‘I Am Rubber And You Are Glue…': Art, Criticism, and Poop

Statler & Waldorf BalconyBox

IMAGE: Statler & Waldorf from The Muppet Show

Criticism is a funny thing.

Too frequently it is mistakenly viewed as a detached, objective, practice; a figure blessed with a breadth of knowledge and experience in the field brings his or her objective, reasoned perspective to bear upon the analysis of an artwork.  In truth, of course, criticism is anything but.  Yes, one may aspire to impartial, scholarly interpretation, but an artwork – any artwork – is designed to elicit a response, to stir its audience in unique, intimate ways.

Perhaps the most iconic image that now leaps to the mind whenever one speaks of criticism is the fictional character of Anton Ego, the restaurant reviewer in Ratatouille (I have even cited him previously in a rant about videogames and Art).  A quintessential cliché of the sneering malcontent critic, Ego* spends the film glowering and sweeping about like an insurmountable killjoy, seemingly drunk on the power he wields to act as the arbiter of literal good taste, able to make or break those who would venture to pour themselves into their Art.  As the film progresses, however, Ego’s self-importance is shaken, and he is compelled to reconsider the obligation he owes to those works, and artists, that he would presume to assess.

The speech that accompanies this realisation is marvellous – Ego laments that the act of criticism can oftentimes be less worthy than the garbage it would seek to deride (‘The average piece of junk is more meaningful that our criticism declaring it so’) and he celebrates the promise available to critics: to support and defend that which is original (‘But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defence of the new’) – but the part that I find most striking is how he comes to this moment of revelation.

Anton Ego revelation gif

IMAGE: Ratatouille (directed by Brad Bird)

Ego takes a bite of an extraordinary rat’s** culinary craft, and is transported back to his youth – to the comfort and warmth and love of his own childhood home.  A work of Art stirs him in a profoundly personal, individual manner – evoking a sensation that even if he could explain it, is so subjective that it could never be dissected and disseminated into scholarly prose.  And it is in the shock of this undiluted singularity of experience that he reconsiders the folly of his analytical arrogance.

As Ego realises, critics, in order to be able to speak with any context about the success or otherwise of this artistry, must be willing to open themselves up in this conversational exchange between work and receiver; not to be blinded by subjectivity at the expense of all else (the most unhelpful ‘critic’ is the one who shouts, ‘Well I like it, so everyone else can just shut up!’), but rather to be mindful of their own preferences and persuasions, to know when they have projected themselves and their own prejudices upon a text, and whether this has unjustly impacted their judgement.

With this in mind, this past month I have waded back into the thoroughly fished out waters of the ‘Are videogames Art?’ debate (dear gods, how can there even still be considered a ‘debate’?) to take issue with Roger Ebert’s criticisms of videogames.  Ebert famously considered videogames as a medium too ‘immature’ and ‘indulgent’ to constitute a form of Art.  In his view, the act of surrendering authorial control to the player meant that the text itself became incapable of conveying meaning, and as a ‘game’, it lacked the ability to evoke empathy or self-reflection in its players.

What Ebert, an otherwise admirable advocate for the celebration and assessment of Art, failed to observe was that his own prejudices – about what constitutes ‘Art'; about what even constitutes a ‘game’ – had blinded him to a wealth of expressive potential.  He was applying the expectations of a movie reviewer onto a completely different medium, obstinately refusing to actually explore these texts on their own terms, and had therefore irreparably muddied his own argument.***

In response, I decided to use Ebert’s own criteria to perform the analysis of a videogame that he, curiously, had not bothered to undertake.  I chose Michel Ancel’s Beyond Good and Evil because (and here my own prejudices emerge) I just think its exquisite.  The result of my analysis can be read over on my latest PopMatters column, but I don’t think it will come as any surprise that I end up arguing that Beyond is every bit as good as any film (indeed probably more-so) at evoking civility, self-awareness and empathy.

…Also, you may be surprised to learn that I still think Beyond Good and Evil is great.

Spoiler alert.

But that’s all boring.  Me yammering on (yet again) about a number of misguided comments a film reviewer made years ago; applauding a game that is now a decade old; hashing out an argument that for anyone not harbouring some lingering loathing for the videogame medium really is as dead as can be?  Urgh.

Instead, I want to talk about what is by far the best piece of criticism I have read of late.  It is an article titled ‘Australian Art and the Search for Faecal Purity’, written by an Australian artist named Duncan Staples and published on his website (Duncan Staples Art).

Before doing so, however, just so that my own critical bias is laid bare, I should mention that I know Staples personally – indeed, it is his portrait of me, ‘Writer at the Bar’, that I proudly sport as my avatar.  But don’t think that just because he is a friend of mine I am predisposed to agree with everything he says****; and you can check out his Art for yourself to see that when I refer to it as some of the most lively, urgent, and expressive work I have seen, I am being completely sincere.

I mean, just check this one out:

Duncan Staples In Preparation

IMAGE: In Preparation by Duncan Staples

In his article, Staples responds to the recent outrage that emerged in the wake of critic Waldemar Januszczak’s review of the Australia exhibition at the London Royal Academy.  Having perused the exhibition – purported to be one of the most sizable and comprehensive overviews of the history of Australian Art – Januszczak had made a series of rather disparaging and farcically hyperbolic remarks about its quality, including gems like ‘tourist tat’, ‘poverty porn’, and culminating in the rather hysterical ‘cascade of diarrhoea.’  Overall, he considered the wealth of Australia’s artistic output (or at the very least this curated snapshot of it) ‘lightweight, provincial and dull.’

Staples, himself a member of this country’s Art history, has every reason to take umbrage at Januszczak’s petty dismissal of Australia’s ‘provincial’ tastes; but instead of getting indignant – as it appears much of Australia’s Art scene and news media have done – Staples instead chose to explore the ignorance Januszczak exhibited in his dismissal of two prominent painters, Fred Williams and John Olsen, who had their work likened to ‘cowpats’ and a ‘diarrhoea’ respectively.  He takes the descriptions at face value, actually putting more thought and perspective into these snide insults than Januszczak clearly did, and by doing so, reveals the accidental truth behind them – commending Olsen’s untrammelled Romantic spirit, and admiring William’s meticulous eye for capturing the reality of his landscape.

Staples performs an act of critical alchemy, elegantly redirecting the superficial insults of a reviewer who had allowed his ignorance and disdain of the subject matter to cloud his perspective.  Marrying the profound and the profane, the professorial and the puerile, the perceptive with the poop, it’s an article that is funny, insightful, and that elevates the discourse …all while still making several wonderfully indulgent references to faeces.

It is a pity that critics like Januszczak and Ebert do not more frequently take after an artist like Staples, who not only proves himself to be knowledgeable and attentive, but is alert to his own place in this dialogue between artwork and viewer.  It is a lesson that they would have done well to heed.  Because ultimately, even if they do not like the Art they are viewing, even if it offends their senses: they are the ones standing in it.

The Sydney Sun by John Olsen

IMAGE: The Sydney Sun by John Olsen

* Ah, what a marvellous name for a critic!

** Ah, what a marvellous name for an artist!

*** One can even see this mistake – to a far more asinine extreme – being played out in the increasingly patronising tirades of a figure like J.Shea at the Exploring Believability blog (someone with whom I have taken issue previously).  No longer merely denying videogames the possibility of being considered an Art form based upon his own arbitrary (and honestly rather sad) definition of what ‘Art’ is, Shea now appears to be fixated on some weird crusade to openly insult anyone who would dare approach them as anything more than violence generators for training psychotics.

**** We have had some quite heated debates in the past about issues of great importance.  …Turning the world back around the other way at the end of Richard Donner’s Superman cannot reverse time, Staples!  I DON’T CARE IF IT’S NEVER HAPPENED BEFORE!

6 Responses to “‘I Am Rubber And You Are Glue…': Art, Criticism, and Poop”

  1. His conclusion about Januszczak reminded me of someone else’s when it came to Ebert’s criticism of videogames as art – why try and search the critic’s approval when he’s not judging by the standards applicable to the specific field:

    http://www.escapistmagazine.com/articles/view/comics/critical-miss/10484-ARTARTARTARTFART

  2. Tom Painter Says:

    I’ve been a regular visitor to your blog since its establishment but have never commented before now. I wanted to let you know the depth of my admiration for your critiques and essays on this site. Yours was one of the few voices of reason in the cacophonous rage that was the BSN in the year after the release of Mass Effect 3.

    Those particular forums have devolved into something quite distasteful in the absence of intelligent and measured criticism such as yours, although butting heads with the imovable objects that some users there proved to be could not have been all that fun. I wanted to thank you for these essays, let you know that there are people who read them and that they are not effort vain.

    Keep up the fantastic work.

    • Thank you for your incredibly kind comments, Tom. They are very, very much appreciated.

      I’ve not dropped in on the ME forums for some time, but I’m sad to say that the last couple of times that I did it was – as you say – a slightly depressing experience.

      After the wonderfully welcome, spirited and fun discussion of the ‘All Were Thematically Revolting…’ thread and a couple of others, where everyone seemed eager to exchange ideas and make each other laugh in the face of the grim disappointment of ME3, in my last few visits to the wider forum I was struck by a handful of obstinate voices who were more interested in telling people that they were wrong, and should shut up, rather than forwarding any coherent argument.

      I’m sure that there are still intelligent, thoughtful people there, and that profitable debate does continue, but I presume that it occurs in the group discussions so as not to be drowned out by blind snark and rage.

      …It also can’t help to have the ominous shadow of the Mods dictating what can and can’t even be discussed. I’m personally not a subscriber to the Indoctrination Theory (and frankly I think that Bioware’s statements and later DLC have been designed to directly debunk it) but the idea of refusing to let fans even mention ‘IT’ before slamming shut a thread and banning people is such a disgusting and asinine form of censorship that I can imagine it turned a lot of people away.

      It seems Bioware has cultivated the current state of the forum, through the voices that they allow to overwhelm and the topics that they dictate can be spoken – and it is a shame, because much like you I was delighted once by the level of discourse I found on their forum. Clearly they have (or had) one of the most intelligent, creative, and devoted fan bases of any pop culture franchise; it’s incredibly sad if such voices no longer feel welcome in a space once designed to gather them together.

      Thanks again for the comment, Tom. I’m glad my waffle isn’t as interminable to some as it often is to me.

      • Tom Painter Says:

        Thank you for your reply Drayfish. “All Were Thematically Revolting” and similar threads proved to be some of my greatest sources of entertainment throughout 2012. Lively, intelligent discourse on a subject from passionate people on all sides was an electronic heaven of sorts.

        I think the obstinate response from Bioware coupled with draconian moderation of the boards by certain individuals (the mere mention of the indoctrination theory, which I also never ascribed to, resulting in locked and deleted threads always stood out as the most egregious example of this) resulted in an environment that eventually pushed away those critical of the endings. Their voice was not being heard, with the Extended Cut standing as testament to that fact. Resulting in an echo chamber of aquiescence to the, lets say, troubling message capping their franchise.

        I have to admit, certain individuals on those boards extol the virtues of some incredibly troubling world views that, in their opinion, are supported by the end of that game. I sometimes wonder if the bioware writers look at such screeds with dispair. Is this really the message we created? Were these the people we meant to appeal to?

        Whilst surfing the internet I rediscovered an article by Kyle Munkittrick on the importance of Mass Effect, within the genre of science fiction, that I remembered reading just prior to the release of that ill-faited third installment in the franchise. He makes some wonderful points. I find myself simultaneously elated at the power inherent to the franchise and despairing in the knowledge of how it went so wrong. I thought you might find it interesting, although you may have read it before:

        http://www.popbioethics.com/2012/02/why-mass-effect-is-the-most-important-science-fiction-universe-of-our-generation/

        I can but hope that the franchise will find redemption in Koobismo’s Marauder Shields, my personal ‘canon’ ending. Based on the evidence of the comic so far, I feel my faith in the potential for that redemption is not unfounded.

        Once again, thank you for the reply and keep up the great work!

  3. What about that J Shea, writes some good blog posts but *very* difficult to talk to. He must have gotten your goat in order to earn a footnote.

    • You are probably more correct than I’d like to admit, Joe. There is something about Shea’s mixture of condescending sneering at his readership and the hypocrisy with which he elevates his own subjective perspective to objective ‘fact’ that does rankle me.

      (Particularly so when it becomes clear that he is quite comfortable slagging off texts that he has not even played. That kind of presumptive, biased guesswork is unforgivable for someone claiming to be a critic.)

      Indeed, I have been trying to suppress the urge to post another rant about his style of argument, having recently been directed by a friend to read one of Shea’s newer articles (about the ‘similarities’ he has arbitrarily drawn between television and videogame characters).

      I’m not sure what me blathering on about it again will do, however. He’s made it clear in the way he engages with his audience that he doesn’t actually have any interest in participating in a discussion, and I suspect that his progressively aggressive tone is more about riling people up for page hits and controversy than actually making a valid point.

      I’m glad that people can find something of worth in Shea’s work, but I’ve always suspected that in fact it is *they* who have brought that insight with them. It’s certainly not anything that I’ve seen his writing deliver.

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