Someone nice on tumblr just asked me:
Do you think that it’s fair to criticize a work of art for the failings of the culture around it? This is a question I’ve been mulling over the past few days and I’m sure you have an interesting response.
My answer got a bit long, so I decided – opportunistically – to post it here.
I think the terms of the question are worth investigating.
What do we mean by ‘failings’?
What do we mean by ‘culture around it’?
Failure is, of course, subjectively judged. Something I think is bad may be seen as good – or neutral, or normal, or inescapable – by others.
It is perfectly possible for something that is a ‘failure’ with regards to general human wellbeing to be a ‘success’ for a social system. (The wellbeing of the working class, in any class society, always being more universal than that of the minority loafing class.)
Indeed, I think that if you look at the vast majority of mainstream media culture as it has existed in modern capitalist society – including and perhaps even especially with reference to narrative culture – then you see that it pretty unambiguously touts and celebrates values and/or activities that are failures when it comes to promoting general human wellbeing but successes when it comes to propping up and reproducing a social order dominated by the class that owns and controls capital.
*phew* long sentence.
This is the ‘culture around it’…
I think it’s really important to realise that art doesn’t just sit there surrounded by culture. It is culture.
We would expect any product to bear the hallmarks of its production, or the materials from which it was produced. It’s just common sense to expect a cultural product to bear such hallmarks… and that’s without looking at any of the elaborate processes by which supply, demand, distribution, advertisement, hegemony, etc winnow cultural products out of circulation, or just prevent their production in the first place.
More deeply, just as the self is not a thing that exists in the world but is rather a dialectical process that we individuate from the wider set of processes that we call the world, so is art not a thing in the world but a chosen locus of relations, inter-relations and inter-reactions.
A cultural product is, from one standpoint, an individuated unit… but that standpoint is actually a form of commodity fetishism. The cultural product as an entity that lives in the world, that says things and thinks things. Thinking about cultural products that way is inescapable to a large extent, because it’s impossible for us to step outside of culture and look in.
The very fetishising of commodities which leads us create cultural products as things, and treat them like entities, is also what makes them very hard to perceive as anything else.
You could say that the entire project of modern criticism has been concerned with attempts to find ways through this maze.…