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The War on Art: The rise of criticism for criticism’s sake

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AKA Being an Artist Ain’t For Sissies

Booyah!

The first year of living as a writer has brought into focus a struggle that I was unaware of until I was completely immersed into an artist’s life – the write life, as I call it. There is an assault, if not a full-fledged war, on much of the art that inspires me, speaks to me, and brings love and grace to my world. Hell, I hated to even type the words “war on art” as headlines today overuse that phrase for anything and everything.

It doesn’t matter the medium or genre, either. Music, film, books, blog posts (check the comments – especially by Lara Croft), hell even Facebook, are being pelted with criticism just for criticism’s sake. It’s not just the blowhards and media whores doing it either. There are people whom I respect which are participating in this, too. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion, but this latest trend is making an environment where artists are becoming afraid to do their art the way they would normally do it. They are afraid to describe a man as black for fear of offending someone, where an actual black man may not find it offensive.

Who is “they?” I’m talking about folks who have become “sensitized” to social justice issues and then expect that never ever should any of those “isms” appear in art, ever. Because, you know, art never gets dialogue started about real issues. Because, you know, art isn’t a reflection of real life or imagined life. Because, you know, every piece of artwork, story, film, song should be non-offensive, empty of transgressive characters, actions, or themes. It should only be what these critics say it should be.

Case in point: the meme about the actress playing Harriet Tubman in the film ABRAHAM LINCOLN, VAMPIRE HUNTER. People are upset that the portrayal of Tubman by Biracial Danish actress is too unrealistic. Because, you know, Abraham Lincoln was a vampire hunter. IT’S FICTION, FOLKS. If, for instance, the film was on Tubman’s life – more biographical, I would say, then, yes, the film should reflect more of reality. To me, the filmmaker in ABRAHAM…HUNTER is telling the audience that he felt Tubman was a beautiful person. He does that with imagery. Much as he makes Abraham Lincoln a badass and not the neurosis fighter for which deep historical understanding has taught us.

Imagine, if you will, if any of the great artists of yore had such constraints upon them. We wouldn’t have work like Huckleberry Finn, Frankenstein, Little Women, most of Shakespeare, In Cold Blood, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, 1984, To Kill A Mockingbird, and Of Mice And Men. The list could go on and on.

I’m cognizant and appreciate that everyone has their opinion. I don’t wish to stifle it. I wish to elevate it to a point where they are having a conversation and not a shouting match. I want it to bring art to the forefront, not throw it back to the Stone Age. Couple such prolific criticisms for criticism’s sake powered by the tubes and you have all this Art Gestapo opinion smeared all over the place making an unnecessary stink, much like any sort of waste left to abandon.

It's my art, and I'll do it as I like

The internet is fabulous.  It allows people to seek out things they like, don’t like, give a look, have a listen, and then—here’s the often missing piece:  critically think for themselves. Those that THINK they are thinking critically and then extort their opinion and believe their ideas are the only ones which are right, are much like the principal in Ferris Buehler’s Day Off.  (I really wanted to think of some metaphor which was more profound, but Ed Rooney will do the job.)  Ferris is like the artist, in that he knows the best thing for him and his friends. Pretend that art is the mental health day that Ferris takes off. The opinion of Ed Rooney disallows that. But Ferris takes the day, the artist makes the art. Ed Rooney spends all his time discrediting and trying to catch Ferris “being bad.” These critics for criticism’s sake do the same thing. They want to discredit the art, the artist, and force the work to be as they believe it should be.

I felt this battle most recently while editing my current work in progress, SECOND THOUGHT. In the margins are little notes to myself “be careful,” or even “check your privilege.” Why did I write those notes to myself? I envision being called on the carpet by these new breed of reviewers – the criticism for criticism’s sake crowd – about the characters in my story and why they happen to be who they are. The way they are is why the story happens. People’s faults, bad choices, each and every action has a reaction. Cause and effect. It’s the same with all stories and all art. But, what I realized was that I wasn’t staying true to my art. I wasn’t making, as in the words of Neil Gaiman, a work for which I could be proud. My excitement to create was being tempered by what I perceived would be the reaction by certain crowds and or individuals.

It's my story, I own it. Not you.

When this epiphany landed on me, I heartily scratched out “be careful” on the manuscript and wrote “fuck you.” I will not bow to some perceived criticism. I will not temper my themes and intent because I might offend someone. If I made you feel something – good or bad – great! I did my job. Anyone who wants to criticize that can be prepared for me to not give a flying rat’s ass. My hope is that all writers, musicians, filmmakers, and artist’s choose the same attitude.

A conversation was started on this topic over at the LiveJournal Blog of one of the writer’s whose work and worth ethic I highly admire: Caitlin R. Kiernan. Go over there and read that, too. Look for more from Kiernan in the weeks to come, I’m sure she’s just getting started.

As am I.

 

 

 

Published inAnd Sometimes There Is PoliticsSocial Action WritingSupporting All ArtistsWriting

4 Comments

  1. Thank you. I needed to read this tonight. I think most of my hold up has been that fear of bad reviews. I mean, I want people to like what I write. No one enjoys criticism. And it is even harder to swallow when it proves to be the opinion of someone who is suffering from a bad day. I’d rather it be constructive, if it has to happen. At least that way I can learn from the wounds it creates upon my artist-self.
    Maybe now, I can get back to doing something I love instead of wallowing in what-ifs.

  2. Kris Kris

    Oh I love this. Fuck careful, and the demon it rode in on. I think you’re a really good writer, and I’m not saying that because I’m already excited that one day I’m going to have a signed copy of a book actually written by someone I know. I’m saying it because I’ve read stories that at first I wondered, why did she stop here? Because, it was the perfect place for your imagination to kick in, to think about it. Edgy and gutsy is what makes a writer. Careful? No. And we love it.

  3. janaya janaya

    I need to stop letting “be careful” keep me from releasing the story I’ve needed to write for a long time.

    • Yes, you do. Get it out. Hot, heavy, raw, and real.

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