This parasitic profiting from and promotion of offensive content is hypocritical, to be sure. But what’s even more convoluted than how the offense industry earns its living are what its criticisms imply about our relationship with art and our beliefs about its influence on society. Clearly, underlying criticisms of Cyrus, Lorde, Thicke, Allen, et al. was the assumption that offensive art is somehow connected to real-life prejudices and inequalities. But the line connecting art and life seemed too blurred to follow.
Do we believe that exposure to offensive art actually breeds prejudice in easily-influenced viewers? If so, wouldn’t The Atlantic and Flavorwire actually have created a bunch of racists by increasing the exposure of Miley Cyrus’s twerking? Put differently: if someone made an unintentionally racist music video and nobody saw it, would it actually harm anyone?
…My school’s obsession with hermeneutics — the science of interpreting texts, which began with ancient scholars of the Bible — was laughably similar to this year’s proliferation of offense criticism. Both believe that art holds great power, but that the mechanisms through which this power can impact audiences are only visible to a select group of scholars: in one case Biblical, in another case secular. But whether following in the footsteps of pastor James Dobson or critical theorists from the 1970s, claims to interpretive authority in both cases are based on a knowledge of something far removed from either art itself or the people who enjoy it.
No teacher at my school would have understood what I took away from Marilyn Manson or Tori Amos (I mean, looking back, I barely do, either). Their understanding of it boiled down to just, “Satan!” Offense criticism today is just as much of a hammer, seeing everything as a nail. And such a reductive and suspicious hermeneutics might be harming the admirably-egalitarian causes sites like Jezebel and The Atlantic espouse, as much as my school ruined the chances of anybody who attended it devoting their life to Christianity. Nobody understands what art means to people more than the people it is meaningful to; by pretending otherwise, offense criticism risks alienating the everyday audiences who listen to songs, watch TV, and go to movies, turning them off from giving a shit about real-life prejudice and inequality.