Every now and then the fog of the culture war lifts to reveal a skirmish that instructs us on the nature of the opposing sides and of the broader state of play.
A Pop Cultural War
Currently there’s a war of ideologies being waged between progressives or what are sometimes known as “woke” or “social justice” liberals, on the one hand, and a more conservative or populist backlash often identified with the “intellectual dark web,” on the other. The former subscribe to intersectional feminism, which means they seek equal rights not just for women but for all manner of disadvantaged or marginalized minorities. Their foes are largely middle-aged or younger white males who resent what they consider the politicization of the entertainment industry that’s replaced quality story-telling; more specifically, the backlash is against the skewering of straight white male heroes and stories in movies, TV, and literature, to clear room for the glorification of minority viewpoints. This backlash against the progressive movement in Western entertainment is conducted largely online, on YouTube, Reddit, 4chan, and the blogosphere.
For example, Nerdrotic on YouTube castigates Disney’s overt political agenda in its Marvel and Star Wars franchises, in Marvel comics themselves, and in the Batwoman television show, the movie Terminator: Dark Fate, and many other products. The typical criticism has three stages. First, there’s the accusation that the decision-makers in the entertainment industry are no longer interested in telling irresistible stories; instead, they want to flatter certain segments of society that don’t include straight white men. Perhaps the establishment blames those men for most social ills and no longer wants to associate its stories’ heroes with them. Alternatively, producers may want to tap into a more global audience, perhaps because of the hollowing-out of America’s middle class. In any case, the result is obnoxious pseudo-entertainment.
Second, there’s the backlash against the established critics who support that proxy war against straight white men if only to retain their access and privileges. For example, in numerous videos Nerdrotic highlights the split on Rotten Tomatoes between the Top Critics’ score for The Joker (49% positive) and that of the film’s total audience (89%). More telling were the splits for Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which was 95% versus 44% and for Doctor Who: Season 11 in which the Doctor was first played by a woman, 93% versus 21%. Of course these scores don’t reflect any scientific polling, since those most inclined to post general audience reviews on Rotten Tomatoes may be white men.
Meanwhile, progressives charge these anti-progressive men with being toxically masculine and prejudiced against women and minorities. According to progressives, these men resent the loss of their long-held privileges and are unwilling to share the stage of popular culture with excluded players.
The populist countercharge is that woke politics would be fine if that agenda were combined with excellent story-telling. Alas, progressives in the entertainment field aren’t focused on telling first-rate, original stories that are capable of persuading viewers to adopt “progressive” values. Instead, progressives crudely appropriate nerdy intellectual properties that were produced and consumed largely by white men (such as Star Trek, Doctor Who, and the MCU) and treat “virtue signals” as sufficient contents, ignoring the criteria for producing compelling narratives, such as logic, character depth, and universal themes.
Take Star Wars, for example. For the classic first film, A New Hope, George Lucas drew inspiration from Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, which in turn applies Jungian psychology to comparative mythology. Lucas combined that non-political theory with science fiction tropes and the result was the blockbuster; in essence, he created a science-fictional myth. By contrast, wanting to subvert expectations, Rian Johnson, writer and director of The Last Jedi, replaced that Jungian backdrop with progressive politics. The problem is that Jung deliberately searched for universal elements of great stories, which he analyzed in terms of archetypes or symbols buried in the unconscious, whereas the woke agenda arguably has nothing to do with excellence in story-telling.
What’s the point of woke art?
Or does it? To justify progressive politics in entertainment, the progressive would need to explain why we should expect a creative class, beholden to the political principle of equality of opportunity, to produce aesthetically great rather than just politically fair art. The liberal wants to say that straight white men have controlled pop-cultural content for too long, so it’s time for other voices to be heard. As a political matter, that agenda is wholly justified on liberal grounds, since everyone ought to have equal opportunities in a free society that respects human rights. This shift could be justified also by appealing to principles of justice: assuming straight white men are guilty of many historic sins committed over the last century, including that of excluding marginalized perspectives in pop culture, the offending segment of the population might be punished with a Time Out.
But suppose that aesthetic criteria are elitist and meritocratic. Suppose that great art depends on having a singular vision which is won often at the cost of the artist’s suffering. This is the Romantic view that great artists can offer fresh perspectives only because they’re social outsiders and are consumed by some radical vision. This is why great painters and writers, for example, were often recognized as such only after their death, because these artists’ outputs hadn’t been tainted by the nonartistic temptations afforded by success. Once the artist is hailed as masterful, her work often suffers because she’s liable to be preoccupied with matters other than the expression of her singular vision or muse, such as having to please the critics or the audience or wanting to enjoy her newfound fame and riches.
Moreover, if there are universal elements of artistic greatness, they likely have an evolutionary origin, and evolution doesn’t proceed along liberal lines of fairness and equality. Men and women on average may bring different strengths and weaknesses to the pursuit of artistic excellence. Depending on the prevailing purpose of art, one gender may be more inclined than the other to excel at it.
At the root of this culture war, then, may be confusion about what great art is in the first place. However, even philosophers of art disagree about art’s purpose. There may be different kinds of art and different purposes in art’s development over the millennia. So we don’t need to answer that big question here.
Instead, we should ask what the progressive sees as art’s purpose, so we can judge whether that’s the kind of art we currently need. The progressive seems to think art is subordinate to politics, so the intellectual foundation here would be something like Marx’s or Foucault’s social criticism. For the progressive, art may be part of an ideological superstructure that excuses economic and other power inequalities. The purpose of progressive art, then, would be to empower marginalized people, to signal that their voices are heard by including them in the ranks of popular protagonists.
The problem with that kind of art is its aesthetic vacuity, owing to the progressive artist’s dire cynicism. To be sure, Marxist and Foucaultian criticisms of “free” society may be warranted to some extent, but if you believe as much and as a liberal you condemn the unfairness in popular culture, perhaps you shouldn’t be in the business of producing popular art that could only add to the corruption. If the appropriation of a culture that happened to be celebrated mainly by straight white men is meant to signal only the excluded minorities’ irrepressible will to power, the progressive producer of pop cultural entertainment would seem to have lost her artistic integrity. Instead, the progressive should want to focus on improving the political or economic situation directly rather than knowingly producing hollow art.
If the progressive wants to say that all art is political, that would be dubious. Perhaps all art that’s taken up by the culture at large will be interpreted in ways that reflect different social interests, but many artists themselves only want to plumb the depths of their subconscious or otherwise explore universal and thus non-political themes such as love, death, friendship, justice, and so on. The social constructivist reduction of the artwork’s content and merit to certain social conditions of its creation, such as the artist’s gender, ethnicity, and economic class is fallacious and pernicious. Sometimes those factors do overwhelm aesthetic considerations, in which case we call the art “propaganda.” But lots of times they don’t; not all art is propaganda.
Is there too much art for progress?
But there’s another problem here. To justify what’s effectively affirmative action for women and minorities in the entertainment industry, the progressive should want there to be such a glut of talent and movies, TV shows, and novels in the marketplace that the choice to give excluded parties center stage in pop culture wouldn’t be grossly biased. It’s not as though there aren’t also plenty of working male actors and masculine stories you can consume. Indeed, because the technologies needed to film movies, produce music, and publish novels are no longer the exclusive properties of large corporations, there is a surfeit of entertainment, and the woke agenda presupposes that this First World problem is the status quo.
This may help explain the ferocity of the populist backlash. To see what I mean, recall that feeling you may have at the supermarket when you’re confronted with dozens of varieties of the likes of cereal, BBQ sauce, and beer. In cognitive science, this is called “overchoice,” when you’re faced with so many equivalent options that your decision-making faculties are overloaded, so you stand there helplessly until you randomize your selection.
There are in fact more movies, TV shows, songs, and novels currently being produced than anyone could consume in ten lifetimes. Moreover, the quality of the big budget products isn’t reliably superior to the lower-scale options, except in certain special cases such as movies that feature computer graphics afforded only by the major movie studios. As the technology is more widely dispersed, the business intermediaries are eliminated, the production becomes democratized, and the consumer is presented with an embarrassment of riches. At least, the consumer may always have a reasonable doubt about whether this amateur movie, band, or self-published novel might be a hidden gem that can rival the more established options.
To avoid being stupefied by that overabundance of goods— because we want to be entertained, after all — we may overcompensate by forming tribes that are zealously protective of their arbitrary preferences. Perhaps critics like Nerdrotic bash progressive movies and idolize classic ones because they fear being overwhelmed by the new variety of movies on offer. As is commonly observed, the fragmentation of liberal society in politics and on the internet is ironic, since social media allow for global communication. Instead, we recoil from that potential for multiculturalism, because we’d be at a loss as to how to choose between so many ideas, perspectives, and practices. The result is a retreat into tribal fundamentalism, which is hardly progressive.