The Dull Art of Problematizing Everything

Few things in life are certain. Some will populate a short list of inevitabilities with death and taxes, but really, only the former is guaranteed—just ask the sitting president of the United States. If you have spent any amount of time on the internet, however, I’d wager a lofty sum that you’ve seen plenty of headlines of the “Why Blank Is Problematic” variety. More often than not, these aren’t essays that offer insight or clarity. Instead, they simultaneously monetize a boring fact about the world—that everyone’s conception of it is necessarily incomplete—while snidely sidestepping all efforts to understand the intent behind a given act of communication or creation and empathize with its originator.

There’s nothing wrong with that sort of thing in any concrete sense. People have an absolute right to point out the ways in which they feel this or that piece of art or political commentary is problematic. But the business of pointing out problems has spawned a cottage industry of lazy, uninteresting writing. Entire essays spring easily from the sociopolitical foibles of ill-conceived tweets, hidden slights buried in vapid political rhetoric or even insufficiently inclusive Harry Potter prequels. Too often, the resulting criticism seems indifferent about its capacity to enrich or enlighten.

True, people have been expressing their vexations about the critic’s pen for ages. A painter once said, “criticism comes easier than craftsmanship.” That was a fellow named Zeuxis and he said it almost two and a half thousand years ago. However, the object here is not to decry criticism, writ large. Instead, I aim to address a particular variety of criticism that has recently emerged at the twisted nexus of virtue signaling and the profit motive.

Here, media companies have found a quick and dirty way to monetize a basic fact about humanity: nothing we do is, has been, or ever will be perfect. There are no flawless films or books. Impeccable pieces of political oratory exist only in the imagination. Legislation is always a crude fusion of compromise, pragmatism and ideology. Even our very best output is eventually rendered insensitive, erroneous or irrelevant by the ceaseless march of time.

Consider a few examples. The Oscar-nominated 2018 film Green Book has been criticized for telling an inspirational tale about overcoming racial animus, without taking the time to deconstruct the systemic forces that perpetuate racism. In short, the film ought to have solved racism—or at least taken a better crack at it. The New York Times recently published an editorial criticizing Maroon 5 for failing to take a political stand during their Superbowl halftime show. A crass celebration of vulgar consumerism and material excess, traditionally dominated by lowest common denominator pop and rock & roll has-beens, was apparently rendered unusually unpalatable by clumsy politics. Elsewhere, a reviewer with a particularly stunning knack for vapid pedantry criticizes Peter Jackson’s otherwise universally acclaimed World War I documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old, for not putting enough focus on the many thousands of non-white troops who took part in the fighting.

Criticism of this kind springs from the inherent limitations of art, crashing up against the natural diversity of audiences. Movies have fixed runtimes. Books only contain so many words. Musical performances only last so long. That means they must, by necessity, leave stuff out. As a result, if enough eyes fall on a piece of work, someone is going to have a problem with it. The resulting criticism isn’t constructive. It usually isn’t even interesting. It’s mostly just languid sensationalism—irrelevancy cunningly packaged as insight.

Ultimately, the problem here is not the proliferation of criticism, per se, but the frequent evasiveness of its point. Lowest common denominator art rarely makes for rich or elevating entertainment. One shudders to imagine the ghastly shape a work built to satisfy all tastes and encompass all relevant views might take. In pointing out someone’s failure to present a fully woke picture of the world, we aren’t daring them to do better. Everyone’s grasp of the world is inherently incomplete. To ask for fully inclusive art is to demand creation by committee. The result might satisfy some palates, but it’s hard to imagine it producing anything beyond the creative equivalent of McDonalds—widely accessible, sure, but also not very interesting.

Of course, this phenomenon extends well beyond the realm of popular art. Not too long ago, the astronaut Scott Kelly was lambasted for quoting the statesman Winston Churchill on Twitter. Instead of focusing on the content of the quotation and Kelly’s intent in sharing it, folks instead focused on the flaws of its originator. A more basic error in human reasoning is hard to come by. Churchill’s misdeeds as a colonialist are real. The truth or value of his words stands regardless.

This brings us to the second major misstep at the heart of the problematizing industry: a complete indifference to intent. Communication is an inherently collaborative effort. One person is charged with producing a signal that represents a thought or feeling as accurately as she can manage. Another person receives that signal and takes up the task of trying to gauge what the first person was actually trying to say. In turning mistakes into cash, the latter half of the equation has been completely abandoned.

That’s a fine approach to take if you’re comfortable persisting in abject indifference to the objective reality of what communication is and how it works. Artists, politicians and public figures of any stripe are supposed to say something coherent and intelligible. We, as an audience, have a duty to come up with some charitable and consistent interpretation of what they were trying to get across. Sure, Green Book might have presented a fuller picture of the insidious forces of structural racism. But, in focusing on that failure, we ignore the filmmakers’ chief intention: to entertain and uplift. Likewise for Maroon 5’s Superbowl performance. Decrying the sociopolitical foibles of a Superbowl halftime show put on by an aggressively milquetoast band is like criticizing a participant in a hotdog eating contest for wearing a tasteless T-shirt. Sure, there’s a metric by which they could have done better. It’s just a metric they probably never aimed to hit in the first place. Immediately latching onto the points someone failed to mention and the perspectives they neglected to include—generally speaking, rushing to the least generous interpretation of words or deeds—is not only lazy, it is actively cruel.

So it goes, one might say. Drop someone on a slope and the safe bet is that they are going to walk downhill. In an economy based around attention, outrage is both lucrative and abundant.  There’s a pivotal irony running through all of this, in that so many of those most eager to problematize popular entertainment or misbegotten tweets are the same people who express a lot of concern over the worst excesses of modern capitalism—and often rightly so. But given the chance to turn words into cash, they seem more than happy to help the free market continue its long work of killing good journalism and eradicating interesting writing. Instead of turning an insightful eye and sharp literary tongue to the many real problems humanity faces in the twenty-first century, they write essays about how Peter Farrelly and Maroon 5 have failed to solve racism. Why? Because outrage sells and nuanced discussions of complicated problems do not.

The aim here is not to discourage criticism. Rather, it is to plead for a better version of it. As a deceased statesman once said, “I do not at all resent criticism, even when, for the sake of emphasis, it for a time parts company with reality.” A reasonable point, even if it was sired by the dastardly colonialist Winston Churchill.

Some criticism is valuable. Unfortunately, a lot of it is slothful, unhelpful pablum—people off-gassing half-baked, reactionary criticism for currency. By all means, problematize the world around you. Just do so with a charitable eye for intent and a firm grip on what you mean to accomplish. And remember, everything you ever encounter will be flawed in some way. Sometimes pointing that out is useful. Too often, it’s about as insightful and productive as pointing out that a glass of water contains more than just hydrogen and oxygen. Then again, there might be some money to made from an essay about all those minerals tainting what might otherwise be a perfect glass of water.

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9 comments

  1. Ah, that “charitable eye for intent” you seek is missing today, when we are trained to scan every person and artwork not for the good but for any speck that allows us to gleefully apply a Scarlet Letter (usually a tag or racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.). Let’s hope that the next countercultural turn may trigger a Cambrian explosion in the arts, where after a (woke) period of narrower and narrower definitions of “acceptable,” the dam bursts open. Rather than circling the wagons around race and gender, restricting who can write what, suddenly everyone is encouraged to artistically explore everyone else’s point of view, everyone participating in every culture in a frenzy of mutual celebration not unlike the middle panel of Hieronymous Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights.” It all starts with that “charitable eye for intent.” Hey, at least we can hope.

  2. There are even more problems with problematizing everything: many critics are simply wrong about what they criticize. For example, during the statue furor (remember that?), the New Orleans statue of Joan of Arc was vandalized, which made no sense. Or people are upset that Cleopatra has been played by white women, when she was in fact the last Greek ruler of Egypt.
    The demand that every work of art be a polemic for Wokeness not only alienates half (at least) of the audience, it ruins the art. Ever since it got Woke, the Star Wars franchise has tanked. The female ghostbusters weren’t funny. Such stuff is simply propaganda–check out Soviet communist propaganda and tell me you would buy it or watch it. ha

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    1. not to dispute your larger point, but I found a very nice book once of soviet propaganda posters at the library. there was distinct aesthetic appeal to the images. it would not have been such successful propaganda if there weren’t. but I must concede I did not buy it, I merely checked it out. I didn’t return it on time, and had to pay a late fee. does that count?

    1. the professional media unconsciously promotes it for the money. being that new media has stripped newspapers of their traditional revenue sources – and replaced them with wholly insufficient new revenue sources – newspapers have succumbed to the appeal of easy (if grossly overvalued) clicks through such articles. meanwhile on television, the 24 hour news cycle needs constant feeding, being as there’s only about one or two hours worth of actual news in a given day, so these are easy for them to fill time with, and vary bankable ratingswise.

      left only to the the social medias and commentariats of the internet these quibbles of Seinfeldian proportions would take their rightful places as niche bugaboos that no one seriously considers problems, just something to make light conversation about.

    2. I think you have a point. I imagine some people write this kind of stuff just to signal virtue, but I think editors and publishers continue to print it–despite it being largely boring and pointless–because it generates clicks and ad revenue.

    3. For a decade now the Internet publishing model has been based on obtaining content for free or nearly so. The publishers make profits (despite endless poor mouthing) from suckers who see their work as literally valueless. So yes, it’s done for money, by capitalists who exploit, not the proletariat, but saps.

      And here I am doing it too, dammit.

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