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In Defence of Critique: Let People Enjoy Not Enjoying Things
Aesthetics, representation, and the crisis of media (il)literacy
There are only two types of people in this world: the ones that entertain and the ones that observe. Or so says Britney Spears, a prophetess with whom I am usually in full agreement. But unfortunately I must counter Ms. Spears in this assertion and offer this rebuttal: there are two types of people in this world—the ones that observe and the ones that don’t.
Before I continue any further, I must issue a disclaimer. You can like or not like whatever you want. Nobody is stopping you! I do not care what anyone else’s personal taste is. Do whatever you want. This feels very obvious and unnecessary to state but people on the internet seem to get particularly defensive when it comes to critique.
There is perhaps no phrase that has caused irreparable damage to the collective media literacy of the internet than “let people enjoy things”. The sentiment itself at face value is largely harmless, but it has become a catch-all to shut down critique and discourse surrounding art, culture, and entertainment. I find this somewhat surprising: people offended by critique of things they enjoy seem to not understand the power that critique holds. To put something under a lens of examination is to elevate it, recognize its legitimacy, and even further its cultural purchase and significance. Yet it seems more often than not, audiences have no desire for reflection or observation and simply seek to absorb.
I would call this a crisis of contentization. The structures of Tik Tok, Instagram, even Twitter are moving towards presenting content generated algorithmically (long-gone are the days of seeing the posts of people you follow in chronological order), creating endless scrolls of tailored posts, videos, and images that are as easy to watch passively as they are to scroll past. We must engage with these interfaces to receive “better” or more personalized content, the privilege to have our algorithmically defined echo chamber continue to close in its walls like an Indiana Jones trap as we scroll our way into cultural oblivion. The distinctions between art, entertainment, culture and now content are fraught; most media exists at a combination of some, if not all, of these terms and I think it would be reductive to give any of them a strict definition. That being said, I would like to offer a definition of art as the product of intent—something chosen by its creator.
My most recent essay on Substack was about P.C. Music and SOPHIE. I like writing and I like having thoughtful discourses with people equally passionate about media studies and critical theory. As such, I try to build an audience for my work. I also like attention. Sue me. To promote the release of my essay, I made a Tik Tok that I knew would do well with the algorithm—a short video with lots of text (so its looping while viewers read makes it seem like it has an attentive audience), a SOPHIE audio, and a tongue-in-cheek self-deprecation about seeming overly intellectual or too pretentious. My methodology worked: the video received about 75,000 views in two days and widened the audience for my essay. It also solicited a slew of comments ranging from kind words about my writing to my personal favourite, “No offense but if you were prettier I would read ur [sic] essay .”
The most surprising, though, were the people insisting that I was “reading too much into” this music movement that was supposedly only ever intended to be fun dance music. It’s a tired accusation often made towards any practice of cultural critique, particularly pop culture, but almost shocking given that SOPHIE wrote music with lyrics like “Artificial bloom / synthesize the real / social dialect / positive results.” Perhaps due to my natal chart or just a flaw of personality, I am terribly stubborn and did feel the need to reply to a select few comments with responses like Did you listen to the lyrics? The words that were being said? And while I (mostly) stand with my (unnecessary) retort, I also think that had SOPHIE only ever intended to make music that sounds fun and exciting, it would still be worthy and necessary of close analysis.
Art, entertainment, media, whatever your preferred term… these things are comprised of two parts. On one hand: the text. Text does not necessarily have to be words, but rather, what is happening. A narrative or a character or moral or any other form of communication that has its basis in telling. The other part of a piece of media is its aesthetic. The colour, the tone, the way things sound, the evocation of the senses. In some mediums, separating these two is easy: in pop music, the text is often (but not always) just the lyrics while the aesthetic is the phonic qualities of the sound. In a film, the text would be both the dialogue as well as the narrative as a whole while the aesthetic would be the framing, the colouring, the editing, the sound design. Painting and photography are a bit tricker. Take for example, this painting from the Hudson River School of art by Robert S. Duncanson in 1864, Meeting By The River.
The text of the painting is the trees, the idea of the landscape, the morning light, the two men in the foreground of the picture. The aesthetic is the sense of serenity, the haziness of the colours, the absence of harsh lines in an embrace of organic shapes. We can “read” the painting and understand it best by combining these two sources of interpretation: the morning light bringing a sense of possibility, a new day ahead. The positioning of the men giving a sense of importance to the idea of man before the natural world. The fact that both men are positioned prostrate, perpendicular to the ground, some of the only hard angles coming from their limbs, the horse, their shadows against the ground… these things suggest a sort of “civility” or “rationality” possessed by the figures not present in nature. The places marked by human interaction are in light and the only dark part of the composition is in the bottom right corner, the place beyond the canvas, what is yet to be “explored”. These ideas, images, symbols, references come together to give us the most complete reading of the piece—a Jeffersonian vision of the colonization of the Americas. To the untrained or intentionally obtuse eye, a painting like this may not seem political, but every choice the artist made came from a place of intent. Think about the sheer visual similarity in colour between this painting and American Progress by John Gast, popularly seen as the visual embodiment of the American philosophy of manifest destiny.
A third component of reading art, certainly present in my reading of the above painting, is that of context. The political, economic, and art historical contexts in which a piece are made are paramount to understanding as well as the personal lives and identities of its creators. Choices are a reflection of desire, all art is in-part self-portraiture.
Which brings me to an important point: the ability to “read” media is a skill. It is a skill that can be developed, one that is learned, the result of time and training. I have been incredibly lucky and privileged to have an educational background that has fostered critical inquiry and prioritized analytical skills; I have a BA from a private, liberal arts college in History, Media Studies, and Studio Art. I know what words like epistemological and rhizomatic mean because I have heard them before, I can spot a visual reference to French New Wave Cinema simply because I have seen enough movies directed by Truffaut and Goddard. I am, inevitably, insufferably pretentious. Of course, specialized language creates bubbles of exclusivity. People and systems interested in maintaining exclusivity will try and keep this knowledge to gated and exclusive institutions, refuse patience, push the idea that it takes some special type of genius to take in new vocabulary. The point of specialized language, academic language, reference—these things should clarify and specify rather than confuse. But I’d also like to push back on the idea that interacting with theory, critique, and analysis is always classist or wholly inaccessible. In fact, I find this idea a bit repulsive as it seems to imply that poor people or people with less time in formal institutions are incapable of learning or reading or thinking critically.
Which brings me to the question of so what? I hear the imagined commentor go on, what does it matter if people just want to be entertained, they don’t want to think about politics? We can’t always be looking for hidden symbolism all the time. I think there is certainly some truth to this desire to escape, to relax, to—as the saying goes—just enjoy things. And I will return to that question, I promise. But before that, I think it is incredibly important to emphasize why media literacy and cultural critique is not only important but absolutely necessary.
When we move through the world, we retain things which we call memories. Sometimes things around us evoke memories, when that happens, we call those associations. We remember not only things we have directly felt or experienced, but things we have learned about in the classroom, seen on T.V., heard on the news. In specific cultures, some events or feelings or ideas are repeatedly associated with aesthetics until the combination of aesthetic and association becomes something new entirely: a sign. This is the concept of semiotics. Which aesthetics stand in for which things and feelings can differ from person to person and certainly from culture to culture. In Western classical music, the minor key tends to evoke a feeling of sadness. The colour yellow can be associated with sunshine and therefore warmth and happiness. A little girl in a white dress recalls a certain sense of innocence. These examples may seem obvious or heavy-handed, but they suggest a larger idea: that we internalize messaging not solely through text but also through aesthetics.
Here’s a more complex example. Take a look at the central train station in Milan, Italy.
It’s a public space, an important place for civic identity, constructed by the Italian government. But not just any government— the station was completed in 1931 and overseen by then-prime minister Benito Mussolini. The Milan train station is fundamentally a fascist train station. And this is not just a question of timing; art is often made in opposition to the dominating political ideology of its time. But to best understand why this train station, this inanimate object, promotes a fascist ideology, we have to understand its aesthetic and semiotic value.
In part, the design recalls both the Ancient Roman and Renaissance styles of architecture. Fascism was developed as inherently reactionary, and the desire to “return” to a former perceived greatness or renown. Recalling a history of prosperity also instils a sense of national pride, certainly a core goal of Mussolini’s ideological project. But the most interesting and most telling political aesthetic comes in the construction of the doorways. They are grand, they are tall, they could accommodate the width several people. They subsume the pedestrian into the station in an amazement of grandeur. And that is the fundamental political goal of this building. If democracy is the presence of a state that exists to serve its constituent population, fascism is the inverse: a population that exists in subservience to the state. The Milan train station was built by the Fascist government of Italy. It is an appendage of the state, a necessary civic site. The participant feels themselves dwarfed in relationship to the grandiosity of the space, they must submit themselves to this feeling of shrinking just to enter the train station. They are shrunk by scale and also by history: the humanistic detailing recalls thousands of years of an idea of “Italy” as if it were an ever-present state of being rather than a political entity. The Italian government becomes the keeper of this legacy and importance, and the busy commuter or family on vacation becomes subject to this ideology through passive participation in these aesthetics.
And so, I bring us to our next point: no image is apolitical. Aesthetics carry with them associations which become signs. Art, media, entertainment is made through choices and these choices carry with them aesthetic weight which necessarily and inherently become political weight.
I find that discourse around representation often become a discourse of aesthetics. I remember hearing a discussion about the 2019 Robert Eggers film The Lighthouse a few months back. Someone brought it up, someone else quickly responded something along the lines of “oh, a friend of mine saw it and said it was bad—it was just men talking.” The Lighthouse certainly did not pass the Bechdel test, that much is true. But I found myself frustrated with the comment for two reasons. The first being that its assessment of the film’s artistic merits were tied to the viewer’s personal taste. Perfectly fine to not like something, taste is subjective, but personal taste is just that: personal. The second was the implication that a film concerning an interaction between two men in the 1800s had no merit or use to the self-identified progressive young woman. Just the opposite, The Lighthouse stands as a polemic on masculinity, urbanization, whiteness, and labour. But the focus on the immediate text of the film (“two white men in a lighthouse”) misses its full and complete messaging. When we fail to recognize the use of examining things like whiteness, masculinity, wealth, we continue to see them as default. This process only further reenforces the othering of anything—or anyone else.
There is a strange and unfortunate conflation now of “good art” and “good politics” and of “bad artists” and “bad politics”. Certainly there is art whose messaging is antithetical to goals of justice, liberation, and equity. I will say it explicitly: that is not good! And there are many, many artists who are terrible people and who have done terrible things. That is also not good! I will not continue this idea with a “but…” or a qualifier that somehow contends that if art bears some sort of political or aesthetic significance then it erases or negates the harm that its messaging or creator does. Instead, I think it creates a misunderstanding of how art can be read, perceived, and used.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, Licorice Pizza, was subject to controversy and moral panic when audiences learned that the plot of the film follows a quasi-romantic relationship between a 15-year-old boy and a 25-year-old woman. It’s a boring controversy, at least to me, similar to the reception of Call Me By Your Name in 2017. Just so it’s on the record: a romantic relationship between a 25-year-old adult and a minor is wrong and gross and should not happen. But depicting something isn’t the same as endorsing it. What I found fascinating about the way that this discourse was presented was that most of the people participating had either never seen the film or walked out before it concluded. Truth be told: I enjoyed the movie. I thought it was well shot, I have a soft spot for the aesthetics and music of the early 70’s, and I think Alana Haim is cute and funny. One of the most common criticisms of the film is that both actors looked relatively close in age, the director could have written them or even re-cast them to have a more appropriate relationship. There was no grand social or legal punishment for Alana Haim’s character and no schlocky after-school special fourth wall break at the end where the director and the cast came out and said “Look. We all had fun here tonight, but I just wanted to remind you that what you saw was not okay.” Instead, the examination of the morality of the film was subtextual. If you weren’t paying attention at all, you wouldn’t catch it, but it’s not particularly hidden or difficult to read if you look.
The character of Alana is directionless. She lives with her parents and her older sisters, works a series of menial low-wage jobs, and seems to be stuck in a rut. She meets Gary, who adores her. He thinks she is beautiful and cool and smart largely because she has a knowledge base that extends a decade beyond his. They have a friendship that serves them both: Alana gets to be seen as glamorous and can forget about the mundanity of her adult life and Gary gets to feel more mature and serious for having her around. Alana needs Gary more than he needs her; she is deeply insecure and cannot figure out whether or not she is ready to be an adult. She loves to chastise Gary for his inability to stay up-to-date with politics and current events, validating her need to feel like she has it together semblance of sophistication because she knows about the oil crisis and he does not. The film’s thesis on their relationship comes near the end of the movie: Alana has started working for her local city councilman, finding the work fulfilling and engaging while also flirting with her handsome and age-appropriate co-worker. She’s distanced herself from Gary, who has opened a new pinball arcade and wants her to come to its opening event. She gets a late-night call from the councilman saying she’s needed at a dinner in town and her co-worker asks her on a date afterwards. It seems that Alana has accepted her role as an adult. At the dinner, Alana learns that the councilman is gay and closeted. She was asked to come to the dinner to quell suspicion about him going to eat with his partner, both a political danger as well as a personal one. A stranger in a brief case has been watching the campaign, and the councilman’s identity paired with the time and setting of the film echoes the life of Harvey Milk—the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California before being assassinated in 1978. Alana fulfils her duties to the councilman but is obviously uncomfortable at the weight of the situation, the reality of the harshness of the world beyond the free love ethos of suburban Southern California becomes to much to bear. It is in this context in which Alana returns to Gary, sprinting to an arcade built to satisfy the teenage imagination, never showing up to her date with the councilman, finally kissing the boy she is far too old for in a defiant refusal to ever grow up.
Sure, the film is not an outright condemnation of their relationship. It is also not an endorsement of it. It is a presentation of characters, a depiction of the listlessness of being in your mid-twenties, and a representation of a young woman whose insecurity causes her to behave in an inappropriate way because she is unable to accept her place in an ever-changing world. The morality of the film is not focused on characterizing its subjects as good or bad. The politics of the film are one that critiques the dreamy, impossible perpetual suburbia of 1970s California. The world that actively ignores racism and homophobia to believe in some sort of abstracted liberal American dream achieved through the tumult of the 60s. It is this ignorance of its characters that allows them to behave in wholly selfish ways and it is the world that Alana elects to return to because the alternative is too hard on her white, middle class sensitivities.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a film which I have seen exactly once. It wasn’t for me. The part of the film that stuck out most to me was Mickey Rooney as the Japanese landlord to the main character. Make no mistake: this depiction of an Asian-American man is orientalist, repulsive, racist, and actively encourages the othering and dehumanization of Japanese people and Asian-Americans as a whole. I feel no desire to watch the film again and did not find it entertaining. But the film is important. Not because it’s iconic or because Audrey Hepburn is in it, but because it is a document. It is a document of the racism of the 1960s, the product of a nation that dropped two atomic bombs on a country and fifteen years later continued to see Japanese people as sub-human, and perhaps most importantly its continued cultural purchase documents that for the most part, white people don’t care—or are able to ignore—this glaring and obvious racism and xenophobia because they just want to witness the glamor of wealthy white womanhood.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the presentation of liberalism in popular culture often frames inherently regressive narratives as progressive ones under the lens of representation. I think that the best example of this faux-progressivism can be found in the multitude of critiques of Hamilton. The exaltation of the American project, the idea that the Founding Fathers were genuine believers in equality, and the singular overachieving message that the American Dream is possible through hard work and patriotism underscore the play. This belief serves to legitimize the idea of the United States as a unified nation and a place of upward mobility, framed as a progressive because it uses hip-hop music and Black actors. The heart of liberal representation lies in this idea of individual exceptionalism, one member of a subjugated group proving their worth to the gaze of the majority. Though the history of the term has been lost, the phrase “girlboss” entered the cultural consciousness following an autobiographical book (and Netflix series) of the same name by Sophia Amaruso, founder of fashion retailer Nasty Gal. While both the book and TV show sold the liberal message of Amaruso’s climb through male-dominated corporate America, Nasty Gal made no breaks from any other corporate practice and was the subject of a “modern slavery” scandal in 2020.
Art is, at is core, a form of communication. Art, particularly music and film, are often consumed less for analytical critique and more for entertainment. Which is fair, it’s quite exhausting. Sometimes we would like to simply turn off our brains and watch good people get rewarded or see bad people punished or even just see beautiful people in beautiful clothes throw wine at each other. Sure. After all, it seems that we never stop working. A 9-to-5 seems almost like a luxury of the past; there is always another email to urgently answer lest you risk the ire of your boss, a second job to pick up delivering sushi to rich college kids who don’t tip, a freelance contract with no benefits and clients that text you on Friday nights. And it is work to look deeply at art. The ability to relax can be legitimately liberating and politically powerful and looking to media for enjoyment is natural and reasonable. But therein lies the danger of allowing media to wash over us: we don’t notice what we are actually being sold. Superheroes team up with the American military or local police to produce “justice” in the threat of danger; that’s an explicitly political message. A young woman can be “empowered” by the sexual gaze of the patriarchy. That’s a political message. Even well-meaning allegories are laden with deeper, subtextual political messages. In Disney’s 2016 film Zootopia, what is supposed to be an anti-racism children’s parable also asserts the following: police misconduct is the result of a few bad apples in an ultimately just system and there are essential biological differences between ethnic groups that make some predisposed to violence.
And so what I would like to say is this: critique is a labour of love. It takes time and dedication to learn the language and methodology of good artistic critique. It takes care and attention to examine what is supposed to pass for meaningless entertainment. It is something that not everyone wants to do. But it is important nonetheless. When a piece of media provides our brains with chemical releases that feel entertaining—or at least pacifying—we receive these feelings with aesthetics inherently tied to ideas. It is the role of the critic to understand how the ideas are both implemented by creators and received by audiences. Music, film, visual art, television… they are not only content but also document. Not only an active archive of the world around us, how we imagine both the current and the past, but an inter-active archive as the way we move around art, speak about it, examine its politics is an ongoing and contemporary practice. The takeaway from critique-- or good critique, at least—should not be offense. The desire to raise the blinders, to not only refuse to examine art but to shut down the examination of art by others, only reduces our ability to notice the signs and symbols present in the world. When our media landscape is inextricable from capital, we move through the messaging and ideology of monopolized capitalism even as passive witness. To look is to love, it is the quality of being thoughtful that allows us to perceive the pain and pleasure in the sights and sounds around us. And so we need critique, we need criticism, and we need to want to be observant, careful, and patient. These things elevate culture and more importantly elevate discourse, perhaps with time moving us away from a pithy liberal presentation of marketable representation and into a fluid, poetic, multifaceted cultural consciousness. Just as long as they still make Vanderpump Rules.
Recommended further reading:
Ways of Seeing, John Berger
“Cultural Criticism and Transformation, bell hooks
The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, Hal Foster
 Gemini sun, Sagittarius moon, Libra rising, Gemini Venus, Gemini Mars.
 I think that the consideration of the Bechdel test is particularly apt; what was a throwaway joke in a comic about a lesbian who just wanted to see more lesbians in movies becomes the catch-all quantifier for “feminist film” and representation.
 The movie has also been subject to critique of its portrayal of anti-Asian racism, particularly for the presence of a white character who is characterized as vocally racist against his two Japanese wives. While it seems to me that it intends to underscore the wilful ignorance of Gary and Alana and de-romanticize the 1970s, I don’t have the desire or lived experience to officiate whether or not this presentation is tasteful, harmful, or anything else and opinions differ between Asian-American individuals. Read the Media Action Network for Asian American’s critical statement here.