Artistic and cultural criticism have long been deemed by many artists as useless and even detrimental to their respective crafts. In the last few years, however, a new generation of critics along with their evolving predecessors have been changing the nature of criticism in and of itself.
From relative newcomers like Wesley Morris of The New York Times and Jia Tolentino of The New Yorker (formerly of Jezebel) to living legends like A.O. Scott and Emily Nussbaum—both of the same respective publications—critics have made their work integrally relevant to our country’s societal fabric. Writing for venerable institutions that are seemingly threatened by the advent of new services like Rotten Tomatoes and MetaCritic, these critics have strengthened the work of their publications.
Morris, who cut his teeth at the Boston Globe and Grantland before landing at The Times, has already won a Pulitzer Prize for criticism along with a National Magazine award for his work since 2011. To describe Morris as a renaissance man would not do him justice. He is an interdisciplinary critic who can cover anything from TV and film reviews to broad cultural issues. At a lecture on campus last spring, the Times’ Chief Film Critic and Professor of Film Criticism at the University A.O. Scott said that Morris was his favorite critic in the industry (other than himself, presumably).
The main focus of much of Morris’ criticism lies in the cultural implications of his subjects, ranging from the gender politics of “Ghostbusters” to the futility of the so-called “national conversation.” His writing is clear yet weighty. He makes profound claims about American life through the evidence presented in our pop culture. For any engaged citizen, Morris is the best defender against the modern phenomenon of sensationalizing and shallow kitsch.
Coined by art historian Clement Greenberg, kitsch has been used in a myriad of ways since it was first defined in an essay by Greenberg in 1940, which placed kitsch in opposition to the avant-garde movement that had been literally exterminated by the Nazis in World War II. In its modern incarnation, kitsch finds itself in the most popular music, television, and film meant to be consumed by the broadest American and global audience possible.
It would be a mistake, however, to write off kitsch as light fare that has little to no political or cultural implications. On the contrary, kitsch perhaps says more about our culture and politics than much of the art consumed by the elite and haute bourgeoisie. Though shows like “Mad Men,” “The Night Of,” and “The Wire” have become the subjects of college courses and studies at universities across the country, pop culture created for mass consumption is an equally important subject for any critic, especially those at the most widely read and influential publications.
Emily Nussbaum of The New Yorker lives with kitsch, ruminates on it, and then composes beautiful prose explaining its importance and quality. Her Twitter feed often consists of live updates of shows like “The Good Wife” that one would not necessarily expect a staff writer at the magazine to dedicate any significant ink to. The wondrous beauty of Nussbaum’s work is that she can make basic shows perceived as low-brow just as interesting as the most cutting-edge television on the air. Her review of “BoJack Horseman,” for example, critiques a seemingly stupid show about a washed-up sitcom actor in the form of a hard-partying anthropomorphic horse by highlighting its insights into mental illness and existential loneliness while pointing out its limits and shortcomings. Nussbaum manages to remain funny and even biting while treating all shows seriously, precisely because they all have significant cultural implications.
Her colleague, Jia Tolentino, who writes for the magazine’s website, has skyrocketed to critical acclaim because of her moving prose and cultural empathy. She seems to effortlessly convince us that we have long understood things that we were never even aware of. In one of her recent pieces on the Chainsmokers’ new hit single “Closer,” which you have probably heard at any party in and around Fountain this year, Tolentino encapsulates the essential trait of pop music into one sentence.
“The magic trick of pop music involves making the familiar feel new,” she writes.
From her leads to her profound conclusions, Tolentino proves with each successive piece that she is more than just a rising star in journalism. She is the real deal and she is here to stay.
Finally, there is Wesleyan’s own A.O. Scott, who teaches a course on film criticism each spring when he’s not eviscerating terrible movies with equal parts humor and logic. Although he told The Argus last year in an interview that he has “toned it down a bit,” Scott remains the worst nightmare of kitsch films. His “Entourage” review, for example, was more than just a normal pan. It was personal.
“There are some movies though, I have to say, ‘Entourage’ being one of them, that just piss me off,” he said. “And I think, you know, goddammit, what are these people doing? It’s just so awful in so many ways. I mean, I approach every movie that I go to see with an open mind and with respect for the work that’s been done. It’s hard. I don’t have to tell anyone here, it’s very hard to make movies, and nobody sets out to make bad movies, except when it seems like maybe they do, or they didn’t care, or there’s kind of cynicism or contempt for the audience or dishonesty. I have to feel like there’s some, not just artistic, but you might say moral failure involved for me to go after a movie the way I went after ‘Entourage.’”
Starting with Scott, continuing through Nussbaum, Morris, and Tolentino, these critics are making the point every day that their job is about more than just making an aesthetic judgment on a work of art. With each review, the new generation of critics is proving that they are the vanguard of our society’s moral compass, or what’s left of it.
Without them, and without the ongoing criticism we all perform when we exit the theater or turn off the TV, we would be merely mindless mass consumers. The worst part is perhaps too many of us already are without knowing it yet.