I belatedly came across Neal Gabler’s frustrating Boston Globe editorial,”The End of Cultural Elitism,” via A.O. Scott’s response in the New York Times. In essence, Gabler finally seems to wake up to the existence of Internet-based criticism, prompting him to make the argument that we have reached what he calls “the democratization of cultural influence.” Thus, Internet-based critics now stand on a level playing field with high-brow tastemakers such as “media executives, academics, elite tastemakers, and of course critics.” Gabler deftly avoids taking a qualitative stand on the implications of this shift. The Internet enables word-of-mouth to circulate endlessly, allowing everyday people to counteract the imposed hierarchies of cultural taste.
It’s a nice story, I guess, but it’s also one that makes its arguments on the basis of some rather slippery generalizations. First, as one of the commenters in this forum points out, Gabler conflates taste with popularity, in order to make his case that movie and TV audiences are ignoring the critics and other elite tastemakers. In doing so, he offers two main examples that are worth considering. First, he uses American Idol to make the case that musical taste has been democratized. There is a partial point to be made here. We can vote for Kelly Clarkson, Clay Aiken, or Jennifer Hudson, but winning Idol has never been a guarantee of a successful musical career, and our tastes as viewers/voters are, in fact, deeply shaped by the comments of the critics who judge each performance. Although voters may initially defy the pronouncements of the judges, they also participate in a highly-sponsored spectacle, one that depends on the marketability of young pop vocalists.
His second example, The Social Network is even more problematic in that, despite Gabler’s claims, the film has been relatively successful at the box office given that it is a drama targeted primarily toward an adult audience, one without any marketable stars. But Gabler glosses the fact that word-of-mouth has generally been fairly positive when it comes to The Social Network. We might also look at True Grit, a relatively low-budget Coen Brothers film that has achieved a combination of relative box office success and critical acclaim, both among the tastemakers and audiences.
But Gabler’s most questionable point, for me at least, was his claim that Rotten Tomates and Ain’t It Cool News represent the most powerful examples of this new form of democratization, opposing the influence of “the tonier critics” who no longer have the same influence. Of course, Rotten Tomatoes (like IMDB and other movie sites) aggregates critical reviews, many of them by critics working for “elite” publications such as The New York Times. And, although AICN started well outside of the power structures of the Hollywood studio system–Harry Knowles was quite literally the blogger in the basement–it is now firmly entrenched within those same institutions, getting access to early screenings and other promotional materials. Gabler is careful enough to admit that cultural populism has always “fought” against top-down impositions of culture, but the suggestion of an antagonistic relationship between high and low culture obscures the overlap between the two.
With that in mind, I found A. O. Scott’s response somewhat refreshing, although a second look raises some questions. First, I think Scott is correct to question how Gabler defines “the elite.” Scott challenges the idea that critics are imposing cultural taste, instead arguing that it’s a media industry marketing machine that performs the imposition of culture. And in some sense, I agree with Scott that culture industries manufacture hype that can be used to bring crowds into movie theaters and theme parks and to sell DVDs and cheap plastic toys. But I think Scott may push his point a little far when suggests that the marketers “manipulate the habits and tastes of consumers.” Such a claim implies that viewers have little to no agency in negotiating their relationship with culture or making choices about how they respond to the movies and TV shows they do consume. Scott’s argument builds to a conclusion that echoes traditional culture industry arguments in concluding that the marketing of Hollywood fare deceptively provides users with the illusion of choice and freedom and that the critic (or public intellectual more broadly) offers one of the only possible disruptions of this process.
Part of my hesitation is due to the fact that, in some cases, critics are in fact complicit in this process. Critical acclaim for The Social Network, True Grit, or even Spider-Man 2 and The Dark Knight can, in some cases, fit within the network of hype that Scott seems to distance himself from. This doesn’t mean that critics shouldn’t participate in this media ecosystem, and it certainly doesn’t mean that critics are irrelevant (as Gabler surmises). Critics, many of them affiliated with what Gabler might describe as “elite” institutions, continue to play a vital cultural role in shaping and contributing to our conversations about culture. And popular culture can often provide us with a powerful vocabulary for talking about other social and political issues. But I think we lose quite a bit when some of those same critics make such sweeping historical and cultural generalizations that we lose out on the specificity and diversity of practices taking place within critical culture.