Putting Ideology Before Art Impoverishes the Imagination

'It's not fair! There was all the time I needed -- but all these books have Bad Thoughts!'

On Friday, I was pleased to take part in a panel organized by the Federalist at the Heritage Foundation on "finding the good in pop culture." It was a fun event, though one I must admit to having been a bit nervous about participating in beforehand, having long been a vocal opponent of politicizing every aspect of arts. As I noted briefly at the beginning of the panel, we on the right should avoid trying to reduce the arts to a checklist: "Well, this work celebrates the free market and reinforces our preconceptions about national security and stars a guy who donates to the GOP, therefore it is Good Art."

I offered this admonition because I'm a firm believer in the idea that to fully appreciate art one must be able to set aside their political and ideological notions. When you think of art not as an expression of culture or an examination of human nature but as a means to an ideological end, you risk creating a cultural experience in which you have closed yourself off to a broad swathe of the human experience.

Consider, for instance, this piece at BuzzFeed by Shannon Keating, entitled "Movies I Loved Before My Feminism Made Me Love Them Less." I will be totally honest with you: I am not sure if Keating's article is a brilliant work of satire or a cry for help. As someone who spends about 15 minutes a day working on a satirical project that is occasionally mistaken as real, I understand how tricky this sort of thing can be. Either way, Keating's post is a rather perfect encapsulation of a certain mindset, one that can be summed up thusly: "art that does not comport to my ideology is bad and I cannot like it."

I love Keating's reappraisal of Fight Club*:

If I saw it for the first time now: Brad Pitt, Edward Norton & Co. are a bunch of whiney white boys upset that the world hasn’t given them every single thing they deserve. Men being Men doing Man Things (fighting!). Is there a woman in this movie? Oh yeah, Helena Bonham Carter, who’s basically a dark muse/sex object. Nice.

Note the casual racism (imagine dismissing the protagonists of Friday as "inebriated black dudes") and the misinterpretation of the film's central theme (the whole second half of the movie is a rather stinging critique of the sort of nihilistic uber-masculinity argued for by Pitt/Norton, a reminder that rejecting consumerism can be just as mindless and destructive as embracing it wholeheartedly). No matter. Feminism means not needing to engage with a film that both embraces revolution and also highlights its excesses—that serves as "a devastating critique of both end of history decadence *and* the totalitarian alternatives," as Ross Douthat once smartly put it.

Because, ew, "whiney white boys" with their dudebro problems.

Again, if Keating's list is a satirical examination of the excesses of those who live the politicized life, it's genius. A-plus work. The radical, almost purposeful, misreading of Fight Club is almost enough to convince me she's doing something clever here.

And if she isn't? Well, that's not too surprising. But it is a little sad. And a handy reminder that we're all worse off when we let our ideology dictate what we can enjoy.

*As Peter Labuza noted on Twitter in a slightly different context, Fight Club is a movie that some people (myself included) go through stages with: "I had to go through ‘FIGHT CLUB is awesome yo' to ‘FIGHT CLUB is dudebro dumb' to ‘FIGHT CLUB is pretty darn good filmmaking."‘ I'm hoping Keating will join Peter and I in the third stage shortly.