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Non-Playable Criticism

Post #1841 • August 5, 2019, 1:24 PM • 1 Comment

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The Cato Institute, a recipient of some of the pittance that I can allot for causes I support, put on a juried art exhibition. I didn't apply, for several reasons. One is my reluctance, coming close to total refusal, to apply to any juried art exhibition. Another was bad timing, in that the work had to be delivered while I was in Vienna. Another was the certainty that if any critic paid attention to the show, she would blither about it in the most condescending manner imaginable. She would mention Ayn Rand at least once. She would do her utmost to make those involved look like tools. And she would come away unpersuaded, even unprovoked to consider an alternative line of thinking, because the one consistent feature of what I call left-liberalism when I'm feeling charitable and Late-Stage Liberalism when I'm not is the tendency to divide the world into Team A and Team Unfathomable Evil.

I use "she" here because Rachel Wetzler made good on that certainty at The Baffler. Beckett once said that every word is an unnecessary stain upon silence and nothingness. But upon reflection, some stains are dirtier than others. Wetzler's exercise in ignorant mendacity deserves an old-fashioned (ca. 2004) blog-style fisking. Let's instead draw a slow, mindful breath and contemplate a reading from RuPaul-roshi.

I’ll do whatever. All of the experiences I’ve learned and every ascended master you’ve studied will say the exact same thing: Life is not to be taken seriously. Most people are dumb as fuck. If you look at their voting habits and their eating habits, you realize people are stupid. So we could talk about stupid people or we could just stay with smart people who know how to have fun and not even focus on what dumb people do. It’s not worth it. I tell you this as someone who’s a smart motherfucker: Don’t waste your time fooling with dumb people or trying to figure them out or trying to educate them. It doesn’t work. It’s a lose-lose situation.

And, exhale.

Wetzler's essay, in spite of itself, raises an interesting consideration about what a patently conservative or libertarian art might look like.

But for all its adeptness at attacking the leftist vision of contemporary art that apparently predominates today, the right has struggled to articulate what they’d like to see replace it, let alone advance any remotely compelling alternative canon. Conservatives have, in recent years, become increasingly preoccupied with this lacuna and the need to fill it, worried about the implications of ceding the realm of culture to the left—after all, as the late Andrew Breitbart often said, “politics is downstream of culture” and, though he was mostly talking about Hollywood movies, others have echoed his call for the creation of a genuine culture of the right. These efforts, however, have rarely amounted to much: Kimball and the New Criterion crowd champion painters like the flimsily Caravaggesque Odd Nerdrum, whose works are bad imitations of the Old Masters. (If a workmanlike command of classical technique is all it takes, then the world’s best artists are the Chinese copyists in the Dafen oil painting village who churn out Rembrandt replicas on demand.)

It would have been one thing to write this in 1989 or 1997, on one of the two occasions that The New Criterion reviewed a Nerdrum exhibition in the whole 37-year history of the magazine. (And Roger Kimball didn't write either of them, though he did once praise his work in The Spectator, also in 1997.) But it's 2019, and Late-Stage Liberals have developed their own bottomless appetite for backwards-looking figuration, so long as the artists use it to make pictures of black people.1 2 3 4 5 They prefer these pictures to be painted by black artists, but there is so much demand for them that non-black artists have gotten in on the hustle.6 7 I'm all in favor of everybody doing whatever they want, particularly if it gets the bills paid, and the genius of the tradition in question is that while it originated in Europe, no one owns it and everyone may use it. My point is that if you go for this stuff because you think it represents art-making as it ought to be, then there's no point to scorning Roger Kimball's fondness for Nerdrum, because you're signed up for the same project. (For the record, I write for The New Criterion, and I would describe my feelings about Nerdrum as cautious.)

It's clear that the playing field is tilted at a Himalayan pitch. Supposedly Nerdrum is flimsily Caravaggesque and imitating the Old Masters badly, but when Lynette Yiadom-Boakye lamely rehashes Raphael Soyer, she gets a Turner Prize and a show at the New Museum. (Soyer did not have nearly so much trouble painting feet.) And have you ever seen a Kehinde Wiley in person? The assistants who paint his work for him make those Dafen guys look like Rembrandt.

What do you do when the field is slanted against you? You cede the field and attack on a new one. An argument exists that memes are the conservative art form, and that liberals don't possess the necessary humor or irreverence to make memes themselves. Or, as the catchphrase goes, The Left Can't Meme. Justin Campbell, "The Left Can't Meme":

Generally speaking to be considered funny one can’t take themselves too serious. They need the ability to laugh at themselves and see irony in situations. In the past it was the conservative right that struggled with this; today it’s the left that has a puritanical streak. It’s hard to get humour when you’ve built an entire identity and social structure around being offended by everything.

This is the consensus as evidenced by several sources that you can find if you really need to see them. How worried is the left about this? Way more than Cato is worried about that art show of theirs. Stephanie Mencimer for Mother Jones, "'The Left Can’t Meme': How Right-Wing Groups Are Training the Next Generation of Social Media Warriors":

Cheap, subversive, and designed to provoke an emotional response, memes are a disruptive form of information guerrilla warfare. Republicans have gotten [meme expert Jeff] Giesea’s message [to that effect], while Democrats have all but ignored it.

I was still on Twitter when the NPC memes came out. As an old Dungeons & Dragons player, I appreciated the reference. It was interesting to watch the epithet stick. Ellen Ioanes at The Daily Dot, "What are NPCs, the popular new far-right meme?":

The meme, popular on the pro-Trump Reddit channel r/The_Donald, centers on nonplaying characters (NPCs). [Editor's note: That's "non-player" or "non-playable character," normie.] So what is NPC? It’s video game terminology for a character who gives directions or advice to help move the plot of the game along. And that’s the gag—players can’t control automated NPCs.... Essentially, the joke is that anyone who is anti-Trump isn’t practicing free thought—they’re simply parroting what CNN tells them to think.

While the NPC memes started on Reddit and 4Chan, they’ve moved to a more mainstream platform: Twitter. Recently, hundreds of accounts featuring the stock grey character as an avatar have popped up on the social media site.

The meme is apparently having real-world consequences, too.

Julia Alexander for The Verge, "The NPC meme went viral when the media gave it oxygen":

The combination of Twitter culling 1,500-plus NPC accounts and the evidence that the meme was spreading misinformation suggests that the NPC meme has crossed the threshold from “just another meme going through its life cycle” into an important discussion about how that life cycle can produce real-life effects.

"NPC" is now a fixture in the cultural discourse. See for instance, this video from Eric D. July, "Lois Lane #1: Predictable Garbage From An NPC." From roughly the 6:10 mark:

This is why we call you NPCs, because you're predictable. This is why we call you non-playable characters, it's like you guys are running the same goddamn script.

Have a look at the handsome mug of Mr. July and ask yourself if that's the face of a white supremacist.

So liberals created a cultural game in which conservatives can't survive, and the conservatives responded by making a cultural game in which liberals can't survive. The libertarians at Cato would prefer to use elegant weapons from a more civilized age, but look at what happens when they attempt it - they get shot in the back by the clones. The takeaway is that these cultural games are roughly equivalent to one another, and there's a way to make art that transcends them.

Cato got at least one thing right - that "artists are our kinds of people," as VP John Samples put it. I would invite artists, and anyone else, who don't like what's going on with conservatism but find liberalism increasingly autocratic, judgmental, hostile to free inquiry and expression, and otherwise undeserving of its own name to come see what we're about.



John Link

August 5, 2019, 11:11 PM

"Ignorant mendacity" is a very apt description.

Both art and art criticism need to abandon agendas extrinsic to themselves. Stick with what you see folks, not what you read or think. What is self-evident in the context of one agenda is self-contradictory in another. And both contexts are beside the point. This isn't about "purity," just common sense. Do you want a surgeon operating on you whose only continuing medical education is studying books on how to make barbecue?

The real test of a worthy eye is when it is allowed to have its say when its owner wishes it would say something else. Living with such an eye takes practice and some getting used to. But letting it happen is the only way to get the joy of art.

The show was unimpressive, Wetzler's essay even more so. Time to move on.



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