Culture

Don’t hate the player: The death of a critic, undone

bangs

I’m at your local warehouse.  I just urinated in the front lawn–pardon, not the lawn, the industrial rubble. Alcohol is a diuretic, it makes you urinate. That is natural, this place is not. So, I’m feeling pretty good about myself. I walk in wearing a gray t-shirt and jeans, everyone is wearing seven layers of clothes–the outfits are wild, and distracting. I suspect each of the seven layers represents a different interpretation of what’s in. Sounds like a plan to me. Not working out for you? Strip. Everyone walks around smugly because they just did a lot of drugs, and no one noticed so they thought they’d all remind each other.  When they find out that you did crack too, they hide their disappointment by giving you a hug, and maybe make out with you, again because no one saw them light the pipe and they need to make a bigger scene to get acknowledged. Obviously, getting high isn’t something that happens inside your brain, it’s something that happens inside other people’s brains.

Finally, the moment of truth: the last band finally stops holding down the same A minor 7 chord they’ve been holding for the last half hour. There’s a smattering of reluctant applause as no one is entirely sure whether they’ve heard art or not, but they don’t want to be caught not responding.  I exit the existential abyss, the lead singer is a notorious slut, he hits on a girl I’ve had my eyes on, she can do better (me) but the girl is flattered because he can hold an A minor 7 down for half an hour (most guys get bored in about 30 seconds, so that’s pretty deep, yeah).  Disgusted, I walk up to him and punch him in the face. “Whoa man relax,” he says. I say, “Whoa man shut the fuck up.” And here’s why.

Consider the following expression:

Everything and everyone is exceptional, and therefore nothing is exceptional. 

It’s the consumption malaise of the digital age.  Increased web access to members of various socioeconomic classes and education levels have deconstructed the cultural meritocracy by which knowledge of art, politics, and philosophy and access to the mediums that distribute such knowledge had to be bought. In accordance, the price of people’s opinions on the matter seemed to go way down, and I mean way down.  So down that culture critics went from being pimps of philanthropy to bitter bar drunks who ‘hate art’ and ‘suppress us with their intellectual cowardice’. As they grew irrelevant, the growing excuse that “I’m just making the art that I’ve always felt like making” became acceptable as a culture of ‘anything goes’. And as a consequence, the incredibly style conscious and borderline meaningless thrived in abundance. The value of truth and context completely dissipated because no one read into what they listened to anymore, they just absorbed everything. Without having to pay for records, they had license to try everything, and the focus became so dedicated to trying things that it failed to demand any meaning beyond the surface.

If you happen to meet a homeless louse that has an exceptionally good vocabulary, he probably wrote for Mojo in the early 00s and wasted his wit wooing bartenders into letting him stay past closing time because deep down he knew he was nobody in a culture that only wanted to hear themselves speak.  I agree with the case that this man too liked the sound of his own voice, but it’s important to remember that he was a response to an artist who liked the sound of theirs. The publishing institutions had no one to put them in their place before, but they do now, so people should stop complaining and return to the basics. Our inability to take scrutiny has reached a disgusting high.  Scrutiny is the only thing that holds people accountable for their actions and brings us together. An orgasm isn’t two whole bodies merging entirely, it’s a moment of precise pleasure sharing a specific indulgence at a specific time on a specific point of your body. The fact that the sensation fills you from head to toe is nothing more than your brain telling you what it has always wanted.

The mandate that “everyone should get along” and we should be this pure “whole” merely quiets personal preferences and reduces intimacy.  We are bound by how we affect one another, and the art of criticism is an essential part of this. The truth is often painful, but it’s eternal. It’s the only thing that doesn’t disintegrate with time, and therefore it’s the only concern that affects everyone, especially the lying and the shallow who run away from it.  The death of the critic is attributed to the irreverence of time, but is really a combination of the inbred stupidity of the journalism industry and a massive subconscious ‘freedom’ fetish of the info age’s delayed adolescence, a plague only rivaled by gun-toting Southerners who in their hysterically deep fried soul account for more carbon emissions than the cities of Hong Kong and Tokyo combined.

I sympathize with the principle that everyone should have the freedom to be an idiot, but you sure as hell should not be rewarded for it.  In an uncensored web society it is easy for anybody to find an approving mass of people who wear the same clothes that you do and have your opinions, and therefore not only help stunt your growth but foster the delusion that your every word has imminent significance.  The excesses of the information age shouldn’t serve as a luxury to complacency but rather encourage anyone and everyone to challenge themselves with contrasting viewpoints.  The more you read online without discriminating your sources, the more you realize you are face to face with the infinite.

And that can be scary, because it’s a huge responsibility not to jump into the void created by a moment of absurdity and use it as an excuse to do some pretty terrible, terrible shit to people you’ve always wanted to do but couldn’t justify. Maybe the intangibility of the truth makes it seem like that old louse from Mojo was a worthless egotist, but it isn’t the job of a good critic to tell you what’s right.  No, that wouldn’t stand the test of time, but what would is either 1) a perspective (this article in itself is nothing more) or 2) a splinter in your side that you must pluck from your way of life so that you can either reaffirm it for yourself or wake up to something else out there.

People were right about the arrogance of the old guard. Magazines like The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and Spin, all came to take their influence for granted, and eventually stopped censoring their own writers in any meaningful way.  They became so intrinsically tied to the kingmaking process that they forgot what they were there for in the first place: to represent an audience’s voice.  Critics like Lester Bangs and Pauline Kael seem to be a dead tradition. The only guy who won’t tire out from their age group is that insufferable prick Rex Reed who, as the antithesis of the other two, is emblematic of how incredibly empty and meaningless passionate writing can be. Unfortunately, it seems like anyone and everyone with an opinion, however unadulterated and inarticulate, has mockingly sneered their way into the journalistic hierarchy, whose writers possess a philosophical counterfeit previously reserved only for dime novels, pogs and French cinema. These people are talentless jerks. They have only appeased ideologues into bastardizing the precious moments when structure and precision lends meaning, and deified the rebellious fantasies of the unconscious and the uninspired.

The magic of the Bangs and Kael era was that they actually earned respect for criticism by transforming its effectiveness as an audience feedback mechanism. Even some artists, who feared them the most in an era where the pen could destroy a career, saw the value in their profession because even though they disagreed with them, they could never deny that they came with a point and in doing so provided an effective bridge not only to society but to other contemporary artists. Looking back at their writing, I couldn’t be more convinced that the fading significance of criticism since the 90’s has more to do with the deteriorating quality of writers and thinkers than the decentralization of the industry itself. Bangs and Kael have strong opinions and at times their ludicrous stances in total affirmation or opposition to certain artistic causes will get on your nerves, but their writing style is the work of a fan just like you.

They start out with a natural reaction of excitement or disgust and go back and find out what it is about the movie that caused them to feel that way. They’re not above enjoying a juicy quarter pounder every now and then, but they still want to know what makes those cheap thrills tick. They don’t simply emote but put their emotions in context, thereby shedding light on the larger truth of a body of work and the consequences of putting it out there. The specific intellectual demands deny artists a pedestal, and hold them responsible for their decisions. The process isn’t simply self-righteous, it’s enlightened, because contained within their intimate perspective are vulnerabilities and insecurities that help us empathize with them. Kael and Bangs thereby achieve a cutting, rock n’ roll effectiveness without placing themselves on the same pedestal they just removed somebody else from, a touch of class which destroys the notion that somehow critics can’t abide by the golden rule.

Artists love generic praise and hate hearing people’s specific responses because they personalize their connection to their work and as a result hate being defined. This liberty enables them to create, but in reality, what good is what they make if it affects no one? All art is made for the benefit of society, otherwise why would it be shared? For those seeking to express something without connecting to anyone, Moleskine makes some pretty dope private diaries. They come with a high-security rubber band and cow leather binding that smells funny but lasts until you request to have it buried along with you. Buy it now, just $9.99.