Across the years, there have been two primary questions prompted by my criticism here at Daily Review. One, “Why are you paying for a menopausal conceit which should surely have been force-fed to rats by now?” The other, “Why won’t she shut up about politics when all I want to read about is art?” The first problem is answered easily: I regularly remind the publisher that I retain a secret cache of agriculturally-themed photographs in which he is centrally depicted. The second is just a little more complex: culture is jolly political. Always, but particularly in the present.
Take, for example, the celebrity cooking television program Silvia’s Italian Table. I do not believe that it is a “stretch” to view the project of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in this case as political. When the state broadcaster depicts a desirable “lifestyle” of which only a few might partake, it has made the choice to do so. The absolute beachfront real estate, rustic high-fashion holidays and anodyne conversation of high-profile guests do not simply form part of taxpayer funded entertainment ex nihilo. Someone has to ask at some point “Why are we doing this?” and to believe, as so many are wont to, that media and cultural items just appear is wantonly deluded. Tell me again that I am a jealous, bitter hag who has “swallowed a thesaurus” and is “looking for meaning that’s not there. Why don’t you just relax and enjoy it?” if you like. Then, go back and watch that piece of shit and let me know if you’re not actually angrier with the ABC for normalising asset wealth, luxury vacations and tedious talk than you are at me, the person who pointed the mise-en-scene out.
When you are ready, you will see that the work of the critic is not so different from that of any other worker.
It is not particularly “clever” to see the aspiration and idiocy so common on TV. I do not think it is special of me to make this old case. I do, however, feel frequently obliged to explain the “politics” of such-and-such a production in an era where “politics” are otherwise given short shrift. Of course, the politics of identity—not a bad thing, not a dirty phrase—are often explored and many, many cultural “texts” are critiqued for their erasure of particular identities and consciousnesses, those of women and feminists especially. If I had a dollar for every publication of a “leggings are a feminist issue” piece, I would be able to purchase a pair of those fashionable leggings used to illustrate these.
If you want to bemoan the lack of “real woman” sizes at H&M or wherever, do it. You might even be paid to do it and hailed as a girl’s girl etc. But, just as there is nothing objectionable about a popular move toward feminist cultural criticism, there is nothing “wrong” with critique, per the Silvia sort, which assesses a work in the terms of its relationship to wealth.
A purely feminist critic may look at something in the culture, like fashion, and assess it in terms of the thing sometimes referred to as “patriarchy”, a term for which I find little practical use but one that describes to some a system of social organisation in which men retain “privilege”. Such critics may say that clothing sizes available in stores do not accommodate the “average” female body and they may explain this failure as one of the patriarchy, whose keenest expression is misogyny (I think. I actually can’t get my head around the way these terms are now used.)
Now, a critic of unequal wealth might look at these same fashions and assess them in the terms of profit. She might seek, just as the purely feminist critic does, to place the production and marketing of these items within a broader context. She might conclude that it is profit and not misogyny that drives what the feminist sees as “discriminatory” sizing in fashions. She might even propose, if she is in an particularly foul mood, that her feminist audience can take their leggings and their “dissatisfaction with…their lack of pocket options” and cram these up their falsely conscious clackers. Because FOR FUCK’S SAKE IF YOU CAN BANG ON AND INTERMINABLY ON ABOUT FUCKING POCKETS BEING A FEMINIST ISSUE WITHOUT GIVING ONE THOUGHT TO THE FUCKING (PROBABLY FEMALE) SLAVE WHO MADE THEM, surely, the critic of global capital can have their critical shot.
To place cultural goods within the context of a political economy is not a new thing to do. But, it’s a rare thing to do and it’s an unpopular thing to do, particularly if this critique is perceived to edge out the currently popular and purely feminist sort. While a criticism which takes identity and resistance by different identity groups into account is, in my view, essential, it is also a bit toothless and mystified if it continues to ignore all backgrounds save for that of misogyny, rape culture or whatever we have agreed to call this (frankly undefinable) thing.
It is not true that the critic believes you to be stupid. This critic is one that renews her faith daily in the fact of mass genius.
So, no. I can’t watch, say, The Handmaid’s Tale and overlook the fact that it deifies the USA. There is a scene in which the “oppressed” are those singing America the Beautiful and another in which the billionaire Oprah Winfrey is the rebel champion for the stars and stripes. It is not implicit but explicit that the idea of the world’s militarised hegemon for whose existence millions perish is a jolly good one and a beautiful idea destroyed only by Donald Trump.
Another response collected here at DR is, “Don’t you think we can walk and chew gum at the same time, Helen?” I may be misreading, but I believe the intention here is to “call out” the critic of political economy as one who is (a) insufficiently “nuanced” and too brutally simple in her reckoning and (b) condescending to an audience who are, apparently, already entirely aware of the critical framework she has employed.
It is true that this critic lacks nuance. But, some of us prefer grand narratives and our return to this tedious old modernist tradition of wondering about the working misery of the people who produce and consume culture is, however, inelegant, conscious. It is not true that the critic believes you to be stupid. This critic is one that renews her faith daily in the fact of mass genius. This critic is an optimist and believes not only that you can walk, chew gum and fill all your intellectual pockets with bombs. This critic believes that she is not half as fit for this “nuanced” work as you.
When you are ready, you will see that the work of the critic is not so different from that of any other worker. It’s unfortunate but true that some workers find themselves assigned to certain and specific tasks and that this separation results in our estrangement. It’s tragic but true that few workers have the chance to understand another worker’s specialty. It’s essential, in my view, that we use our mass intelligence to create the sort of world in which we might all be critical critics, enslaved neither to the production of profitably “sexist” clothing without pockets or the critique of same. But doing just a little of what we fancy.
Most people on the planet don’t achieve even a moment of fanciable life. All people and products on the planet are subject to the totalising force of global capital. Until such time as we can truly chew gum while walking and not simply claim that this is possible how dare you call me stupid, the explicitly political critique is, in my view, necessary.
I would like to thank all the photographed livestock for making this necessity possible here at Daily Review, one of a very few Australian publications that will give me money for such labour. I would like to agree that, yes, none of the criticism I have offered this publication, or others, could pass as especially sagacious or new. I would like to enjoin you to be the critical critic when you can. Upturn the dinner on the illusory floor of the sunny celebrity kitchen.
THINK ABOUT SUPPORTING DAILY REVIEW IN PUBLISHISH MORE ARTS REVIEWS AND COMMENTARY HERE
AND CHECK OUT OUR NATIONAL WHAT’S ON LISTINGS HERE