2013: The Year Offense Criticism Ruined Art and the Internet
In 2013, real-world news seemed to arrive as fully formed myths — larger-than-life events that both encapsulated and magnified the tensions that characterize our more mundane, everyday lives. Race? George Zimmerman, Trayvon Martin. Economic uncertainty? Detroit. Sexual orientation? Proposition 8/Defense of Marriage Supreme Court cases. Gender? Chelsea Manning. Safety? Boston, Sandy Hook. Consumerism and globalization? Bangladesh. Privacy? Edward Snowden.
But while it’s hard to think of another year in which so many decades-long debates could be distilled into mere proper nouns, despite how iconic these stories were, none seemed to adequately capture our collective 2013 preoccupations. Or mine, at least.
Sure, I was shocked and disturbed by the Sandy Hook shooting, and I held my breath for the Zimmerman verdict. But I didn’t spend days afterwards lost in endless chains of articles debating their implications for American society and lighting up our social media.
That was reserved for more urgent questions: Is that one Robin Thicke song rapey? Should white girls like Miley Cyrus be allowed to twerk? Should Lily Allen be allowed to make a video commenting on said white girls who twerk? What is thin privilege, and how can we reconcile it with the fact that most obesity worldwide is in rich countries? Speaking of thin privilege, does Lena Dunham hate black people because there aren’t any in her show? Also, do the lyrics to the new Kanye West album mean that he hates women? And just how, exactly, is Kanye West’s fist like a civil rights sign, and wouldn’t that give some awful splinters?
Instead of worrying about the state of the real world, I spent this year obsessed with online debates about the media’s representations of it.
Instead of worrying about the state of the real world, I spent this year obsessed with online debates about the media’s representations of it.
And judging from Google search results, I wasn’t alone. Type in “Miley Cyrus twerk*” and you’ll get 372,000,000 results; “Trayvon Martin” yields a paltry 109,000,000. “Blurred Lines rape” is at 103,000,000, which is still four times “Supreme Court Defense of Marriage,” with 12,100,000 pages. Global events follow the same pattern. “Lorde Royal?” 70,500,000 — more than the number of people who live in the Kiwi singer’s home country. “Bangladesh factory collapse?” 2,940,000.
But were we really more concerned with whether there’s too much boob in Game of Thrones or too much white people in Girls (“Girls show racist”: 35,700,000) than we were about whether there are too many actual black people in prison? (“African American prison population”: 2,480,000; “Orange Is the New Black”: 74,400,000) Or is this imbalance of attention more a product of displacement than disinterest?
After all, our interest in media seemed to revolve more around finding offense than it did finding refuge (thankfully, since “having fun” and “escapism” are #privileged, #thingswhitepeoplelike, #firstworldproblems). Gracias a sites like Flavorwire, Buzzfeed, Jezebel, The Atlantic, Salon, and Upworthy (and our devoted patronage of them), the bulk of our discussion about songs, music videos, TV shows, and films — many of which most of us otherwise wouldn’t have even seen — was limited to their ability to be offensive in terms of race, gender, and sexuality1.
Of course, maybe our internet-assisted cycle of consumption and subsequent regurgitation ))<>(( of pop media was actually a form of self-conscious hand-wringing that belied a deep concern for some of the same political and social discourses we refused to engage with IRL. But even if we were just projecting our societal anxieties about the real onto the imaginary, it was the imaginary that suffered most of the negative impact.
TL;DR: Miley Cyrus’s twerking probably didn’t hurt race relations in the US, but the endless “offense criticism” it inspired did hurt our relationship with art.
Being Offended by Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction
Being offended by art isn’t exactly new. A century ago this year, Igor Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring nearly caused its audience to riot during its premiere at Paris’s Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. Presumably, wealthier patrons expecting an easily-digested traditional ballet got their monocles in a knot upon seeing the avant-garde performance’s then-groundbreaking violent, erratic choreography and similarly rule-breaking — at least for the venue — music.
A hundred years later, showcasing unfamiliar dance moves (twerking) in a new setting (the mainstream) can still apparently cause an uproar. And at their most basic, our justifications for being offended — whether overly rigid moral codes, misguided objective ideas about good taste, or impermeable boundaries between collective identities — haven’t changed much, either. Nor has the language we’ve used to say, “Harumph!” Stravinsky’s critics called The Rite of Spring “puerile;” this year, after her VMA performance and We Can’t Stop video, internet criticism zoomed in on Cyrus’s relationship to her own childhood.
But there is an important difference between offense at art today and nearly all of its previous incarnations: unlike the audience in the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées — who heard about the ballet beforehand, made the journey to the theater, paid for tickets, and waited in line with anticipation — most of us actually have no investment at all in the art that pisses us off.
Igor Stravinsky at the 1913 VMAs
Miley Cyrus being highly offensive
And neither do critics. Stravinsky’s naysayers were ballet and classical music aficionados, near-comedically well-versed in and obsessed with the minutiae of the form’s history and technical elements. But I’d hazard a guess that most of Cyrus’s internet critics didn’t even know what key her song was in, or otherwise care about her music2.
This shift in audiences’ and critics’ relationship to the art they hate is tied to historical changes in both media production and distribution, as well as in our relationships to them. Around the 1970s, university English and art departments, which formerly upheld the traditional artistic tastes of the upper class, were infiltrated by the cultural studies valuation of working-class artforms like TV and blockbuster films. Soon afterward, identity-centric ideological critiques like critical race theory, post-colonialism, queer theory, and feminism came to dominate academia’s approach to visual art and literature. At the same time, TV and radio channel proliferation began to chip away at what was formerly a single, national mass media market — and with it the notion that any particular program should appeal to the values and tastes of a national or global audience. Today, technologies like torrents and streaming content continue to fracture audiences even further, with the added complication that content became, in many cases, free.
1. Perhaps not accidentally, class — and along with it, issues of economic justice and equality — was pretty much ignored besides vague allusions in the ever-present privilege discourse.
2. Without curiosity about, or investment in, what makes art tick, what’s left to say besides surface-level critiques about how art illustrates, or even causes, our most ubiquitous social ills?
Popular art criticism has responded to these developments, although for the most part lagged years or decades behind. Nowadays, for instance, despite its ubiquity in online criticism, the idea of the “male gaze” is mostly the butt of LOLs from scholars, who see it as heteronormative, technologically determinist, and basically insane (it hinges on dudes feeling castration anxiety from women’s lack of having wangs) — at least as it was originally conceptualized in the 1970s by feminist film scholar Laura Mulvey.
But one area where changes in criticism have sped past changes in art is in figuring out how to monetize free content. While many of us might download Bangerz for free after we also paid nothing for a Jezebel article about why Bangerz is #problematic, only Jezebel makes money off our not paying anything. Of course, as an editor at Tiny Mix Tapes, I realize that ad revenue supports a wide range of online outlets. But unlike the subscription model used by magazines and newspapers, with free online content, we’re just as likely — or maybe even more so — to click on something that seems idiotic, over-the-top, or just plain weird as we are something that seems smart, accurate, and well-written3.
Or: I wouldn’t pay for a subscription to Ron Paul’s newsletters, but I do like to see what’s going on at the Drudge Report every now and then for the lulz. Readers of the right-wing persuasion no doubt click on Daily Kos for the same reason. When it’s free for us to hate-read, not only do we not lose our cash for reading something we disagree with — there’s also little economic motivation to publish anything that isn’t a divisive polemic.
The Big Book of Online OUTRAGE by Rainbow Brown
What this means for art criticism, on the one hand, is that the most preposterous claims — like that Janice Joplin was racist for singing in a way that sounds like a black person, according to this one dude at The Atlantic — proliferate, in large part thanks to people like me who link to them on my Facebook so that my friends and I can make fun of them.
On the other, it means that websites have more and more economic motivation to actively seek out ostensibly offensive content that most of us would never be exposed to otherwise.
But in doing so, they perpetuate the production of such ostensibly-offensive content: in 2013, websites like Jezebel, Buzzfeed, Flavorwire, Upworthy, and The Atlantic helped Miley Cyrus make enough Benjamins to bankroll a lifetime’s worth of diamond-crusted grills and booty-shaking backup dancers.
Two Communicative Forms, One Cup
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?4
Sure, anti-Robin Thicke activists banned “Blurred Lines” from their campuses in the UK. But even then, it was unclear if their ban was to keep the song from inspiring hatred and violence — like German and Central European bans on Mein Kampf — or if they were simply making a statement about their own values.
If they were, it came at the expense of art more than of would-be rapists.
While not all offense-based criticism called for censorship of artistic expression, the trend did shackle art’s range of expression. The meaning of “Blurred Lines” is vague at worst, and its critics’ claim that the line “you know you want it” is rapey is bizarre. But debating the lyrics of “Blurred Lines” or the visual semiotics of “We Can’t Stop” is beside the point. Regardless of its textual meaning or lack thereof, by turning the song into a vehicle to support a cause, offense criticism has forever associated “Blurred Lines” with rape for audiences worldwide.
This pattern was replicated everywhere in our discussion of popular art this year. Even if you thought, as I did, that Miley Cyrus’s VMA performance was gloriously weird and refreshingly opaque, our discursive space only allowed two interpretations: it was racist/it wasn’t. As we reduced our discourse about music, TV shows, film, and music videos to lowest-common-denominator ideological critiques about their representations (or lack thereof) of race, gender, and sexuality, we constricted both the communicative and transformative possibilities of art in general. Including its ability to promote social change.
Particularly since art wasn’t even allowed to comment on itself, to chime in on 2013’s representational debates. Lily Allen’s video for “Hard Out Here,” a critique of Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke specifically, and the music industry in general — which attempted to ironically recontextualize twerking in a parody of Cyrus’s video — was nearly as widely criticized as the original. Reproducing racist imagery even to criticize it, the argument went, was still racist. At least it was in visual and musical culture: the written word seemed curiously exempt.
One critic at The Guardian, Suzanne Moore, wrote about looking at the video, “Maybe I have read it wrong. But what I see is the black female body, anonymous and sexualised, grinding away to make the rent.” Somehow, this columnist saw three of the extremely talented dancers in Allen’s video (there were other dancers who happened not to be black; they escaped her notice) as just black female bodies, generalizable, replaceable, and devoid of agency or individuality5. Allen’s visual critique was clumsy, not offensive; Moore, however, used language to deliberately turn individuals into racialized abstractions.
Kanye West + some dancers (photo by U2soul)
Lily Allen + some black female bodies, “anonymous and sexualised, grinding away to make the rent”
Throughout 2013, the double standard we allotted the written word allowed multiple similar reductions of individual agency into the neatly textbook categories of identity politics. The man named Terry Richardson, for instance, took all of the blame for the woman Miley Cyrus’s supposedly sexually-exploitative “Wrecking Ball” video, despite it being her own concept. Meanwhile, the man named Robin Thicke took the blame for his supposedly sexually exploitative “Blurred Lines” video, despite it being the concept of the female director Diane Martel.
At the same time that offense criticism furthered the stereotype that women have no sexual or creative agency, it lazily over-employed the concept of “cultural appropriation” to freeze the natural fluidity of culture. This year, offense criticism singlehandedly turned the practice known as “twerking” into a signifier of blackness and stripped the dance of any possibility for cross-cultural (whatever that means) appeal, of any possibility to signify anything besides blackness6.
3. Speaking of free, it’s cool that all these writers took some liberal arts classes in college and now get to spend their time writing unpaid articles that make internet publishing conglomerates buttloads of money.
4. Probably not, but these websites wouldn’t make any money off it, either.
5. The actual individuals those anonymous black female bodies belonged to didn’t take kindly to criticisms of their hard work, and took to Twitter to defend Allen.
6. Yet while a dance move done originally by some black people has become doomed to be eternally read as a stand-in for all black people, traditionally white dance moves escaped becoming racialized.
Numerous other readings of popular culture similarly fixed overly-specific signifiers onto overly-broad categories of identity. New Zealand singer Lorde’s song “Royals,” which critiques pop music’s emphasis on signifiers of wealth such as “Gold teeth/ Grey Goose/ Trippin’ in the bathroom/ Bloodstains/ Ball gowns/ Trashing the hotel room” and “Cristal/ Maybach/ Diamonds on your timepiece/ Jet planes/ Islands/ Tigers on a gold leash” was also criticized for being racist.
Again, if anything’s offensive, it’s the assumption implicit in that accusation about the relationship between “Cristal” or “gold teeth” and “black people in general.” Art’s transformative power comes, in part, from its ability to decouple symbols from their original contexts (here, rap music videos) and reconfigure them in new ones (American cultural imperialism and global capitalism), in the process stripping signifier from signified to create new spaces for meaning-making. But offense criticism attempted to superglue as many signifiers as possible onto race, gender, and sexuality, weighing down our ability to deconstruct them, rebuild them, or think outside their restrictive confines.
How Satan Can Help Us Twerk Toward a Hermeneutics of Trust
I went to a Christian high school, which means my early education was angstily unique. Instead of sex education, I had Bible class. Instead of evolution, I learned how God created the Earth with the appearance of age in order to fuck with people who didn’t believe His Word. One of the most enduring lessons I learned, though, was that nearly all secular music is chock-full of secret-coded messages that promote sexual promiscuity, hatred of religion, and the worship of Satan.
My school’s obsession with the evil power of popular music neither encouraged nor dissuaded my 15-year-old self from liking what I was inclined to like. Despite being favorite scapegoats of my school, I never got into Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd. But the constant barrage of warnings about music’s evil power over its listeners did deeply increase my enjoyment of what I was drawn to in the first place. Listening to Nine Inch Nails became not just dumb teenage taste, but an act of resistance against the dogmatically anti-intellectual peer pressure of my school. Regardless of what the lyrics actually said, the act of listening itself became its own important ritual that allowed me to exert my own limited teenage agency, to make my life more tolerable, to survive a shitty few years.
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.
Sure, art has some meaning contained within it, but even more important is the meaning we construct for it, the way it interacts with the specific contexts of the lives of people who use 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.
It also risks reducing audiences’ own interpretive possibilities. If some fans understand Miley Cyrus’s recent output as having a liberating feminist message, who are critics — especially ones who don’t even like Cyrus much anyway — to say they’re wrong? Instead of being suspicious of (and therefore, it’s implied, intellectually superior to) everyday audiences and their tastes, why not start by trying to understand why people like stuff and what it means to them? Sure, art has some meaning contained within it, but even more important is the meaning we construct for it, the way it interacts with the specific contexts of the lives of people who use it.
Of course, not every analysis of art can be audience-based. Still, critics (especially those who care about “privilege”) should ditch their hermeneutics of suspicion about popular art. Instead of tossing around “problematic” as if it were a negative descriptor, critics should value the problematic for what the term actually means: “not definite or settled,” that gray area so unique to art that lets us work through and play with difficult concepts. After all, it’s sometimes the most difficult art to morally justify that does the most productive work in society. Curator and scholar James Polchin, for instance, dredged up lynching photos from America’s past and carefully exhibited them in a way that minimized their violent, voyeuristic spectacle (i.e., not as over-the-top linkbait), and allowed viewers to bear witness to America’s history of racial hatred. Kanye West appropriated the Confederate Flag and looked pretty badass doing it.
Whether or not any piece of art is inherently offensive is beside the point: unlike what my high school thought about the Bible, art’s “message” is never fixed, and neither is what meaning we make out of it. Calling Miley Cyrus’s VMA performance racist does nothing productive, but taking a step back to think about how representation of race and cultural difference can function in artistic performance could be.
Who knows: a hermeneutics of trust — trust in Cyrus’s intelligence; trust in the taste of the massive, diverse audience that tuned in — might help us discover that art is more exciting and more transformative than we ever thought possible. Or at least that twerking only hurts if you make it.