American Sniper’s Critics and the ‘Usefulness’ of Art

In a triptych of tweets last night, Ross Douthat succinctly explained the controversies swirling around best picture nominees Selma and American Sniper:

That seems about right. I just want to focus a bit on that last tweet, because the leftwing reaction against American Sniper offers up a prime example of something I've been thinking about for a while: the tendency of some to judge art not on its own merits but on its usefulness in promulgating a worldview.

You can see it in the essay about American Sniper over at the new New Republic authored by Dennis C. Jett that I've spent the last week mocking in a trilogy of screeds. (Screed one; screed two; screed three.) Jett felt comfortable writing about the film because he doesn't actually care about its artistic content; all he cared about was reminding people that the Iraq War was, in his view, a horrible mistake. The content of the film's artistic character didn't really matter to Jett.

Some of American Sniper‘s liberal critics actually bothered to see the film before denouncing it and you can see in their arguments a common thread: "This movie is bad because it does not decry the thing—specifically, the invasion of Iraq—I want it to decry." A few brief examples:

Matt TaibbiRolling Stone:

Eastwood, who surely knows better, indulges in countless crass stupidities in the movie. There's the obligatory somber scene of shirtless buffed-up SEAL Kyle and his heartthrob wife Sienna Miller gasping at the televised horror of the 9/11 attacks. Next thing you know, Kyle is in Iraq actually fighting al-Qaeda – as if there was some logical connection between 9/11 and Iraq.

Which of course there had not been, until we invaded and bombed the wrong country and turned its moonscaped cities into a recruitment breeding ground for… you guessed it, al-Qaeda. They skipped that chicken-egg dilemma in the film, though, because it would detract from the "human story."

CJ Werleman, Middle East Eye:

The morality and legitimacy of the illegal Iraq war is never questioned. The Iraqis aren’t portrayed as defenders of their homeland or as resisting a foreign occupying force, but rather as barbaric, mindless, evildoers.

John Grant, Counterpunch:

But all it takes is watching Fox News champ Sean Hannity’s groveling before the film for a full hour special to realize Cooper may be a likable, talented actor, but he’s dead wrong when he says the film isn’t part of the debate about the Iraq War. In a larger context, it’s also very much about violence and militarism in America in these very complicated and troubling times.

By avoiding contextual issues — specifically, the reasons SEAL sniper Chris Kyle was in Iraq killing those 160 Iraqi insurgents — the film is art that operates as propaganda in a cultural context.

You get the idea.

We can see another example of this trend in the reaction against Interstellar from certain quarters of the left. That movie was bad, you see, because it did not do a thorough enough job of instructing the audience on the evils of global warming. The jihad against Zero Dark ThirtyArgo, and Lincoln two years ago reflected a similar worldview on the nature of art: If it is not serving a useful purpose, it must be called to account.

I'm old enough to remember when smart liberals got upset about conservatives concerning themselves not with the quality of art but with its usefulness. It's interesting to see how quickly things change.