starts to feel Herculean.

Last week’s bloody battle — not that one — was only the latest reminder of critics’ growing insignificance. In response to several celebrities questioning their profession, beleaguered critics who might have proven they still matter by addressing larger, more urgent issues, instead made their critics’ point by making it all about themselves. First there was Saturday Night Live writer Michael Che denigrating Uproxx writer Steven Hyden on Instagram for critiquing Che’s Weekend Update partner Colin Jost. Then there was Lizzo tweeting that music reviewers should be “unemployed” after a mixed Pitchfork review. And finally, Ariana Grande calling out “all them blogs” after an E! host criticized Justin Bieber’s performance during her show. Various wounded critics responded in kind, complaining that people with so much more clout were using it to devalue them even more than they already have been. “It’s doubtful, for instance, that Lizzo or Grande would have received such blowback if they hadn’t invoked the specter of joblessness in a rapidly deteriorating industry,” wrote Alison Herman at The Ringer, adding, “They’re channeling a deeply troubling trend in how the public exaggerates media members’ power, just as that power — such as it is — has never been less secure.” 

That was the refrain of the weeklong collective wound-lick: “We’re just doing our jobs.” But it all came to a head when Olivia Munn attacked Go Fug Yourself, the fashion criti-comic blog she misconstrued as objectifying snark. “Red carpet fashion is a big business and an art form like any other, and as such there is room to critique it,” site owners Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan responded, while a number of other critics seized the moment to redefine their own jobs, invoking the anti-media stance of the current administration to convey the gravity of misinterpreting their real function, which they idealized beyond reproach. At Vanity Fair, chief critic Richard Lawson wrote of his ilk offering “a vital counterbalance in whatever kind of cultural discourse we’re still able to have.” The Ringer’s Herman added that criticism includes “advocacy and the provision of context in addition to straightforward pans,” while Caroline Framke at Variety simply said, “Real critics want to move a conversation forward.” Wow, it almost makes you want to be one.

I understand the impulse to lean into idolatry in order to underscore the importance of criticism. Though it dates back as far as art itself, the modern conception of the critic finds its roots in 18th-century Europe, in underground socially aware critiques of newly arrived public art. U.K. artist James Bridle summed up this modern approach at “Superscript,” when he argued that the job of art is “to disrupt and complicate” society, adding, “I don’t see how criticism can function without making the same level of demands and responding to the same challenges as art itself — in a form of solidarity, but also for its own survival.” Despite this unifying objective, it’s important to be honest about what in actual practice passes for criticism these days (and not only in light of the time wasted by critics defending themselves). A lot of it — a lot — kowtows to fandom. And not just within individual reviews, but in terms of what is covered; “criticism” has largely become a publicity-fueled shill of the most high-profile popular culture. The positivity is so pervasive that the odd evisceration of a Bret Easton Ellis novel, for instance, becomes cause for communal rejoicing. An element of much of this polarized approach is an auteur-style analysis that treats each subject like a hermetically sealed objet d’art that has little interaction with the world.

The rare disruption these days tends to come from — you guessed it — writers of color, from K. Austin Collins turning a Green Book review into a meditation on the erasure of black history to Doreen St. Felix’s deconstruction of a National Geographic cover story into the erasure of a black future. This is criticism which does not just wrestle with the work, but also wrestles with the work within the world, parsing the way it reflects, feeds, fights — or none of the above — the various intersections of our circumstances. “For bold and original reviews that strove to put stage dramas within a real-world cultural context, particularly the shifting landscape of gender, sexuality and race,” the Pulitzer committee announced in awarding New Yorker theatre critic Hilton Als in 2017. A year later the prize for feature writing went to Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, the one freelancer among the nominated staffers, for a GQ feature on Dylann Roof. Profiling everyone from Dave Chappelle to Missy Elliott, Ghansah situates popular culture within the present, the past, the personal, the political — everywhere, really. And this is what the best cultural criticism does. It takes the art and everything around it, and it reckons with all of that together.

But the discourse around art has not often included climate change, barring work which specifically addresses it. Following recent movements that have awoken the general populace to various systemic inequities, we have been slowly shifting toward an awareness of how those inequities inform contemporary popular culture. This has manifested in criticism with varying levels of success, from clunky references to Trump to more considered analyses of how historic disparity is reflected in the stories that are currently told. And while there has been an expansion in representation in the arts as a result, the underlying reality of these systemic shifts is that they don’t fundamentally affect the bottom line of those in power. There is a social acceptability to these adaptations, one which does not ask the 1 Percent to confront its very existence, ending up subsumed under it instead. A more threatening prospect would be reconsidering climate change, which would also involve reconsidering the economy — and the people who benefit from it the most.  

We are increasingly viewing extreme wealth not as success but as inequity — Disney’s billion-dollar opening weekend with Avengers: Endgame was undercut not only by critics who questioned lauding a company that is cannibalizing the entertainment industry, but by Bernie Sanders: “What would be truly heroic is if Disney used its profits from Avengers to pay all of its workers a middle class wage, instead of paying its CEO Bob Iger $65.6 million — over 1,400 times as much as the average worker at Disney makes.” More pertinent, however, is how environmentally sustainable these increasingly elaborate productions are. I am referring to not only literal productions, involving sets and shoots, but everything that goes into making and distributing any kind of art. (That includes publicity — what do you think the carbon footprint of BTS is?) In 2006, a report conducted by UCLA found that the film and television industries contributed more to air pollution in the region than almost all five of the other sectors studied. “From the environmental impact estimates, greenhouse gas emissions are clearly an area where the motion picture industry can be considered a significant contributor,” it stated, concluding, “it is clear that very few people in the industry are actively engaged with greenhouse gas emission reduction, or even with discussions of the issue.”

The same way identity politics has taken root in the critic’s psyche, informing the writing we do, so too must climate change. Establishing a sort of cultural carbon footprint will perhaps encourage outlets not to waste time hiring fans to write outdated consumers reviews that do no traffic in Rotten Tomatoes times. Instead of distracting readers with generic takes, they might shift their focus to the specifics of, for instance, an environmental narrative, such as the one in the lame 2004 disaster movie The Day After Tomorrow, which has since proven itself to be (if nothing else) a useful illustration of how climate change can blow cold as well as hot. While Game of Thrones also claimed a climate-driven plot, one wonders whether, like the aforementioned Jake Gyllenhaal blockbuster, the production planted $200,000 worth of trees to offset the several thousand tons of carbon dioxide it emitted. If the planet is on our minds, perhaps we will also feature Greta Thunberg in glossy magazines instead of Bari Weiss or Kellyanne Conway. Last year, The New York Times’ chief film critic, A.O. Scott, who devoted an entire book to criticism, wrote, “No reader will agree with a critic all the time, and no critic requires obedience or assent from readers. What we do hope for is trust. We try to earn it through the quality of our writing and the clarity of our thought, and by telling the truth.” And the most salient truth of all right now is that there is no art if the world doesn’t exist.

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I am aware that I’m on one of the upper decks of this sinking ship. I have a contract with Longreads, which puts me somewhere in the lower middle class (that may sound unimpressive, but writers have a low bar). Perhaps even better than that, I work for a publication for which page views are not the driving force, so I can write to importance rather than trends. I am aware, also, that a number of writers do not have this luxury, but misrepresenting themselves as the vanguards of criticism not only does them a disservice but also discredits the remaining thoughtful discourse around art. A number of critics, however, are positioned better than me. Yet they personalize the existential question into one that is merely about criticism when the real question is wider: It’s about criticism in the world.

I am not saying that climate change must be shoehorned into every article‚ though even a non sequitur would be better than nothing — but I am saying that just as identity politics is now a consideration when we write, our planet should be too. What I am asking for is simply a widening of perspective, besides economics, besides race, beyond all things human, toward a cultural carbon footprint, one which becomes part of the DNA of our critiques and determines what we choose to talk about and what we say when we do. After more than 60 years of doing virtually the same thing, even nonagenarian David Attenborough knew he had to change tacks; it wasn’t enough just to show the loss of natural beauty, he had to point out how it affects us directly. As he told the International Monetary Fund last month: “We are in terrible, terrible trouble and the longer we wait to do something about it the worse it is going to get.” In Our Planet, Attenborough reminds us over and over that our survival depends on the earth’s. For criticism to survive, it must remind us just as readily.

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Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.