Long and boring … do not read
Before Big Hollywood gave Sonny the space to rebut Ben Shapiro’s execrable post about the Top 10 Most Overrated Directors of All Time — the site’s editor-in-chief weighed in. But not on the correct side.
John Nolte aka Dirty Harry defended the Shapiro piece (saying “Bravo!” and “I loved” it), which was a disappointment. Again, not so much because he defended it (one would hardly expect an editor to turn against his own writer in a public forum), but because of the way he defended it — with the most unconservative arguments in the book. Here is the essential excerpt.
We could all come up with lists like this, lists that defy the conventional wisdom in one area or another. Taste is subjective. Certainly there are those who somehow find themselves in the enviable position of being “cinematic tastemakers.” But…
…who anointed them?
Who anoints the anointers?
There are many film writers and historians worthy of admiration for both their passion and knowledge of cinema’s rich lore and history. Off the top of my head I can’t get enough of Robert Osborne, Kurt Loder, David Thomson, Richard Schickel, and Ephraim Katz. Not to mention our own Robert Avrech and Leo Grin. Leonard Maltin’s movie guide has been a well-thumbed staple at my side for a quarter century. So I say with no offense to any these gentlemen that their opinions mean nothing to me.
As with any art medium, no matter how schooled, experienced, educated or knowledgeable, when it comes to likes and dislikes, there is no arbiter. No one knows.
I’ll take a velvet Elvis over a Picasso or Jackson Pollock Any. Day. Of. The Week. Because…
No one knows.
Certainly there are reasonable ways to objectively judge the look of a film, the performances, the score, and the other cogs that make up the wheel. But not the wheel itself, not the movie itself. That would be like judging someone’s love for another. You and everyone else may find her homely and dumb and a lousy cook, but he loves her and she makes him happy.
And I’m tired of being told what to like. I’m tired of being told that this director’s important or that film has something to say…
To elaborate on the response I gave at the Big Hollywood combox, there is much there I agree with. Obviously, matters of pure taste are inarguable, aesthetic judgment is not mathematics, and nobody is trying to tell Nolte, Shapiro or anybody else what to like. I was careful to state that I don’t have anything per-se against someone not liking Hitchcock or any other director. Most of the better comments against Shapiro stipulated that exact point. What I, and apparently quite a few other Big Hollywood readers, have something against (a lot, actually) is Shapiro’s specific post — its schoolboy fact errors, its pronunciamento tone, and its utter lack of argument and support that might make a discussion with him over beer *actually worthwhile.* Shapiro’s article consisted of “it roolz/it droolz!!!” and no details that indisputably demonstrated that he had ever seen the movies in question. And I’m sorry, but that’s just sophomoric drivel.
There’s also something deeply unconservative about Nolte’s defense. The recent movie (UNTITLED), which is in significant part about hucksterism in the contemporary art scene, had a very apposite line: “That is not my opinion. It is my judgment.” The difference between opinion and judgment cannot be overstated. For most college-educated conservatives of my generation, our defining moment, the event(s) that made us conservatives was the campus political-correctness and canon wars of the late 80s and early 90s. At that time, the canon of the arts was being attacked as the oppressive tool of Dead White Males and the very notion of canonicity and its key element (judgment) were being “deconstructed,” “problematized,” “critiqued,” etc. And not just in the name of raceclassgendersexuality but also whole (much more serious and weighty, if often popularized and vulgarized) philosophies dating back to Nietzsche and Rousseau.
We were attracted to conservatism because it opposed radical selfdom, radical subjectivism and radical emotivism. Yet Nolte’s defense of what is essentially a list of self-referential emotive outbursts from Shapiro is a betrayal of the concept of “judgment” in the name of subjectiveness. Yes, subjectiveness is *IN* every aesthetic judgment, but that doesn’t mean every aesthetic judgment is NOTHING BUT subjectivity. I couldn’t care less about someone’s opinion of Hitchcock (on that, Nolte and I are at one); I could care about someone’s judgment about Hitchcock. However, Shapiro offered no judgment and Nolte defends that. And even if, at the end of the day, it IS all subjective, can we at least GET to the end of the day in an interesting way?
But why should someone have to offer judgment? Because artistic canons exist. While it’s fine not like a canonized work or body of work (that’s an opinion and inarguable), it’s incumbent on a person who doesn’t do so in public to state his reasons and provide a basis for his judgment. And yes, it is incumbent on the contrarian in a way that it is less so for the person who likes the canonized work(s). Is this unequal? Yes. But arguments from inequality per-se and the four-letter f-word (“fair”) should only persuade nihilistic liberals. Conservatives are supposed to stand for Tradition, for the settled ways that represent the accumulated wisdom of the past; it is liberals and leftists who think, like children, the world can be made anew, starting with Year Zero (there was something faintly Khmer Rouge-ish about Nolte’s closing “Yes, right here at Big Hollywood, let’s tear this mother down, start over, and have at it”). Conservatives do remember our Edmund Burke, don’t we, or are we all now subjectivists all the way down, indifferent to canonicity? The notion that artistic canons had to justify themselves anew every day to everyone is the natural territory of liberal authorityphobes and god-haters. Ah … there’s that other bugbear word, besides “opinion” — “authority.” Nolte nods in this direction with his passage about “cinematic tastemakers” and “anointers,” but immediately responds with, in effect, “who made them that.” The very fact that a conservative like Nolte takes us so quickly to the not-so-grand not-so-cosmic “sez who,” to any notion that smells like authority is itself symptomatic of the sickness of our time.¹
The short answer to Nolte’s question is “nobody,” at least not in any formal sense. But art is no more like government than it is mathematics. Nobody has authority in any of Max Weber’s formal senses (I certainly don’t claim any; I know no critic who does). The only authority I have to declare Ben Shapiro a twit and his article a worthless embarrassment is my reason, my experience and my appeals to others’. That’s the only authority that will ever exist in the arts or criticism. But it is a kind of authority, and conservatives shouldn’t argue that we can do without it. Artistic authority has no formal expression and/or we wouldn’t want to give it formal expression. But going from that fact to attacking it is akin to (actually just “is,” if in another field) post-war liberals thinking that informal (or “soft”) types of social authority as family, custom, elders, credentials, propriety, manners, etc., were mere oppressive prejudices and could either be done away with or replaced by more “rational” forms of authority, meaning government and law.
We all know how that turned out, don’t we?
¹ Nolte’s phrase “who anoints the anointers” is a play on the Roman phrase “who guards the guardians.” It’s another symptom of our time’s sickness that a conservative thinks of artistic judgement in terms of a metaphor related to the domination that is government power.