A few years ago, my friend and I got into an argument about criticism. He complained that much of the criticism he saw was petty jabbing at things that didn’t live up to subjective expectations. Though I argued against him then, I see now that he was generally right; criticism is often nothing more than equating popularity with poor quality. I have come to realize that true criticism avoids this misstep, clings to objectivity and, in so doing, becomes one of the most important callings a Christian can have.
It is true that much of what we call “criticism” is little more than snobby sniping at things we deem “popular.” Music lovers want to see their favorite band making just enough money to keep going; film lovers are violently opposed to their “art house” films gaining mass followings. Somehow, notoriety has been equated with artistic degradation. Too often, critics give in to this sentiment, devolving into a kind of self-indulgent snobbery. I indict myself as well. How many times have I looked at my CD collection with a smug little thought that I’ve avoided popular music in favor of the newest indie sensation?
As a critic, I’ve tried to avoid falling into the anti-populist mentality because it ultimately invalidates any sort of meaningful dialogue. Instead, I’ve found that being a legitimate and sincere critic means fully and critically engaging with culture around us. This means avoiding critical arrogance, but it also means not being afraid to label inartistic bilge for what it is. A true critic holds to an objective definition of art: namely, that which exposes the creativity of God through its own portrayals. Simultaneously, he or she categorically rejects crap, popular or not. Over the last 30y years, however, artistic objectivity has become equated with “elitism.”
Often, being an “elitist” in today’s artistic climate means daring to stand up for creativity. “Popular” works are very aware of their own manipulative power to pander to a cultural “need” that society—meaning MTV, Fox News, People magazine, Focus on the Family—has created for them. The sad reality is that our culture today has little idea why it likes a certain work or creation. An album does not sell unless the public has been pre-conditioned by the Clear Channel marketing machine to buy it. Granted, there are exceptions, but does anyone really believe that “singers” like Ashlee Simpson or Hilary Duff would be famous if it weren’t for corporate sponsorship of their careers? A real critic rejects artists who have been groomed for mass consumption—not out of an inherent snobbery, but because the cultural powers that be have swindled the public into thinking that they are thinking and buying for themselves when, in fact, they are answering the Pavlovian call of Viacom suits to fork over cash for the latest MTV poster child. Thinking like this is not “elitist”; it is a rejection of mass mediocrity and reclamation of creative integrity.
Organizations, secular and Christian alike, have helped to create a culture that rarely thinks about its consumption. If something is touted by the right organizations or societal sectors, that particular corner of culture accepts it and believes they like it. After all, as the covers of books, album covers and movie trailers tell us, the more people who purchase a product, the better it must be. The true critic, however, does not haphazardly equate popularity with respectability. Rather, he or she bears an objective commitment to artistic truth and creative beauty, pointing at the culture’s flaws and saying: “Look! We are made in the image of God, and we can do better!”
Perhaps surprisingly to many people, the Christian critic has an even greater responsibility to critique than does the secular critic. We must be even more careful that our criticisms are not disguised, arrogant snobbery; but we also have a greater calling to bring our darkened culture the light of God’s creativity. If Christians are tolerant of cliched swill, how can we expect secular critics to be any different? We should be seeking the creativity of an Almighty Creator, not simply categorically praising things because the “offensive” bits of humanity have been whitewashed out.
So why do many Christians continue to embrace mediocrity with vague appeals to “populism,” while we address true seekers of artistic creativity as “elitists”? It seems that a tipping point must soon be reached: will we give in to the pseudo-behaviorist tendencies of media empires, or will we embrace a sense of “elitism,” if to be elitist is to embrace truth and beauty while rejecting rubbish? Cultural criticism, if it is not baseless and centered in petty condescension, is one of the highest—and missing—callings for Christians today.
The “elitist!” accusation has been levied at me before, and I’m sure it will again. I only hope that my life demonstrates that my “elitism” is nothing more than discontentment with a dangerous and deficient cultural status quo. My hope is that Christians who have gone before us in these efforts and who continue to pave the way will serve as proverbial “guiding lights” for those of us who seek to make art and creativity the norm rather than a product of the “elite.”