Sunday, March 13, 2005

Critical Positions

First, all criticism must be done with love, can only be done from love. This is true in both arts criticism and critical art – or criticism of any kind. Criticism without love is spite. Those who criticize without loving what they criticize do so out of spite – too often because what they are criticizing is good, and they hate it for that very reason. Their only purpose is to tear down what they criticize. There are, of course, bad things that must be torn down, but one does not criticize these things – one attacks them.
We must criticize the arts or criticize through the arts as a parent criticizes a child (I use the word "criticize" here in the most positive way possible – as loving correction) – with the loving hope of bringing out what we know to be the best that child has to offer. But the child must know it is loved, must feel loved, before it can withstand criticism. Children who know they are loved can take loving criticism and use it to improve himself. Children who are not loved, who do not see the criticism as coming from love, will receive the criticism with resentment – and rightfully so. He will see criticism as something harmful, something meant to tear him down rather than lift him up. This lifting up, this is and should be the goal of all criticism.
My own particular field is literature, and so I shall use it as an example. In choosing a novel to critique, I would – and should – pick a novel I love, while avoiding novels I hate. There is an element of logic here – why would I want to spend more time with a novel I disliked and whose artistry I do not respect? Thus, I would never do a criticism of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, which I consider to be the single worst novel I have ever read. Instead, I would rather do a criticism of, say, Don DeLillo’s Underworld (to pick another contemporary novelist), which I love immensely and, in my love of it, am able to see both what is good about the novel, as well as what does not quite work, in my opinion. I can do this because I am approaching the novel from a position of love.
Now some may object that a better position is that of neutrality. But neutrality is the same as saying indifference, and you are certainly unable to say anything either positive or negative, or constructive in any way, if you are indifferent. Only someone who loves something or someone will want to take the time and make the effort to critique it. Only someone who loves something or someone will want what is best for it. Even hatred is preferable to indifference – one can gain something from it, if one views such criticism with a cool eye. With hatred, at least some emotion was involved – they cared enough to hate. With indifference, nothing is accomplished – it is the true opposite of love (and love’s twin, hatred).
A good example of a loving critique is the creation of new art in response to the work(s) in question. I would never write a novel in response to Blood Meridian – to do so would be to acknowledge value where, in fact, I find none. But even though I have various philosophical problems with DeLillo’s paranoia, conspiracy-mentality, and apocalysm, all of which I reject, I do consider him worthy of emulating and of responding to artistically and philosophically. I am even now working on a novel that does just that – respond to DeLillo (and postmodernism in general) philosophically. Indeed, my novel would have been impossible without my having read Underworld.
So criticism must be done from love. Criticizing from hatred will not work because those being criticized will refuse to listen, meaning it cannot be constructive – and, in the end, what is criticism meant to be if not constructive? Criticizing from hatred will not work because we are blinded by that hatred to whatever value there is in the thing or person in question. And whose who are being critiqued will not listen to anything we have to say, because they know we do not have their best interests at heart. Thus, my position on not doing any criticism of Blood Meridian – lovers of the book will gain nothing from anything I have to say about it. But hopefully lovers of Underworld would be able to read a critique I wrote of it and be able to see it in a new light, uncover new beauties in it that had previously gone unseen, understand what I have a problem with in the book and why, and investigate with me the possible reasons for DeLillo’s choices. They will listen because they know I love the book.
The same is true of children – and of countries. Each must know the one being critical is only doing it out of love and only wants what is best – only wants to lift them up to greater heights, to make them a better person or a better country. Criticism from hatred is only meant to tear down, to destroy, not to build up – and the one who is being criticized knows this, no matter the objections of the one who criticizes from hatred. Everyone, from the time they were a small child, knows the difference. That is why criticism must always be done only from a position of love.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

On the Oscars and Satire in Film

This year in film, what is perhaps most noticeable is what the Oscars and the Golden Globes both failed to notice – or, more accurately, recognize.
In 2004, we saw three different kinds of political movies: The Passion of the Christ, Fahrenheit 9/11, and Team America. The first thing to notice about these three movies is that they are each completely different from the others. The first is at first glance not a political movie at all – only an expression of faith. The second is a work of propaganda. The third is a work of satire.
Western civilization can be summed up as the tension between Athens and Jerusalem. Between free inquiry and obedient love – or, philosophy and faith. Since Descartes, we have been moving away from Jerusalem and toward Athens. The Passion was a reaffirmation of the increasingly neglected half of our civilization. As such, it is eminently political – and not just because a few people cannot tell the difference between the negative portrayal of a few historical Jewish people and true anti-Semitism (such critics ignore the fact that 1) many Jews in the film were portrayed positively, 2) Jesus was a Jew, and 3) Jesus’ crucifixion is not a negative thing for Christians – for without that death, there would be so salvation), which is only political in the most superficial sense of the word. In the truest sense of the political, it was meant to pull together those who share faith in Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. This is why the movie upset so many people.
In the second half of the 20th century, philosophy increasingly gave way to pure rhetoric – and thus to postmodernism, which emphasizes propaganda by insisting that all communication is propaganda, since there is no truth. Its ultimate expression is in movies such as Fahrenheit 9/11, where the argument is made by clever editing (postmodern theory points out that you can create causal relationships in the minds of one’s audience by simply placing two things next to each other, or sandwiching, say, one news clip between two others, so that the two related clips create an association with the inserted, unrelated, clip in the minds of the viewers). Through editing, one can manipulate an audience to believe falsehoods, while also claiming (correctly) that everything you showed was factual. And it was, technically, based in fact. The facts were carefully selected and organized to make the particular argument he wished. And Michael Moore is not the only one doing this – pollsters have been doing this for years, since the way one asks the questions typically determines the answers. And the answers you want determines the way you word the questions. Thus, we get in the postmodern era the complete separation of truth and facts – so that facts do not have to have anything to do with the truth at all.
Satire does not try to provide answers, so it is a different kind of thing yet. Satire laughs at faith believed blindly, at people who support immoral things in the name or morality, at all the things we do that make us fall short of excellence. In Team America, nationalistic fervor and overenthusiasm, the tacit support of dictators by people on the Left, and poorly written and acted movies are all satirized. The topics range from art to politics – from Right to Left. Michael Moore is made to kill himself as a suicide bomber precisely because he’s a postmodern propagandist.
What is missing – and what, ironically, it is a movie like Team America that points out indirectly is missing – is philosophy. No one is engaging in free enquiry. We have religious faith only, or believe in cleverly edited propaganda pieces. Team America satirizes the fact that none of the characters in the movie – and none of the people the characters are satires of – care a thing about the truth (this is also why they satirize bad movies – since if "art tells the truth in the general form of a lie" as Nietzsche says, then bad art is equally far from the truth), which can only be discovered by truly free inquiry. It is ironic that it is a film described by someone as an "obscene puppet movie" that is trying to point out what is missing.
It is not surprising, perhaps, that Team America was ignored by the Oscars – satires are rarely recognized as art until decades, or even centuries, later. I doubt Team America crossed the minds of anybody when choosing Oscar nominees. And Hollywood is not religious enough to nominate The Passion. The surprise is the snubbing of Fahrenheit 9/11, which did, after all, win a People’s Choice Award. Perhaps even Hollywood is growing tired of Michael Moore. Self-righteous propaganda preferring dictators to democrats may involve good editing, b ut it does not equal good art.