A couple weeks ago, A.O. Scott asked an important question in The New York Times: “Is Our Art Equal to the Challenges of Our Times?”
(December is the busy season for film critics and for college professors, and I'm both, so you'll forgive me for being a few weeks late to the table on this.)
“We are in the midst of hard times now,” Scott says, “and it feels as if art is failing us.” He is unsatisfied (as am I) with the ability of our art—even the best of it—to provide moral clarity for the problems we face, problems that keep him up at night. This is in stark contrast to, say, The Grapes of Wrath, or Death of a Salesman, or (I'd add) even Uncle Tom's Cabin—art that was able to radically alter its audience's view of social issues in ways that resulted in social action, while preserving their status as art, not propaganda.
If true, this is troubling. In a statement I heartily endorse, Scott says, “Much as I respect the efforts of economists and social scientists to explain the world and the intermittent efforts of politicians to change it, I trust artists and writers more. Not necessarily to be righteous or infallible, or even consistent or coherent; not to instruct or advocate, but rather, through the integrity and discipline they bring to making something new, to tell the truth.”
Scott's argument is essentially that art—which tries to explore the problems of existence—is failing us today, when our challenges are just as big as they ever have been. Statistics show that the gap between the wealthy and everyone else is only growing wider. American politics are widely considered more polarized than they've been in a long time, and in a way that is toxic to the governed. Terror and war are a threat; the dialogue around racism and violence against women, as we've seen in recent days, has entered some ugly and seemingly intractable realms.
In a move that I wish I could replicate, Scott asked some of his artist friends like David Simon (creator of The Wire) and the documentarian Ken Burns to weigh in on the question. I have great friends, but considerably fewer of them are famous, so I opted to take the question to my undergraduates in a course in cultural criticism. I wanted to see what they thought.
One thing we noted was the conspicuous absence of matters around religion and religious freedom from Scott's analysis. This seems like an important absence. Matters of violence and anti-Islamic attitudes have been a subject of concern since 9/11, but now to that we can add the polarized conversations around the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, ISIS's reprehensible extermination of Christians, and the dialogue about religious freedom here on our home turf prompted by matters such as the Hobby Lobby case and bakers who refuse to provide cakes for same-sex marriages. Christians of careful conviction fall on all sides of these matters, to be sure—but where is the art that explores it? This is an explosive area, and I don't think I'd be up to the challenge, myself, but I suspect that the ordinary American will only begin to be able to understand what's at stake—and why it's so important to people on all sides—when he or she encounters the embodiment of it in stories.
Stepping away from religion: my students instantly pointed to The Hunger Games and Orange Is the New Black—which, reportedly, will include religion in its third season—as art that tries to deal with problems in our world, however obliquely. My own feeling on this is that The Hunger Games' critique of an entertainment-driven society is biting, but lost on a lot of its viewers (I've written about this before); Orange Is the New Black is admirable for attempting to humanize characters—overwhelmingly female and nonwhite—but simply too edgy, particularly because of its graphic sexual content, for a lot of potential viewers who might discover something paradigm-shifting in its storytelling. In other words, if it's out to do something revolutionary, it's shooting itself in the foot.
Which brings us to the most important point my students explored in our conversation, one that rings true with me and points to why Scott may be right, and why we might have to think about this differently.
Here is the thing: today, our consumption habits are shaped by our own curation. If you run any outlet for publication on the Internet and have access to analytics (as I do), you quickly discover that the vast amount of your web traffic comes from social media—most of that from Facebook.
That means that most people who read the Internet are seeing things posted by their Facebook friends—and frankly, few of us have Internet friends who don't think like us. A Pew Research study published on October 21 points out that liberals and conservatives inhabit different corners of the Internet. Liberals are more likely to defriend someone because of their conservative politics; conservatives are more likely to not be friends with liberals at all.
This also shapes how we engage with media. We click through, read, and watch things our friends watch. What we see is shaped by what we already like. In other words, our Internet lives function as echo chambers for what we already believe.
And so, they shape what we read. “We are stuck in our own rut,” one of my students said. Over a decade ago, when I was an undergraduate studying information technology, we talked ceaselessly about the then-exciting possibility of the ability to curate our own consumption—to pick which articles and stories and issues we were interested in, filtering out the noise and focusing in on what was important to us.
There's value to that, probably, but the flip side is the atomism of a world where all of us get to ignore the news that bores us (who cares about terrorism abroad if it doesn't bother me? or economic problems in a state a thousand miles from where I live?) in favor of whatever interests us.
The reason we can do this is that there is just more stuff to read and watch and listen to and think about than there was in the past. There are websites and news services and magazines and it's incredibly hard—take it from someone who knows—to attract eyeballs to your “content” unless you take a swaggering polarized position on your topic. The Internet, whatever its benefits (there are many, and I'm no golden-age journalist) rewards the loud and brash and tends to squash anything like nuance.
Similarly, there is a lot to watch. Early this year, Scott's fellow critic Manohla Dargis pointed out that in 2013, nearly 900 film reviews ran in The New York Times (which reviews each film that gets a theatrical release in New York City), 75 more than the year before. A year ago, Steven Soderbergh noted in a speech that 455 films in 2003 were released, compared with 677 in 2012. And don't even get started on TV, which is indisputably undergoing a golden age of one kind or another but has also clearly exploded, with nontraditional distributors like Netflix and Amazon getting in on the act as well. Series like Scandal and Game of Thrones, which would have gotten cancelled for low viewership in the past, are now among some of the most-watched shows on TV.
So couple that with our very human desire to listen to people who prop up our beliefs, and you've got a problem: in some ways, having more to choose from means less chance of seeing things that give us a common ground to talk about. After all, humans can only take in so much entertainment—we still have to go to work and sleep at some point. Were Uncle Tom's Cabin released today, it would not be called “the most popular novel of our day.”
Actually, I'd wager that if Uncle Tom's Cabin or The Grapes of Wrath came out today, the only people who'd even read it would be those who were already ready to agree with the portrayal of reality they inhabit. They'd discuss it amongst themselves with much excitement. But everyone else would either not hear of it at all, or hear that they ought not to bother because of the work's agenda.
This curation simply makes it that much harder to make a movie, a TV show, or any other cultural product that can change people's minds or challenge their mindset. What sometimes works is comedy—people like to laugh, which coaxes them to let their guard down. It's possible that Jon Stewart and Modern Family have succeeded mostly because they are well-written entertainment before they are anything else.
All that said, there's one genre that seems to work, even when it's trying to be more pedantic than any other. Don't laugh: that genre is science fiction. When sci-fi works best, it takes big ideas about belief, philosophy, politics, and societies and displaces them from a normal context—I wrote about this last year, when Oblivion came out and failed at this utterly—and makes us think about them in a new way. Similarly, post-apocalyptic shows and movies like The Hunger Games, The Walking Dead, and even Game of Thrones work by setting the things we encounter here on earth in a world that is quite different than our own. In 2009, the South African film District 9 dealt with the implications of its racist heritage in a similar way.
That's important, because in our current climate, we don't react well to being challenged. Friendships across party lines are notoriously discouraged; people are less willing to let their children marry someone from another political party than they once were. I'd wager this results in a decreased ability for us to both hold to ideas and maintain relationships with someone who disagrees with us—which, in turn, means we have a sharp decrease in our own reasoning abilities.
That's important in a polarized culture. Sci-fi is loaded with unfamiliarity (aliens and alternate universes) that might be more well-suited to addressing the very real issues we bump up against than realism ever was, because they appeal to our humanity first—our sense of fear, of desire, of survival, of love and loyalty—and then to our reasoning. Sci-fi helps us sort things out without being confronted with the immediate real-life results of this. Because of this, we let our guard down a little, enough that we might not feel immediately offended when we encounter ideas that challenge our own. Sci-fi can sometimes train us into more careful ways of thinking.
Then again, the problem here is that understanding sci-fi well requires reflecting well, and together, on our art. We're not very good at that. Reflecting means approaching movie and television-watching as social activities—not that we must necessarily watch them with others, but we must be able to engage in conversation on them with others (and, dare I say, read critics who do the same). What did that mean? What do we think about the argument? Why did the filmmakers portray reality that way? Does this challenge me? How? Why? And what will I do about it?
Until we're ready to reflect well on art, I'm not sure it will ever confront the challenges of our times the way it used to. But that doesn't mean it can't—or doesn't. As with many things, the viewer is as important a part of the process as the maker.
(An interesting note: Evangelicals should be actually used to this, given that we spend copious time reflecting together on the Bible during Sunday morning services, Bible studies, and Sunday school classes. But we're as bad as anyone at reflecting critically on what we listen to and read—or rather, we're often good at reflecting on them critically by critiquing them, but not by taking a generous moment to understand the work seriously for what it actually says, and why it might be saying it.)