Neal Gabler – The Observer, Sunday 30 January 2011
A refusal to heed the advice of highbrow cultural critics is nothing new. But when the public can quickly share their own – different – views on Twitter, Facebook, myDigg and other social media, is criticism dead?
Late last year there was a confluence of critical opinion in America the likes of which the nation hadn’t seen in years. Every single film critic in the traditional media – 350 “best” lists, the ads boast – seemed to anoint The Social Network, director David Fincher’s semi-fictionalised account of the founding of Facebook, as the movie of the year, maybe even of the decade. Every single literary critic in the traditional media seemed to agree that Jonathan Franzen‘s Freedom, his saga of a dysfunctional American family, was the novel of the epoch. And just to make it three for three, just about every television critic in the traditional media seemed to genuflect before Martin Scorsese’s Boardwalk Empire, an HBO series that depicts the depredations of a mob kingpin in Atlantic City during Prohibition.
This is an extraordinary bounty of greatness in such a short time, though what is really extraordinary is the extent to which critics seemed almost to collude in issuing their superlatives. Could it be they were joining forces to assert their authority at a time when that cultural authority is under siege?
There is, of course, nothing terribly novel about a critical consensus. In America nowadays, critics usually travel in packs, afraid to stray lest they be left wandering by their lonesomes outside the conventional wisdom. What is novel is the vehemence of this consensus, the insistence that these things were not just good but somehow the very best, and the way in which this consensus immediately entered the larger culture. There was a period of a month or so late last summer and early autumn when The Social Network, Freedom and Boardwalk Empire were so ubiquitous that you could scarcely pick up a newspaper or magazine, watch a TV show or listen to a radio show without reading or hearing about them. Even President Obama had a copy of Freedom tucked under his arm to take on vacation.
And there was something else novel this time around. Despite the deafening ballyhoo, the critical consensus didn’t seem to make much difference to the larger public. The Social Network did only “all right” business, not the sort of business one might expect for a celebrated cultural milestone; it has not yet broken the $100m mark at the box office and was the 29th highest grossing film last year, right under that blockbuster, Date Night. (The Coen Brothers’ True Grit, by comparison, took $100m in just three weeks.) Similarly, Freedom just logged its 17th week on the New York Times bestseller list, after having fallen from the list before the holidays. It came 39th among the 100 bestselling books of 2010 on the USA Today list, despite the boost it got as an Oprah Book Club selection. And Boardwalk Empire began in September with a ratings bang of 4.8 million viewers, only to sink to 2.7 million by November. As Entertainment Weekly opined, it “doesn’t seem to have the water cooler appeal” of The Sopranos or Mad Men. Critics were talking about it but ordinary people weren’t.
So if this was some sort of critical last stand, a desperate ploy by critics to display their power by circling the wagons, it seems to have failed. Even if The Social Network wins the Oscar as expected, Freedom the Pulitzer Prize and Boardwalk Empire the Emmy, it would only serve to confirm the breach that now seems to exist between the critics and the public. Once upon a time, critics could close that breach through a process close to cultural brainwashing. They could get people to see and love The Social Network, to read Freedom, to watch Boardwalk Empire. Now they can’t.
The usual suspect in this immunisation is the internet. It is certainly no secret that the internet has eroded the authority of traditional critics and substituted Everyman opinion on blogs, websites, even on Facebook and Twitter where one’s friends and neighbours get to sound off. What is less widely acknowledged is just how deeply this populist blowback is embedded in America and how much of American culture has been predicated on a conscious resistance to cultural elites. It is virtually impossible to understand America without understanding the long ongoing battle between cultural commissars who have always attempted to define artistic standards and ordinary Americans who take umbrage at those commissars and their standards.
This is hardly a recent occurrence occasioned by the internet and other democratising elements. It actually began at the country’s inception when political opposition to England bled into a form of cultural opposition as well. Europe was seen as effete, corrupt, supercilious and haughty. By contrast, ordinary Americans saw themselves as manly, honest, commonsensical and populist, and early on they tried to fashion a culture that manifested these characteristics – an American culture divorced from any European antecedents, a democratic culture.
What complicated matters was that within America there was much of the same irksome aristocratic hauteur as there was in Europe, which meant that rifts quickly opened here between those who saw themselves as custodians of a high culture and those who were opting for that distinctive American culture with its democratic elements. The political avatar of this division was Andrew Jackson, the plainspoken hero of the Battle of New Orleans who ascended to the presidency in 1829 by declaring himself a “fighter not a writer”, to distinguish himself from his well-educated opponent, John Quincy Adams. Jackson seemed to be a common man, and he exploited that image.
The division took shape culturally with some innovations of the Jacksonian era and the years that immediately followed: crime almanacs that provided bloody accounts of horrific murders; sentimental novels such as The Wide, Wide World that were the forerunners of today’s soap operas; dime novels that depicted the stories of western heroes; the penny press that specialised in tawdry stories of sex and violence; and various forms of popular music and stage performance. This was the introduction on the American scene of what would later be known as “low culture” or “popular culture”.
Not surprisingly, the conventional take on American popular culture by intellectuals is that it was the product of ignorance and a deficiency of good taste among the mass of American citizens. They had to bowdlerise culture because they couldn’t appreciate the unadulterated thing.
But the reality of the formation of American popular culture may have been something else entirely. Nineteenth-century Americans were, in fact, highly literate. Many of them were conversant with high culture – from Shakespeare to opera to classical music to what passed for fine art. These are also people who took their picnic baskets to hear Lincoln and Douglas debate for hours. They might not have been super-sophisticates but neither were they Neanderthals.
And yet even as they consumed high culture, they seemed to resent those who felt duty bound to impose it on them. Or put another way, it wasn’t high culture they disdained so much as high culturists who, not incidentally, disdained them. Though it is impossible to prove with any certainty, it is likely that American popular culture, which is arguably the most ubiquitous and powerful culture in the world today, arose from this contrarian impulse: ordinary Americans would consciously create a culture that was everything the elitists detested. They would not only welcome the elitists’ contempt; they would actively try to foment it. This was how America became engaged in its battle between high culture and low – not by accident but by design.
What this meant is that supposed stupidity didn’t shape popular culture; rather, popular culture shaped supposed stupidity. At almost every cultural juncture – from travelling variety shows to vaudeville, which was like the English music hall, to movies to television to rock music to gaming today – the elites hectored the general public, shouting that the sky was falling. Everything popular, the elites proclaimed, would subvert American standards and values. Culture was under democratic assault. It couldn’t possibly survive the masses.
For a country that prides itself on its democracy, as America does, there is a long train of literature that is passionately anti-democratic, and not just from the unreconstructed right wing. Sometimes the enemy was democracy itself; sometimes the enemy was the system, as when the Frankfurt School expatriates and other neo-Marxians blamed not the masses but the mass culture industry through which devious capitalists manipulated people – dumbing them down. And sometimes the enemy was just plain obtuseness, which is why critic Dwight Macdonald coined the terms “masscult” and “midcult” to revile not only low culture but also a middle-class culture that had ridiculous pretensions to be higher than low. Today critics are less likely to excoriate popular culture as a whole than its various components – from reality TV shows to popcorn movies to Justin Bieber – but the sentiment remains. Culture needs gatekeepers to protect it from the hoi polloi.
Of course it was one of the triumphs of American popular culture that the rigid distinctions between high and low gradually disappeared. You can actually witness the rapprochement in Fantasia when classical conductor Leopold Stokowski shakes hands with Mickey Mouse, showing as well that with the growing power of popular culture, not even the practitioners of high culture wanted to be on the wrong side of the cultural divide. In time, popular music, the movies and particular television shows would all have critical champions in the most influential, highbrow media organs, and a few powerful ones, such as the old New Yorker movie critic Pauline Kael, would even make their reputations by insisting that “official” art was dull and desiccated and that the real vibrancy was with the subversive trash of popular culture.
Kael’s was a time in America, some 40 years ago, when the balance of power was shifting from the elites to the populists – a last-ditch fight that turned criticism into a blood sport with all sorts of warriors. One could actually find critics on nightly talk shows then – something that almost never happens now – and many were practically household names: proud elitists such as John Simon of New York Magazine, populists such as mustachioed Gene Shalit of The Today Show, professional eviscerators such as Rex Reed and Judith Crist, who won attention when she called The Sound of Music “The Sound of Money”. This was criticism as entertainment but it also demonstrated a genuine dispute over cultural hierarchy – over the claims of informed taste over popular taste.
Eventually the battle ended, the dust settled, and movies, TV shows and even popular music became acceptable topics for serious critical discourse. This did not mean, however, that high culturists had totally capitulated to popular taste. It only meant they had shifted the terms of their authority to fit the new circumstances. Among film critics, they still derided all but a few action movies and just about every film of overt sentiment to prove they weren’t susceptible to these primitive emotions; they still generally rewarded foreign movies with higher accolades than American movies; they still tended to review film-makers as much as they reviewed the film, giving so-called auteurs the benefit of the doubt; and they still rallied around the same kinds of films and often the very same films. To wit, The Social Network.
One might imagine there would be an enormous diversity among critics, tough-minded souls each expressing his or her own unique sensibility. And, as mentioned, there once was. But among American critics in the traditional media today, there is surprisingly little diversity. The “best” film lists or “best” television lists or “best” album lists or “best” book lists usually have the same titles, regardless of critic or publication. In short, critics continue to attempt to assert their control, only they do so by uniformity, coincidental or not. And the public seems to sense it.
That’s important because there may be no more powerful public emotion in America than the contempt for contempt. In this theoretically egalitarian society, condescension is practically un-American, which is why ordinary Americans always seem to yearn for some form of redress against those who seem to think they are above the so-called masses. (This is also, by the way, one of the primary features of American politics, and it helps explain folks like Joseph McCarthy, Richard Nixon and Sarah Palin, who understand how to nurse resentments.) To take it one step further, it is so powerful an emotion that it may have been the real fuel for the internet, one of the central functions of which has been to challenge authority – to provide a democratising voice against the custodians of official culture. Thus the old spent war between high and low seemed to reconstitute itself into a war between traditional media and new media.
By now the brickbats flung by critics at bloggers and by bloggers at critics are old news. “Bloggers in pyjamas” was the taunt by the mainstream media. But there is an irony in this fight that neither side seems to recognise. Though the most popular bloggers have come to threaten the influence of the old establishment critics, it is in the new nature of the internet that the more popular these bloggers become, the more establishment they become. A blogger such as Harry Knowles, whose aintitcoolnews.com website often preempts mainstream criticism by tipping movies that have yet to open, seems less like a fresh, new populist voice in the critical ether than a familiar old one. His opinions if not his colloquial style would fit comfortably in the New York Times or The New Yorker.
Indeed, the most popular voices on the web are less likely to be contrarian than conventional. Rottentomatoes.com, a site that aggregates several hundred film blogs and critics and then devises a rating based on the percentage of them who liked or disliked a particular film, is usually squarely within the consensus. Eighty-nine per cent of its users, for example, approved The Social Network. It is the rare critic, such as Armond White of New York Press, available on rottentomatoes, who challenges the consensus. His take on The Social Network? “Like one of those smart middlebrow TV shows, the speciousness of The Social Network is disguised by its topicality. It’s really a movie excusing Hollywood ruthlessness.” Similarly, bloggers largely enthused over Freedom and Boardwalk Empire. They didn’t take on the mainstream critics. They joined them, which means the sides weren’t really skirmishing so much over standards as over the locus of power.
So while bloggers may dilute the authority of critics in the traditional media, the real threat to cultural authority turns out not to be blogging but social networking. It is Twitter, Facebook, myDigg, Yelp and dozens of other sites where, sometimes just by sheer quantity of opinion, the people are overrunning the Winter Palace of cultural elitism. At this moment, for example, you can find an ongoing debate on Twitter, which anyone can join, comparing the relative merits of Inception and The Social Network. Or you can find someone named “Yogareach” tweeting about Freedom: “Started out great but needs seriously editing.” Or another tweeter named Kate saying that the novel didn’t raise her “care factor enough to be interested”. Or you can find various tweets about the period details of Boardwalk Empire, and whether it qualifies as The Sopranos of this decade.
The point isn’t that the traditional critics are always wrong and these populists are right, or even that these comments are overwhelmingly negative or invariably take on the critical consensus. More often than not, they aren’t and they don’t. The point is that authority has migrated from critics to ordinary folks, and there is nothing – not collusion or singleness of purpose or torrents of publicity – that the traditional critics can do about it. They have seen their monopoly usurped by what amounts to a vast technological word-of-mouth of hundreds of millions of people.
We live, then, in a new age of cultural populism – an age in which everyone is not only entitled to his opinion but is encouraged to share it. Nothing could be more American.
Neal Gabler’s most recent book is Walt Disney: The Biography. He is currently working on a biography of Senator Edward Kennedy