The anti-critical nature of the Poptimist

“No movie is ever bad, because somebody somewhere probably likes it.” – A poptimist

While I was volunteering at SIFF this past summer, the above words were spoken to me in between sets. The logic was that you can say you didn’t like a movie, but that no movie could ever be objectively bad if somebody else actively legitimately liked it. Everything is of value to someone, thus nothing is valueless.

The new wave of cultural poptimism springs out of the rise of the geek culture. Geek culture was derided as empty, childish, and valueless for decades. Now that we’ve re-evaluated geek culture to be worthy of mainstream success, nothing can ever be called truly terrible again, because somebody somewhere liked it. What was low is now on the same level as high, and everybody’s point of view is equally valid.

Needless to say, the above poptimist is a veritable geek. He’s probably been derided for his choices of media only to have people decide they like it after having consumed it in some fashion. Now he is saying, “A ha! You were wrong about whatever decision you made to not like [Media object A], thus you can’t say things are ever terrible!”

This line of thinking extends from the bottom of the cultural barrel to the top. The whole conversation was started by mentioning Neil Breen’s feature films, and The Room. Even though I like The Room, I said it was an awful movie. But, his logic went, because I got enjoyment from hating on it, it wasn’t a bad movie. I also couldn’t say that the documentary talhotblonde was terrible because it inexplicably won the SIFF Documentary award that year, even though the construction of the film felt like an extended amateur hour aping of 48 Hours or Dateline. Similarly, I can’t say that Jaws is terrible because everybody loves it, even though I think Spielberg’s pacing is dull, his dialogue is boring, the score is the harbringer of the worst of the bombast, and his characters are god awful constructs who jabber on instead of showing us the fucking shark. Contrastingly, other people can’t say that Southland Tales is an awful mess because I think it’s the best film of its year. Or, their negative opinion of Natural Born Killers is invalid because it feels like the exact movie it needed to be.

This whole line of logic shuts down conversation about positives and negatives, with the critical audience being deemed as always wrong while the people who love it are always right. But, where does this get us? Doesn’t this defeat the purpose of art? Shouldn’t art be talked about and hotly debated? Do we need a consensus?

There are, in my opinion, three elements to art.

1) Execution
Is something crafted in an intentional way? Is that craft pleasing to the viewer? Is it rough, shoddy and cheap? Amateurish? Is it intentionally so? No singular execution is universally praised or reviled, with much of the quality of the execution being in the eye of the beholder.

2) Personal
This is the interaction between the artist, the media/um, and the beholder. The element of art that is affected by the life of the artist and his personal taste, and whether that taste is conveyed to the beholder. The beholder can then accept or reject the taste at will.

3) Sociopolitical
The interaction of the art with society, and the interaction the art causes in the interactions between the beholders. To me, nothing is more boring than art that causes a person to consume it and then not think about or talk about it ever again. The social portion of art is important because it helps define us as a society, even if that art is a product.

Even though one of these elements is the personal, all three of them have to deal with the personal viewpoints – aesthetic and otherwise – of the audience. If art has a largely personal element to it, why is there a strand of people that believe we cannot qualitatively judge or critique art according to our own consumption? There really are two elements to that. The fear of being judged and of being wrong, and the personal value that we attach to our tastes.

The fear of being judged and of being wrong is innate in social creatures, but is especially prevalent in modern times. People take special exception if I say that I disagreed with Roger Ebert quite frequently because he would be reviewing movies based on personal bias, and sometimes even on the culture that surrounded him. People also think that if they enjoyed something, it did its job, and shouldn’t be criticized for not doing it better. Because, if somebody criticizes something that we enjoy that obviously means our enjoyment was faulty.

American society teaches us to attach our personal value and worth to our tastes. If we don’t like a book in English class, and say so, we get graded down. If we don’t like a movie in film class, and don’t agree with the teacher, some professors will grade you down. Personal taste gets tied in to self-worth, and as a projection of the values you hold. Frequently, this is exploited by marketers who get consumers to wear the brands they love or to promote the media they consume. What you like becomes who you are. If what you like is who you are, then what are you if what you like is awful?

Shutting down discussions of pop culture based on personal tastes, or a refusal to engage with the media in a certain way, is a sign of cultural stagnation and insecurity. Our tastes may be defined by what we like, but what we like doesn’t define us. Similarly, there is no right or wrong way to engage in a piece of art or product, though one’s method of engagement may be informed by who one is.

All of this gets tied into criticism. If a professor can grade somebody based on their angle of criticism, why can’t everybody grade other people based on their angles? Why do we even need criticism at all? Why can’t art just be, and let all the chips land where they may?

Without the ability to discuss or judge works of art, and more especially product, we can’t improve. Part of society’s progression is through critical, and somewhat constructive, analysis. Saying that a movie is too poorly paced, or that acting is bad, or a song is too short and simple is a form of societal analysis (not to mention the cultural analyses that can happen). If we’re not willing to engage with the other side of the argument, then how do we move to the next phase?

Poptimism is just reductionism and groupthink masquerading as radical acceptance.