Feature 06.24.2024 4 minutes

Everyone Hates a Critic

Movie Camera

You need me on that wall.

Spencer Klavan has written a warm and insightful plea for conservatives to take the arts seriously, invest in popular culture, and, if I may complete his thought, take over American culture. We must do it, because we’re in a culture war. We have an opportunity to do it, because the Progressive Left want to burn down what’s left of our culture while the more prestigious liberals who run our cultural institutions are too effete to put them in their place.

Spencer is correct that conservatism would be more all-American, closer to the hopes as well as the beating heart of America, more persuasive and less fearful, if it could master popular culture. Pop culture, or what we used to call middlebrow literature, cinema, music, and gaming, is the only national arena that has some immunity to the narrow-minded oppositions that divide us. The only statements we can make about what it means to be American will be found there.

Spencer suggests we should look for artists, producers, and critics who want to entertain and edify America. Peachy Keenan has taken up the question of the producers, based on her own experience in the industry and ongoing attempts to fix the problem. I’ll take up the other side: the need for criticism.

It’s almost impossible to defend criticism in our time. It has been reduced to success worship, doing publicity for the glamorous people at the behest of the ugly people who make things happen behind the scenes; or a kind of amusement and flattery of niche audiences online, all sorts of subcultures or mini-identities that are supposed to fix some of the loneliness and bewilderment afflicting Americans orphaned by the collapse of the twentieth century middlebrow consensus. But even if it were not so petty, criticism would be ugly, without any of the delicate glamor of the artists, or the rather more crass but more reliable glamor of the powerbrokers—after all, Hollywood is a producer’s town.

You might think we critics produce nothing and only complain about others who realize their visions and get people employed while spreading the American empire around the world. You might think we spoil the fun for an audience looking to be taken for a ride. You might think we’re even conceited, so sure of our opinions—even against the express will of the majority. Damn straight. That’s what’s so great about it. People chase after fantasies on their own dime, so you need me to burst your bubble now and then. The ugly truths I shout over the cooing of adoring, childlike mobs are sometimes all that’s left of the dignity of free men. You think that’s arrogant? You should be thanking me—if anybody saves your kids from idolatry it’s gonna be a few good men like me.

We’re stuck in a situation where a few gentle people play the snob, denying that American artists have any interest or charm; and on the other side, too many sentimental types pretend entertainment is transcendent stuff, that Walt Disney is our Shakespeare. But at a deeper level, both sides agree that there’s no there there: you either can’t create taste or taste is already as good as possible. So they see no need for critics to educate artists as much as audiences, because the taste and the self-understanding of America aren’t involved. Another way of putting it is that business conservatives and culture conservatives look down on entertainment as mere advertising.

We few who try to educate through criticism are the last people in America publicly talking about what’s beautiful and what’s ugly in an intelligent, sustained way. We have a view to both the past and future, remembering that young and old alike need something more beautiful than ordinary life to make sense of ordinary life. But we’re always pretending to be nice so that our audiences won’t feel imposed on. Well, there are moments when you have to throw manners out and judge harshly. The moralists and the philistines who deny that popular entertainment have interesting talents or that popular taste is debased should shut up. Better judgment and better taste prevail over the long run; the fashions of the moment are consigned to oblivion. If you don’t understand this simple imperative, you’re bound for oblivion.

To create an American taste, committed to popularity but not reducible to chasing after novelty or extreme behavior to shock jaded audiences, you need critics who speak confidently to intelligent Americans. That’s those of us who can connect those of you who care enough about America to look for help, guidance, and opportunities for action in the digital world. You can’t have elites without us to class up the joint. And if you don’t invest in us, you’ll be washed away in the flood of techno-oligarchy that’s now debasing American life.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

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