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The argument, essentially, is that artistic criticism and cultural criticism ought to be kept separate from one another at all times. It's an old argument, one that's been debated with great intellectual fervor on both sides in the fields of literature, art, film, music and now even video-games. Its roots are in the clash over Critical Theory as applied to the arts; the question of whether or not one should seek a "clear" objective view of a work as though in a vacuum or as a part of the culture that surrounds it. Do you merely observe how well or in what manner a work of art puts forth its messages and themes regardless of what they are; or do you take the validity of those messages and themes (and their place within the broader world experience) into account as well? In film, for example, the classic litmus-test cases are always Birth of A Nation (a pro-KKK screed that basically invented the action epic) and the Nazi-glorifying documentary Triumph of The Will, both being unquestioned artistic and technical marvels but serving toward the advancement of truly repellent ideologies.
For the longest time (or maybe not - despite my world-weary affect I'm only in my 30s, after all) I was comfortably in the first camp. Back then, it made logical sense: It's not fair to hold a viewpoint or a theme against a work of art, after all, and a critic is supposed to be above manipulation by message or emotional appeals. But as time has worn on, my worldview has both expanded and matured, and with that broadened vision has come a realization: That my sense of a clear view was informed less by genuine objectivity (if such a thing is possible) than by my own position of privilege.
In the U.S. (hell, in The West, really) long-lived power dynamics and social structures continue to reinforce the ideal of white/heterosexual/male as the "default" setting for everything. Being a white/heterosexual/male, then, it never occurred to me to question the "normality" of my perspective versus the "other-ness" of, well... others. Today, to try and view anything in a social/cultural/political vacuum feels not only pointless but also fundamentally flawed as an endeavor: If all creative works are comprised of their author's imagination and the influence of the world around them, it seems only sensible that the critic also take the bigger world picture into account as well.
That's not to say you can't carry it to extremes: I'm no fan, for example, of critics who write off entire genres or even filmmakers because they find fault with their personal politics. But there's a difference, in my mind, between "This movie is full of Democrats, so it sucks" and "the pervasive racism in this movie makes it difficult to watch." And I simply no longer believe in the strict segregation of "straightforward" criticism and "social theory" criticism (re: feminist-theory, race-theory, economic-theory, etc) because, well... I'm not sure that a straightforward or clean critical perspective can truly exist - only differing variations of subjectivity, at least where things like tolerance-for-offense are concerned.
On the other hand, I've heard a convincing case made for the opposite perspective many times, and expect to hear many more; because that's the sign of an intellectually-healthy film criticism scene. So while the current ugliness being thrown around at this particular moment regarding Grand Theft Auto may be hard to watch and harder to stomach (seriously, some of the stuff getting thrown at Petit is genuinely horrifying), that we're seeing the emergence of arguments over the validity of critical approach rather than just critical opinion (or numerical score) has the faint (very, very, very faint) glimmer of a positive development. A more complex field of argument is indicative of a medium growing richer, deeper and more meaningful.
Now, if only we could do it without all the hate and ostracism. That would really be something...
Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you've heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet. Recently, he wrote a book.