It’s been almost three years since one of the worst webcomic artists in the world published one of the worst webcomics of his career. The artist is Adam Ellis, formerly of Buzzfeed, whose work is likely familiar to anyone who’s ever used Facebook: it may well be mathematically impossible at this point to go a whole hour on Facebook without catching sight of his bug-eyed self-insert in a “relatable” and yet “funny” scenario. The comic in question was posted to Twitter with the caption “shhh” and depicts one of those deeply unfunny people who thinks not liking or knowing much about sport is a personality being silenced by an American football fan who tells him to “let people enjoy things”.
I loathe it more than most of his awful, awful work because, while I find “sportsball” types risible, it can’t mount a more thoughtful objection to their behaviour than “let people enjoy things”. It’s a nice slogan, but obviously a terrible blanket policy when people enjoy lots of bad things, and not just aesthetically bad, but morally bad. But even when there’s arguably not a significant, urgent moral dimension to something people enjoy, the “let people enjoy things” mantra makes me nervous. It’s one thing as a response to someone who’s snobby or pushy with criticisms of your likes or interests on an interpersonal level, the kind of people who comment on how unhealthy your food is or rag on the shows you like for no reason. But at any more macro level, like in online cultural discourse and, increasingly, in professional critical writing, it eventually becomes a way to deflect unflattering critiques or is so internalised that it pre-empts criticism at all.
Of course, Ellis and his comic aren’t responsible for the rise and spread of this attitude in online cultural discourse – how could it be, when Ellis’s work consists almost entirely in arriving three years late to observations that were already trite the first time they were verbalised? – but it’s emblematic of it in a way little else is, and for that, I hate it.
Scroll through Twitter for a while and you’ll see “let people enjoy things” used as a response to just about any opinion even mildly critical of anything anyone enjoys doing, sometimes towards people who are genuinely being assholes, but at least as often in response to people just saying they don’t personally care for, like, apples or whatever. (At time of writing, a lot of it seems to be about people criticising the trailer for Detective Pikachu.) It’s an expression of a sort of consumer hedonism that presents consumer choice as beyond criticism, and, in so far as the movies we watch or the music we listen to is a consumer choice, it’s begun to infect how we communicate to each other about art.
It is, in part, an outgrowth of the “poptimist” movement, which began in the mid-2000s as a response to the privileging of rock music by many critics. The poptimist style argued that modern pop, R&B and rap, which have largely supplanted rock music as the most popular genres of music, were just as worthy of serious critical attention as rock music, which they claimed was denied by the “rockist” snobs who’d come up in magazines like Rolling Stone and NME in the sixties and seventies. There was – and is – some validity to this point of view. Good art comes in all forms and genres, and there was certainly an old guard of established music critics with a snobby disdain for the new breed of pop music. Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest albums and songs of all time, published in 2003 and 2004 respectively, are a perfect showcase, with over fifty percent of each list coming from the sixties or seventies and rock artists dominating both.
It’s definitely been to music criticism’s benefit that this narrow version of popular music history, with room at the inn for Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog” but not Big Mama Thornton’s, was challenged and disrupted. But once the rockists were vanquished – and rock music along with them – it turned out poptimism didn’t really have a positive message independent of its reaction to rockism. Over time, as the poptimist style has taken over music criticism and bled into other forms of criticism it has, to a greater or lesser extent, collapsed into a tendency to brush off any criticism of popular art as snobbery, at least when it’s not your own.
Just a few months ago, Ethan Hawke kicked off a shitstorm when he disparaged superhero movies in an interview with The Film Stage:
“Now we have the problem that they tell us Logan is a great movie. Well, it’s a great superhero movie. It still involves people in tights with metal coming out of their hands. It’s not Bresson. It’s not Bergman. But they talk about it like it is. I went to see Logan cause everyone was like, “This is a great movie” and I was like, “Really? No, this is a fine superhero movie.” There’s a difference but big business doesn’t think there’s a difference. Big business wants you to think that this is a great film because they wanna make money off of it.”
I think Hawke was a bit harsh on Logan specifically, but he’s otherwise correct. Moreover, it’s worth noting this was his final comment in an interview in which (1) he was discussing how the constant glut of major studio crap forces indie films out of cinemas, (2) he credits his education in film to Peter Weir and Joe Dante, the former of whom made sure he watched high art films while the latter showed him the artistry in low-budget schlock, and (3) favourably quotes Cassavetes: “There’s no such thing as high art and low art, there’s good movies and bad movies.” Nonetheless, he was raked across the coals for his snobbery, because he didn’t “let people enjoy things”.
Of course, no one in the whole world actually “lets people enjoy things” consistently. You won’t find a lot of critics going out of their way to praise Michael Bay’s Transformers movies or DC’s post-Nolan superhero films – apart from Wonder Woman – regardless of how popular they are. People pick and choose when they think we should just “let people enjoy things” and, unsurprisingly, what’s worthy of protection tends to either line up with their own tastes or serve as a thinly-veiled proxy for their political commitments. But even if the standard was applied evenly, lots of popular art is not good and not worth defending. I don’t think people should defend Michael Bay’s Transformers movies or post-Nolan DC movies or late Adam Sandler or The Big Bang Theory or any of a hundred other things that are extraordinarily popular and also humongous piles of shit. There’s a superficial populism in it that I’m sure can be gratifying – I’m standing up for the little guy in the face of snobbery! But there’s a difference between saying you shouldn’t shit on people who enjoy crappy movies and saying you shouldn’t criticise those movies, especially given that audiences need to be protected far less from the snobbery of a few critics (and, in these latter days of poptimism, it is truly a minority) than the exploitation of giant corporations. And there is something exploitative about these massive media conglomerates churning out low-effort, low-quality dross to make money. I can’t think of any other circumstance in which companies wilfully and knowingly putting out a shitty product to rip off their customers garners praise rather than condemnation, but that’s exactly what’s happening in the corporate era of Hollywood. And I’ve never seen a professional critic really grapple with that reality in any way. And when people lambast the poptimist turn in criticism, it’s generally because they advocate a return to a largely mythical before-time of high-handed discernment (most often embodied by Pauline Kael). In fact, the only person I’ve ever seen explore this issue at length isn’t a critic, but an artist himself.
Bo Burnham is a 28-year-old American comedian who began his career on YouTube before putting out a series of excellent comedy specials, the most recent of which, Make Happy, is probably the second-best stand-up set I’ve seen (after Stewart Lee’s If You Prefer a Milder Comedian, Please Ask for One) and one of the few works of art I could describe, with no exaggeration, as “unlike anything else I’ve ever seen”. Lots of allegedly innovative stand-up – Nanette, most recently – tends to spark debates about whether it’s “really” stand-up or just a TED Talk or one-person show or whatever, but no one would accuse Make Happy of that, even as it takes the form of the comedy special and cracks it wide open, making full use of all the opportunities provided by being both a piece of theatre and a piece of film. Its cinematography is gorgeous in a way comedy specials never bother to be, several of the jokes are essentially short plays within the show, and lots of gags use the stage as an instrument, like when a disembodied singing voice forces Bo to dance to a song about how much of a fag he is and the whole stage turns against him, blasting spotlights into his face. It’s so unique that it feels at times as if Burnham was the first comedian to notice the stage wasn’t just a place to stand but a canvas to paint. I’m particularly fond of the lighting design during the intermittent musical performances:
“The show is a series of discrete bits,” as Burnham says at one point, ranging from incredibly stupid and puerile – Bo walks up to the mic in dramatic slow-mo, lights flashing, music pounding, and then farts into it – to wonderfully absurd and clever – a musical ad for Flamin’ Hot Cheetos interrupts Bo at one point, but it turns out they don’t sponsor the show, he just wants them to – to unbearably meta, including a joke that ends abruptly when the characters in the joke decide the joke is too meta. His songs are brilliant, pitch-perfect both lyrically and musically, and he regularly follows up his jokes with deconstructions even funnier than the jokes themselves. It somehow manages to be incredibly cohesive and well-structured without ever using a callback or brick joke. Outside music, it’s by far the single work of art I return to most often, not just for entertainment, or even inspiration, but as a foundational text in my approach to criticism.
“What’s this show about?” asks Burnham at the start of the show’s final act. After about four or five joke answers – “What do you think, industrial piping?” *jets of steam* “Close.” – he says it’s about “performing” but, as he goes on, it’s clear that he really means “performance”, and the relationship between performer and audience. Burnham’s stage persona in Make Happy is contemptuous of his audience – he mocks them for laughing at his weakest jokes – while actually being very concerned about whether they’re getting the quality of entertainment they deserve, both from him and others. One of the show’s musical performances is a parody of stadium country music called “Pandering” about how musicians like Keith Urban have “figured out the words and the phrases they can use to pander to their audience, and they list the same words and phrases off sort of mad libs style in every song, raking in millions of dollars from actual working-class people”. The song is a perfect recreation of the genre, not just lyrically, but musically – “y’all dumb motherfuckers want a key change!?” – but Burnham doesn’t mock the people who listen to such music, just the artists who make it. It’s a stark contrast to the poptimist approach, which claims to be anti-elitist, but actually just guards the work of wealthy artists – and corporations – from scrutiny.
If there’s a weakness to “Pandering”, it’s that it doesn’t provide a non-monetary explanation for how the audience is screwed over, which is inconvenient when people can access lots of art, legally and illegally, without paying. You could argue that he does it in the setup to the song when he contrasts stadium country with older, better country music – Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton, specifically – but that approach raises all sorts of problems. What about young people who might not be familiar with older, better music? Are they not being short-changed just because they’ve never heard “Old Flames Can’t Hold a Candle to You”? Luckily, Burnham makes a similar critique of the celebrity lip syncing segment on The Tonight Show, now its own series, that lays out a more universal approach:
“It’s the end of culture. Culture’s over, everybody, we lost. This is entertainment. How is this entertainment? People we’ve seen too much of mouthing along to songs we’ve heard too much of. And this is the bread and butter of American television? […] Fuck these people! How dare that they think them fucking around is worthy of your attention? Them playing Pictionary? Your attention’s a valuable thing. I worked for three years to get it for an hour and I barely get there.”
Your attention is a valuable thing. The artist gives their art and the audience gives their attention. It’s not an exchange, exactly, because each party gives the same thing it receives: an experience of art. It’s a collaboration. But a collaboration can be unjust. (Insert a thousand jokes about group projects here.) Like any relationship, it consists in part of duties and obligations, and though they’re aesthetic duties rather than ethical ones in this case, they still carry some moral weight. The audience should be patient and open-minded and approach the work in good faith. But, equally, the artist shouldn’t wilfully and knowingly make something that’s unworthy of their attention. It’s only fair. Either side, obviously, can fail to live up to these standards, but no honest examination of the state of the world, or of art, could conclude the burden of failure is currently borne primarily by the audience. More and more, the production of art made for mass consumption, particularly movies, is guided purely by corporate imperatives rather than aesthetic principle.
Audiences are being taken advantage of and if critics have a duty to audiences, we should be consistently holding artists and the corporations backing them to an appropriate standard, not tamping down our criticism in the name of “letting people enjoy things”. If you’re not sure what that standard should be, don’t worry, because Bo Burnham does. It’s just one almost throwaway line in his opening song – a song that also includes the line “y’all ain’t never seen a comedy show like this in your fucking life/and with good reason/it gets old after a few minutes” – but it’s stuck with me as a perfect encapsulation of his approach to the relationship between artist and audience.
“I just hope I don’t get more out of this than you do.”
He doesn’t say “more” of what – it would be too easy to let himself off the hook if he reduced it to something specific like time or money. He simply aspires to enrich his audience in whatever form of value his work can provide more than he enriches himself. He knows he’s already failed in financial terms, obviously – “I’m in a service industry, I’m just overpaid”, he says at one point – but in that more fundamental relationship between artist and audience, the one that transcends epochs and economic systems, he still reaches for something higher.
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