Pretentertaiment (In defense of art and critics)
Okay, first off: where have I been? Busy. I was hit with a severe case of ‘I should actually do some real writing for a change’ followed by ‘Hey I never got around to watching those TV shows, I should do that’ followed still by ‘Oh, hey finals are coming up, I had better study’. I also compiled a rather intimidating list of things I need to write on and realized somewhere a while back that I needed to take a break from the internet as well as people who take it and their interactions on it way too seriously. You could say that I saw what I could become in a few others on the blogsphere and promptly ‘freaked the fuck out’.
Well, I’m no less busy today than I was yesterday, but I figure I may as well drop in every once in a while to post something. Today’s topic is something that’s been on my mind for years. It bothers me because both arguments on each side fail to realize a basic truth I learned while studying to be a better writer. There is a time and a place for everything and anything and, even the stupidest, lowly movie/book/anime, can set out to be the best at what it wants to be.
Today, I am going to talk about entertainment and the idea of pretentiousness. The word pretentious, is a lot like the word communist in that immediately stating it causes a reaction separate from the actual context of the word, that is the word itself has achieved a connotation as to separate it from any contextual meaning. Well, I suppose that’s not the fault of the word. Unlike the political philosophy of communism, pretentiousness is designed to imply this context. My problem is that it’s used as a slander.
Let’s break down the real problem here. Often, in higher circles of learning, a student comes across texts that are powerful, moving and are elevated above the written word and into an art form. There are also texts that are fundamentally flawed, and yet, saying such about a classic leads to accusations of stupidity. Basically, a student learns to accept that all literary canons are great, and everything else fails to measure up. There comes a separation from the common layman and higher learning. People who read Stephen King are suddenly beneath those who read Bill Shakespeare and an ‘us versus them’ mentality takes hold. The problem, aside from demeaning my favorite medium into a petty beauty pageant when every work should be judged on its own merits, is that it alienates and creates it’s own bitter factions when these things shouldn’t even exist.
I’m having a hard time thinking of how to explain this succinctly.
Take, for example, the recent film, Avatar (The James Cameron one). Anyone caught saying the story was less than excellent, or that the characters were a bit bland or that while Avatar was free to travel common roads, that it didn’t take any risks and played by the book so closely that anyone with moderate knowledge of film could call every twist a mile away, was immediately labeled as pretentious. “How come you critics can’t just enjoy something?” “Why do you have to demand perfection out of everything?” “I thought it was good and refreshing and you’re just some college educated, pretentious snot!”
Valid complaints? Yes. Incorrect? Absolutely.
Criticism is something I work day and night to defend from its detractors. Criticism is what teaches a creator to do better. It is what elevates something into the best that it can be.
Now, here comes the first argument that must be explained. “But, art is subjective.”
Wrong. If art were entirely subjective, there would be no sense of value or worth. Anything created would be art.
What is art? Art is anything that makes you feel, changes you, makes you think. Art causes the mind to ponder the human existence. A doodle on your napkin is, most likely, not going to do that.
We must accept that art is both subjective and objective. There are merits that we can attach to any art form. Every book must measure up to a certain point grammatically, and follow the rules of story telling. Where subjectivity comes in, is whether or not a reader ends up liking the book. Every work of art is judged the same way. This is why so many people are up in arms about Twilight. Objectively, it fails as a novel. The storytelling is poor, the grammar is horrid and the basic structure of composing a novel isn’t even present. People aren’t angry because it’s a story the don’t like (well, not most of them, anyway). They’re angry because a book that fails the basics of being a book is being heralded as the next great novel series.
Subjectivity is actually the easy part for most people. Most of us can let an argument go when someone says they ‘just don’t like’ something. Fine, don’t like it. You have your reasons. Different strokes, for different folks. Where the problems come in is objectivity. Even though a group of people, skilled and knowledgeable in their medium, arguably the greatest minds to represent said group can come together and create ‘ground rules’ for what, objectively, makes something good, there will always be detractors. This is where the term ‘pretentious’ comes into play.
The problem with using this word in this way is that it takes away the credibility of the arguer by stating that they are just some high and mighty jerk who doesn’t get it. It plays off of the idea of you versus THE MAN, making said critic the enemy when they shouldn’t be. This stretches beyond what one person thinks, and becomes a much bigger problem.
Pretentiousness can be debated. For example, my favorite author, Alan Moore, refused to call his comic books, graphic novels. He said that sounded too pretentious. He is completely entitled to his opinion as are comic book fans that use the term to separate one style of publishing from another (that is comic books are an going series, while graphic novels tend to be self contained). This simple statement, however, has ignited controversy in the comic book world, with factions of fans saying that calling any comic book a graphic novel is stupid and pretentious. Forum wars have been started over a word used by the industry, simply because the word ‘comic book’ had a negative connotation. While I admire the display of the power of words, it’s still a stupid thing to argue about.
There are pretentious things in this world. People who use large words in order to sound smarter. People who deliberately choose to read and like things that are respected and turn their noses up at everything else. People who spend their whole life in a bubble of canon, failing to realize that not everything we consider great, actually is. This is certainly pretentious. What isn’t is someone having a critical view of something and asking it to do better. In fact, we should demand this of all media. After all, every writing or art class is going to tell you that, and any artist or writer worth their snuff is going to agree.
“You can do better.”
It has nothing to do with enjoying something. I enjoyed Avatar just fine. I also enjoyed the Die Hard movies and I wouldn’t exactly call those ‘art’. My point is that I, and others like me, are not pretentious assholes for asking something to do better or to achieve more. Avatar was safe. It relied on tried and true (and done to freaking death for over a hundred years) story and character archetypes. It made no great challenge and it didn’t open philosophical discussion beyond what has already been discussed since the post colonial era of literature.
Like it or not, but those pretentious jerks are the reason a lot of things achieve high art. Getting mad at a show or movie or book that tries to be more than that is to deny the idea of the human existence. Saying that ‘Bioshock’ is pretentious for daring to use philosophical dilemmas like objectivism and a purely free market is to deny humans their right to grow more knowledgeable whilst simultaneously being entertained. Saying that anything laced with big words and difficult concepts is pretentious is to be so full of yourself that you feel you gain nothing by growing as a human being.
What’s pretentious is when these things are used for no other reason than to sound intelligent.
My point is, anything from a movie about the moral ambiguity of immigrants and weapons manufacturing, to transforming robots from an alien planet can be art in some way. Asking it to try is not a sin of any kind. Pretentiousness should be discouraged, but first, we need to relearn what that means.