Romain Rolland once complained that ‘there is too much music in Germany.’ Today there are too many television critics in the world. Some of the finest writers of multiple generations spend most of their writing lives recapping last night’s television. Is any of it really criticism, or are thousands of words agonizing over, say, Don Draper, adding up to anything more than the digital equivalent of chip wrapping?
…Imagine living in a world where Mrs Dalloway and Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon exist and thinking that Game of Thrones (which is entertaining, don’t get me wrong) is a work of art. Then imagine making a career out of typing up little takes about it. And then imagine this defining your career as a critic!
Critics who only write about shallow subjects will only produce shallow writing. How television became the most critically examined art form of our century remains a baffling mystery.
Even worse, imagine being an enlightened critic who has scaled the heights of True Art and nonetheless is compelled to hawk his bloggy wares in the marketplace like any other word-merchant, forced to take his cues from whatever the fishwives are yakking about today! Is there no dignity? Is there no honor? Ah, fie, fie upon’t.
I’ve never watched Game of Thrones. However, in one of those strange twists of fate, I have seen almost all of the Marvel movies in the last few months. I didn’t plan this. No, seriously, I swear on my sainted grandmother, last December, I suggested to the Lady of the House that maybe it would be fun to read Shakespeare together. Out loud, on winter evenings, sitting around the fire, and all that. Somehow — and I’m not clear on the precise details — that project morphed into me reading Shakespeare and us watching the MCU productions together. (Cue Henry Higgins singing, “But let a woman in your life…”)
I kid, I kid. For me, popcorn entertainment falls under what the Stoics called “preferred indifferents.” It’s not something I would normally seek out, but it’s not something I’ll make a pretentious spectacle of refusing, either (in this case, when the movies are available for rental at the library we’re already patronizing, sure, why not). I have little patience with those who stack the deck by assembling a greatest-hits compilation of artworks from the previous few thousand years, comparing it to the last few years of pop culture, and sniffing about what a tragedy it is that they should have been born in such a pigsty of an age. I’m of the more sanguine opinion that there is uplifting and ennobling work to be found in many surprising places if you work hard enough to look for it. Profound conversations about perennial themes of human nature can sprout from humble origins, like Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War, willing to sacrifice love to his “ends justify the means” vision of a grateful universe in “balance” under his enlightened oversight. Some of the Marvel movies were indeed terrible, but then again, some of Shakespeare’s work doesn’t recommend itself for re-reading either. That’s not an endorsement of relativism in aesthetic judgment, of course, just an assertion that your antiquarian taste alone won’t get you into heaven.
When we last left Mr. Lloyd, he was connecting tendentious dots to claim that Marvel movies were somehow slightly responsible for the election of Donald Trump. It may be ad hominem, but I can’t help but wonder sometimes: when so many people like this come across as bitter, sour, old cranks, why am I supposed to be motivated to contemplate the things they insist I should? Whining and complaining is repulsive. Okay, so you spend your time marinating in the most sublime art ever produced. Is it because of or despite that that you appear to be a stuffy, humorless scold? I understand from reading this that Mrs. Dalloway and Barry Lyndon are the sorts of books and movies I should be enjoying if I want to be thought well of by curmudgeonly critics, but if there are good reasons for doing so, he couldn’t be bothered to elaborate here. All that does is encourage the all-too-common scourge of signaling. Like CliffsNotes for social climbers, these dyspeptic rants provide cues without context. It would be far better to write a paean to the art you love rather than moaning that other people are enjoying the wrong things, but it turns out that even our moral betters are prone to finding fault rather than providing a better example. I find that one of the most tedious characteristics of conservatives, both political and literary: too much darkness-cursing, not enough candle-lighting. It’s easy to get the impression that they’re not lamenting wasted intellectual and imaginative potential so much as the disappearance of a cultural caste system that favored them.