In Praise of Ordinary Art
In an age of critical excess, is there freedom in the everyday?
BY MATT HARTMAN
CONSIDER THE FACT that there is such a thing as a Vox explainer of the “Last Jedi backlash controversy.” I came across it when trying to understand why multiple friends responded to my distaste for the movie with the slightly anguished questions of someone trying to talk a friend out of a faux pas. I hated the movie for its stilted dialogue, cartoon morals, and for being too boring, but somehow my opinions on filmmaking risked becoming just another bad take about “too much progressivism” like the ones my friends suffered all across the internet.
Differing readings of a film aren’t novel, of course, nor is the fact that some cultural artifacts become shibboleths for political subcultures. But some things only make sense in context, and in this case that context is a mass of commentary surrounding The Last Jedi. To understand someone’s opinion on the film, it’s not enough to have seen it; you must also understand the terrain of the debates surrounding it.
Once, this might have been true only of the highest of highbrow art, but now it’s true of criticism of pop culture, too—even the news. Explaining YA drama to someone who chooses their books in seclusion, or the alligator tweet to someone with a data-capped wireless plan, is like Kafka in reverse. In this post-blog world, it seems nothing goes unremarked on. To engage with our culture is to navigate an esoteric maze of references. Bad takes are dragged, gaffes are memed, thinkpieces abound, and (at least if you’re part of certain social circles) you’re expected to know all of it, all of the time. The commentary has ouroboros-ed itself to the extent that even hot takes about hot takes are clichéd now. Consuming a new piece of culture innocent of its wider reception is vanishingly rare.
It’s not possible to fully understand why this change has come about without accounting for the ways the multimedia conglomerates who dominate the culture industry have built business models around the ongoing flow of commentary—one of the many fronts in what some call the culture war. It’s all fed, continually, by media outlets desperately seeking a way to meet their bottom lines. Newsrooms with reduced staff and magazines with dwindling subscriptions find their ever more fickle supply of readers via poorly understood, little planned algorithms. The marketing departments at publishers, production houses, and record labels have taken note: “Millennials really hate advertising,” news reports claim, so earned media is an ever more sought boon to sales. An economy of takes and criticism has been created, in which seemingly no feature goes unexamined. If the essential challenge of criticism is to get others to see what you see in an object, the challenge today is to resist the critical landscape that shapes how we approach art in the first place.
The Last Jedi comes to mind because the phenomenon is most visible in the ever-expanded universe of superheroes and sci-fi futures. “You want to get people out of their homes and into the theater? Give them a brand they know,” Wall Street Journal reporter Ben Fritz told Marketplace. Even more, turn your brand into part of The Movement™ and you’ll find an increasing amount of profitable brand loyalty. Trump is Voldemort, Hillary Clinton is Katniss, and Warner Brothers and Lionsgate are banking billions. The political impact of the blockbuster industry—especially the kind of blockbusters that span all media—isn’t necessarily false, of course. It is genuinely important, and genuinely progressive, that Black Panther depicts an Afro-futurist world. But the politics can only go as far as the profits carry them. Corporations like Disney depend on the success of these franchises, and any member of their marketing departments can tell you that the best way to protect those investments is to build a brand and media strategy that proactively shapes the conversation to inspire loyalty. “Overall, it makes us -- YOU-- look very smart,” then-Sony PR executive Jean Guerin emailed then-studio head Amy Pascal in response to a story about the studio developing a female Spiderman movie.
It’s for that reason (as well as the despicable paucity of Black representation in mainstream media) that African American scholar and critic Russell Rickford opens his criticism of Black Panther’s utopian future by noting that he will seem “blasphemous.” In the proactively-shaped conversation surrounding the film, debating its politics is reduced to debating whether the film should exist. But pointing out that the culture of fandom surrounding the franchise (and many others) is part of a business plan isn’t to deny either the reality or the benefits of that culture—it’s to argue that it limits our imagination at the same time it expands it, because it can only depict progress in ways that are compatible with Disney’s business model.
IF SUPERHERO FRANCHISES are a metonym for the digital age’s critical excess, then it may be ordinary art that offers a corrective. Not mediocre art, but art that insists, in style or subject, on the plain and maybe even boring everyday qualities of life, and by insisting on them, uncovering something new within them. In his essay “Kierkegaard’s On Authority and Revelation,” critic and philosopher Stanley Cavell notes that what is remarkable about the ordinary is that “A human being can be a complete enigma to himself; he cannot find his feet with himself. Not because a particular thing he does puzzles him—his problem may be that many of the puzzling things he does do not puzzle him—but because he does not know why he lives as he does, what the point of his activity is; he understands his words, but he is foreign to his life.” Cavell, one of the most insightful theorists of the ordinary around, is always at pains to show the ordinary as a kind of home (the connections to domesticity are not accidental) because home is the space in which we live our lives. It’s there that we can, to use Cavell’s words, “recogniz[e] the extraordinary in what we find ordinary, and the ordinary in what we find extraordinary.” Talented artists will of course always find ways to subvert not only the genre conventions of the new superhero normal, but also the critical framework and business models so tied in to their functioning. Another subversive option, however, is to refuse the game—and that’s what ordinary art is especially well poised to do.
It’s this art that demystifies the “un-innocent, elegant fall into the un-magnificent lives of adults,” to borrow words from The National, a band that exemplifies the power of the ordinary. The band has long wallowed in the muck of domestic life, and their normcore dad rock veneer has rubber banded from critique to praise and back again more times than is worth counting. What’s stayed consistent is The National’s music; they’ve been one of the most vital rock bands around for a decade running, in large part because no one is better at capturing the anxiety of contemporary life, nor of the frailty of the institutions defining it—marriage chief among them. In a review of the band’s most recent album, Sleep Well Beast, Pitchfork critic Jayson Greene wrote that “their music feels particularly devoted to the quotidian nature of lifelong unions,” and that “there’s a reason anniversary cards say things like ‘All these years later, I still love you.’ It’s because the miracle isn’t in the ‘love,’ it’s in the ‘still.’” The fact that greeting cards are a useful foil for The National may seem like a dig, but it’s essential to their captivating power.
Zach Freeman articulates the reason why in a Chicago Tribune review of The New One, the latest stand-up/storytelling special from Mike Birbiglia—another artist who turns the schlumpy dad shtick into something far greater than he has a right to: “Birbiglia makes broad statements [...] that teeter close to oversimplification and gender stereotyping, but undercuts them later by outing himself—via a conversation with his wife, among other things—as an unreliable narrator.” It’s the simultaneous proximity and distance from the familiar stereotypes that give this art the ability to offer such powerful commentary. Neither The National nor Birbiglia traffics in the expected—they subvert it, taking nothing for granted. The band and the comedian look so plain that they don’t provoke the digital feedback machine the way superhero franchises do, and they make sure to use that freedom to their advantage.
In praising ordinary art, however, it cannot be forgotten that what is ordinary is the very question. Birbiglia and the members of The National are heteronormative white dudes all, and that fact is, as ever, very much related to their (assumed) relatability, and, as ever, to their critical and commercial success. Despite the political victories of the past decade, it’s still rare for anyone to carry the promise of universality who isn’t white, straight, and male—not to mention those who reject marriage and parenthood wholesale. And if “the ordinary” is just a new mask on lifeless norms, it’s worthless.
That’s likely why the extraordinary tales of superheroes and chosen ones have generated such excitement—and such excitement within a political register. They are taken to show us another possibility, one in which the world can be different than the one we suffer. Yet even as today’s art points to new futures, it must also be thought about as a reflection of the time that makes it. Even science fiction “is not predictive; it is descriptive,” according to as authoritative a source as Ursula K. Le Guin. It tells us about ourselves, here and now. And when the economics of the culture industry only proffer descriptions that can carry the profits of billion-dollar brands, their descriptions are limited. Blinded.
At this point, the distinction Stanley Cavell draws between “a strategy whose point is to break up our sense of the ordinary” with one “whose point is to present us with spectacularly extraordinary events” becomes ever more important. This time cries out for art that can do the former. Art that appears “ordinary” starts within the confines of our own assumptions, but then begins to challenge those assumptions, and that can be far more progressive than any utopian vision of the future pegged to a global business model. As n+1 editor and critic Dayna Tortorici recently wrote, “In the hands of a gifted writer, it’s sometimes the most conventional stories [...] that make the best vehicles for radical thought.” The sentiment could be applied to The National or Birbiglia, but Tortorici was writing about the most celebrated (and justly so) creator of ordinary art today: Elena Ferrante.
Ferrante’s work draws on stories “that bear the features of pleasure genres, including their much-hated feminine strains ‘chick lit’ and ‘soap opera,’” Tortorici says, and for that reason Ferrante “has given intellectual and literary women an invaluable gift: books that speak to them in a language their mothers can understand.” Ferrante’s work shares the ordinary approach of her white dude brethren, but does so with the unmistakable insight and knowledge of a profoundly gifted writer who has suffered our institutions in a way Birbiglia and The National never will. (In that sense, it’s useful to read Ferrante against Karl Ove Knausgaard, another purveyor of the ordinary, whose My Struggle series wagers everything on the interest that a man’s—in the gendered sense—life can bear.) Ferrante uses her domestic subject matter and attention to the diurnal machinations of relationships not just as a scaffold on which to build a new understanding, but as a way of escaping the traps that a more marketable plotline would tangle itself in. They’re books that can’t be explained via plot summaries, and that’s essential to their power.
Like the best ordinary art, Ferrante’s novels show their characters in their homes, the spaces in which they live their full, human lives—even the lives erased from the public. But as one of the characters in Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing, says, “Home ain’t always about a place.” It is a history, a practice, a way of life. Like Ferrante, Ward shows how ordinary art can expand our political imagination. She writes of the everyday experience of poor, rural, Black Southerners, depicting their lives with a normalcy too often denied them. It may sound odd to call it ordinary, given that multiple characters in Sing, Unburied, Sing see and talk to ghosts and participate in a kind of magic. But something Cavell argued about Beckett’s Endgame applies equally to Ward: “To miss the ordinariness of the lives [here] is to avoid the extraordinariness (and ordinariness) of our own.” With the tremendous skill that earned her two National Book Awards, Ward crafts characters whose realities no reader can deny. If they speak to ghosts, it is no stranger than Catholics kneeling in prayer. Ward’s characters give us unignorable evidence of the history that shaped our world, that gave some (and only some) magic the cloak of naturalness and inevitability, and that put certain people (and only them) in condemned land and a condemnable condition.
To be fair, other works make powerful arguments, present telling facts, capture the essence of the issue in a pithy summary. But when these works are caught in the swirl of the digital age’s commentary machine, worked on by marketing strategies and engagement algorithms, they are undercut. They become just another kind of content—another battle in the culture war. In refusing the terms of that conversation, ordinary art moves the battle onto its own terrain.
Consider Kogonada’s Columbus, an eminently quiet film about a quiet place, about parents and homes and the relationship between a Korean man and a white woman. “Some Asian American writers [...] want to defy stereotypes, so they write in opposition to it,” Columbus star John Cho told GQ, “but the stereotype is still a strong chain, even if it’s less visible. Kogonada could have ignored [my character’s] culture, or he could have gone full-bore examination, but he didn’t do either. It was like he went to another plane, floating above [it].” Brit Bennett does the same in The Mothers, a novel about abortion that never lets itself become an abortion novel. “It came from that personal place, and also the political place of wanting to look into this topic that was such a polarizing issue,” Bennett told The Cut. “It’s a strange issue, because it’s something that’s deeply private that’s made extremely public when we debate the politics of it.”
Both pieces navigate the conflict between personal experience and public debate by subsuming the latter to the former, without denying the difference between them. Kogonada offers his characters as they are, race a bare fact that won’t be hidden and yet won’t control. Bennett offers no easy answers and no simple morals, only the complications of fully human lives. They wager that no one can deny the experience of a human being, when seen in full and confronted directly. Beyond the rhetoric, when race or abortion are simply an element among the full tapestry of a life, there is simply what is, what our lives are like. And there is no more powerful political stance.
In the conventional stories from Ferrante, the near-stereotypes of The National and Birbiglia, the unmistakable humanity of Ward and Bennett and Kogonada, the ordinary lives on display cannot be contained by the terms of debate offered in magazines and blogs and newspapers. They could never be summarized by a Vox explainer article. They repay infinitely more attention than they could receive there; they speak with more nuance than marketers can muster and with enough to spur the best critics to genuine insight. It’s in these artworks that the horror of our world is clearest to me—and when the possibilities of something new are closest. Not when we’re caught in the plane defined by the congealed language of talking points and thesis statements and brands, but when the whole human life is on display—as if you have walked into a stranger’s bedroom when they weren’t expecting company.
Matt Hartman is a writer from Durham, North Carolina.