At some point, we are taught that we need to explain. To say why you believe something is the way it is. This is an important way of moving beyond the egotism of a child and recognizing that other people do not have direct access to your thoughts; if you want them to listen then you need to give them a reason to do so. And this is especially important if you are making an argument. Siskel and Ebert ultimately put their thumbs up or down but first they talked about the movies they were reviewing, and of course wrote extensively about the films they watched. A critic is expected to contextualize and consider all sides, and lay this work out in their criticism as they give art their attention.
I think that sucks.
Dorothy Gambrell’s webcomic Cat and Girl has been running for more than two decades, somehow managing a balance of pointed barbs at the culture industry and a wry awareness of her complaints’ effectiveness (also Cat drinks a lot of paint, it’s funny). One of her recent comics has lodged in my brain, a joking-but-not-really portrait of the economy moving from agrarian to industrial to service-based to the current model of distraction. Distraction is the promise of the internet monetized – instead being of a place to goof off at work, the internet creates and demands an endless progression of subjects and opinions on those subjects in order to sell ads and personal data. The most powerful media companies understand this and create “content” to feed this churn.
Which makes the take-havers complicit, quislings of critique. I think they are trying to be fair, as we were told to be. And there is plenty of bad or failed art that is worthy of wrestling with and working over. I was disappointed in Nope but think there is a lot to look at in its failures and talking about it with people here this week has been fun and eye-opening. That’s one thing art is supposed to do, why we engage with it. But there is so much shit that is also engaged with because… well, because why? Every single review of The Gray Man not by some simp on the take has bemoaned the movie’s existence; few questioned why the reviews themselves should also exist. The entertainment industry’s inertia is impossible to fully avoid, critics have to acknowledge the existence of these things. But they don’t have to respect them.
Sometimes things suck and that is all they do. And sometimes, you think something sucks and that’s all that you need to say. Because to do otherwise is to get caught up in the distraction, to flail around in an ever-increasing ocean of shit instead of just keeping still and getting out. The only people who benefit from this are the ones pumping the shit in. In his consumer guide, Robert Christgau would use a little doodle of a bomb (a primitive emoji!) to denote a real stinker of an album, but I think very few critics have this ability to just dismiss something crappy. Instead they write about it and fans of the art (or increasingly, artists themselves) get mad and push back and the discourse keeps churning for another day until it’s repeated again with a new subject tomorrow. Just another day at the distraction mines.
So let’s say more things suck and leave it at that. And that cuts both ways — if you say something sucks, you’re closing a door. If you don’t want to hear more from people who think the art doesn’t suck, you can’t open the door again because you want to bash the art some more. This is not an argument against evisceration, I certainly indulge when I think it’s worthwhile. And bashing can of course be its own thrill and art, cue Tom Servo and Crow. This is a call for opting out of going further when doing so just adds more emptiness to the world. (It works for saying something is good too, but let’s be honest – lots of things suck.)
For fans of the art, a person saying it sucks is someone you can just write off on that subject. They can talk with people who want to engage and the naysayers can use the time freed from this latest distraction to talk about something worthwhile, or just something they’re honestly interested in instead of the latest turd from the shit factory. Dialogue is there for those who want it but discourse is shut down, the distraction economy tanks and our long national nightmare is over. Everyone wins when we let things suck.
Have you written anything off into the suck zone?