The Limit of Politicizing All the Things

For the weekend, something a little lighter.  Maybe even a bit profound.  Or trite. Quite possibly all of those things.

Speaking of all the things, today’s post inspired by this decidedly awful Washington Post column, in which the author read through all 56 boxes of Woody Allen’s personal archives and discovers the filmmaker is obsessed with teenage girls.

In fairness, I suppose if I put the time and expense into accessing Allen’s archives, I would still want to monetize it even if I learned nothing that everyone didn’t know already.  Allen is an awful person who keeps making the same movie highlighting his awfulness.  The fact that a column with little further to say was published is really the WaPo’s fault.

Nevertheless, despite the fact that I already agreed with the writer, the column did inspire me as an almost textbook example of the tedious social justice-centric criticism that has been swiftly displacing serious artistic analysis even at supposedly top tier outlets like the WaPo.  When the reader is not being bored by the flogging of the horse’s corpse, the author is reaching to take actress Ellen Page out of context:

His screenplays are often Freudian, and they generally feature him (or some avatar for him) sticking almost religiously to a formula: A relationship on the brink of failure is thrown into chaos by the introduction of a compelling outsider, almost always a young woman. Sometimes, this produces a gem, such as ‘Match Point.’ Often it does not. Ellen Page, featured in 2012’s ‘To Rome With Love,” called working with Allen ‘the biggest regret of my career.’

Click on that link and it’s fairly obvious that Page said she regrets having worked with Allen because he’s a skeezy pervert, not that she thought the film they made was bad (even if she did or should think so). The quote comes from her newsmaking Facebook post savaging Brett Ratner for harassing her on set; it’s not a movie review.

Did the author and his editors miss this point because they are no longer able to distinguish between artistic and political judgments?  I don’t know — or care, really — because it reminded me of the many, many, many reviews and columns I’ve read over the past couple of years that seem incapable of making the distinction.

And I suspect that if you’re reading this, you’ve likely noticed this phenomenon also.  The tedious practice of judging art solely through a political lens has long been more prevalent among a certain stripe of conservative cultural critic.  It also happened on the left, but it was far less prevalent, likely because: (a) most art and popular culture is dominated by the left and thus tends to reflect their values in the most broad sense; and (b) there was, until recently, more consensus within the left as to what their values were.

The creeping totalitarianism on the left now has metastasized to the point where progressive critics will accuse conservative critics of judging a movie based on its politics even when it pretty obviously is not true.  (Sonny Bunch also makes this point in the most recent Weekly Substandard podcast).

Again, you’ve probably noticed this too.  So am I getting to a point?  Yes, I’m almost there.

In writing about The Godfather, one of my subtexts was that it is a great film in part because it has complex and perhaps conflicting attitudes toward its subjects and themes.  As I explained in the liner notes to the column: “I felt it was important to argue that The Godfather is a great piece of art (or entertainment at a minimum) because it touches upon deep subjects, but through a lens of human experience that necessarily does not adhere to a particular ideology.”

I derive some hope for the arts and for criticism by generalizing this point.  Quality art — and quality criticism, to a degree — is usually easily distinguishable from propaganda.  To appropriate Justice Potter Stewart, we know it when we see it, whether the “it” is art or propaganda.  True art generally resists the totalitarian impulse, and generally disproves the notion that all actions are political and are to be judged primarily on that basis.  Quality art is more than this, and if we believe in the inherent ability of people to instinctively react to that which captures a larger truth about humanity, we can take some comfort that art cannot be completely subjugated to propaganda.

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