Can Arts Criticism Survive the Death of Snobbery?

On Sunday morning, I woke up early (for me, on a weekend) for a New York Film Festival screening of a documentary you’ve probably never heard of. A week ago, I’ll admit, I had never heard of it either. Titled Visit, or Memories and Confessions, the movie was directed in 1982 by the Portuguese filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira but remained unseen in even his home country until after his death this spring at the age of 106. Owing to its personal nature — it’s set at his longtime home and concerns his history and relationship to his wife — Oliveira did not want the movie to screen during his lifetime.

Visit is unique in format and style. It’s a difficult, philosophical film, even for a documentary. It moves slowly, and meditates on questions of art, mortality, politics, and the sacrifices we demand of our loved ones. And the NYFF staff apparently did a remarkable amount of work arranging its US premiere; as an English translation of the film didn’t exist, the festival borrowed the print from Cinematica Portuguesa and subtitled it live.

This is the kind of event the New York Times’ A. O. Scott seems to champion, in an essay titled “Film Snob? Is That So Wrong?” The piece is loosely tied to NYFF, which the critic notes once “represented the high-water mark of film snobbery in America, both as something to be mocked and something to be proclaimed and celebrated,” but which now “routinely makes room for big, awards-hungry Hollywood movies” alongside its traditional slate of European and Asian art films. According to Scott, this is just one sign of a shift that has happened in the half-century since NYFF’s founding, as Americans have reached a tacit consensus that all personal artistic preferences are created equal:

It seems to be an article of modern democratic faith that disputing taste is taboo: at best a lapse in manners, at worst an offense against feelings or social order (which sometimes seem to amount to the same thing). Our nation is at present riven by social inequality and polarized by ideology, but the last thing anyone wants to be called is an elitist.

The Visit screening, which nearly filled Lincoln Center’s 268-seat Walter Reade Theater at noon on a pretty autumn Sunday, was a reminder of something Scott’s piece glosses over: that if the death of the film snob really has happened, it hasn’t done much harm to the highbrow film culture once patronized largely by snobs. (In fact, cinephiles who don’t live in major cities can now get their Criterion Collection fix without even leaving home — on Hulu, where the works of Eric Rohmer sit comfortably alongside episodes of The Goldbergs.) Sure, the democratization of taste means that world of highbrow culture is no longer quite as segregated from the mainstream as it used to be — but was that segregation ever valuable in itself?

If anything,  the convergence of high and low more closely resembles the way people who love culture have always consumed it, since the days when we really did feel guilty about our “guilty pleasures.” Sure, I hauled ass to the Upper West Side to see a Portuguese film-essay that had been sitting patiently in its can for three decades, but what else did I watch this weekend? All of Saturday’s Miley Cyrus-hosted Saturday Night Live season premiereWes Craven’s New Nightmare (thanks, Jason Bailey and Netflix), an episode of Bob’s Burgers, an episode of Scandal, about an hour of Notting Hill, and Ken Russell’s sleazy Bram Stoker adaptation The Lair of the White Worm.

So, what is at stake when the film snob becomes an endangered species, if not the art film? Film criticism, maybe — and, when you expand Scott’s scope to encompass the arts in general, at a time when taking chart pop and multi-cam sitcoms seriously is the rule rather than the exception, all cultural criticism. When a genre of writing (and a profession) justifies its existence through a tacit acknowledgment that its practitioners are more discerning than the general public, then the democratization of taste does in fact pose an existential threat to it. And what’s convenient, if not outright pernicious, about this otherwise welcome ideological shift is how closely it has seemed to follow the rise of sites Scott mentions, such as Amazon and Yelp, whose business models rely at least in part on the assumption that one opinion is as valuable as any other.

I’m not one of those critics who pretend to have made peace with the prospect that criticism, like snobbery, could die off within a generation. There is value in a challenging and lively conversation about the arts as they relate to contemporary life, even if the smart talk is sometimes drowned out by shouting and piling on, and it’s tough to imagine why any critic who would dispute that still bothers coming in to work. (Certainly, it’s not because of the pay.) But it’s hard to get too angry at the idea that good taste is no longer, in itself, the foundation of good criticism.

The problem is that, as critics (and their readers, and their social media followers) internalize the seemingly obvious notion that it takes more than budget range and marketing plan and genre and target audience to make one work superior to another, we risk getting lazy in how we formulate our opinions on and understandings of art. Now that every taste in our democratic but deeply fragmented and supersaturated culture can be defended as a personal preference, likeminded viewers, readers, and listeners end up forming cheerleading squads and/or echo chambers. (Take a look at 2016’s presidential hopefuls and you’ll see a version of the same thing happening in politics.) There’s less of a need to rigorously interrogate why we see value in something most people find stupid, or vice versa, when the one thing we all agree on is that we shouldn’t judge what other people like. This isn’t just the case for “poptimists” who champion wildly popular but often critically condescended-to artists, by the way; it happens in every niche, from rap nerds to horror fans to the cult of David Simon.

The good news is that the changes criticism needs to make in order to survive are healthy for criticism anyway. We’ve known for a while that it’s got to do more than just render a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down,” but it also has to do more than reenforce some outdated conception of what constitutes good vs. bad taste. Moving off each of these positive-to-negative spectrums provides an opportunity for critics to pose better questions: How does this piece of art work? What is its reason for existing? How does it represent and interact with the world we’re living in? Why should people who aren’t already paying attention to this particular corner of culture care? The death of the snob could be great for criticism, if we let it.