When I was reading the December 2003 issue of The New Criterion, which a friend kindly gave me, I came across two examples of the "whatever" response. Let me give a bit of context along with the quotations, and then I'll explain why this sort of rebuke is a form of highhandedness that has no place in serious criticism. Since The New Criterion takes itself very seriously, it's my duty to point out the flaws in this particular critical maneuver.
The first example comes from an article by Roger Kimball entitled The Rape of the Masters. Kimball asks why we teach and study art history, offers a few tentative answers to his own question, and then identifies the mainstream, largely academic, approach to art history:
Today, the study of art history is more and more about subordinating artto "theory," to politics, to just about anything that allows one to dispense with the burden of experiencing art natively, on its own terms. This is accomplished primarily by enlisting art as an illustration of some extraneous, non-artistic, non-aesthetic narrative. Increasingly, art history is pressed into battlea battle against racism, say, or the plight of women or on behalf of social justice. Whatever. The result is that art becomes an adjunct to an agenda: an alibi for … you can fill in the blank by consulting this week's list of trendy causes. [Print edition: The New Criterion 22, no. 4 (2003): 29.]
The second example (not on-line, unfortunately) comes from Mark Steyn's review of the musical Wicked, adapted, apparently, from a book by Gregory Maguire that draws on L. Frank Baum's Oz books. (I read Baum's first Oz book many years ago, but I don't know anything about Maguire's book or the musical that Steyn is discussing.) Steyn writes the following about one scholar's interpretation of Baum's Wizard of Oz:
According to Henry Littlefield in 1964, the original book is a political parable about the failures of the populist movement of the 1890s, when a viable mass coalition of farmers (the Scarecrow) and heavy industry (the Tin Man) was thwarted by the duplicitousness of Wall Street (the Wicked Witch of the East) and the faintheartedness of William Jennings Bryan (the Cowardly Lion). In exposing the federal government as an impotent humbug (the Wizard), Baum was arguing for a radical political transformation in America.
Whatever. By that stage, Oz was such a cultural touchstone that anyone could find an angle on it. [Print edition: The New Criterion 22, no. 4 (2003): 65.]
Those are my two quotations. Now for some commentary of my own.
Like Kimball, I've little sympathy for the race/gender/injustice agenda that is so often attached to the study of culture nowadays (and contrary to Kimball, this agenda is hardly a "trendy cause" since it's been around for quite a while). But it's not as if such an approach to art is never appropriate. Could we read Richard Wright's Native Son without somehow considering the issues of race, gender, and social injustice, both as they were understood when the novel appeared and as we understand them now? That's an obvious example, I grant, but the agenda that Kimball decries is sometimes appropriate. It all depends on the particular work.
Yet, overall, I agree with Kimball. Art criticism all too often fails to look closely at the work under consideration, and for the reasons that he briefly outlines. I've written a short essay on a horror film entitled Eyes without a Face, in which I challenge some recent interpretations of the film for being irrelevant or misguided on account of their excessively politicized points of view. Any challenge has to be supported by reasons, which are lacking in Kimball's "whatever" response.
The passage from Steyn is guilty of the same critical sin as the passage from Kimball. It's not as if a fanciful book cannot be legitimately interpreted as political commentary and criticism. It all depends on the book. How else are we supposed to read Orwell's Animal Farm, if not as a parable or allegory about the Russian revolution and its aftermath? We should not simply dismiss the possibility as Steyn does. If he doesn't want to consider such an interpretation in the context of his review (and he didn't even have to allude to Littlefield's book, since he wasn't reviewing it or the original book by Baum), then he ought not to mention it. That's much preferable to mentioning an interpretation and then dismissing it with the wave of a hand. Steyn's "whatever" gives the impression that criticism is nothing more than the forceful expression of an opinion. Criticism might often turn out to be nothing more than that, but Steyn knows better (as much of the rest of his review amply demonstrates).
The dismissive "whatever" is extremely highhanded, since it indicates that a critic considers himself excused from from the task debating with his opponents. More important, however, is that it is the death of serious thought.
Think of how less strenuous philosophy would be if philosophers were allowed to argue in this fashion. Consider, for example, how different Plato's Apology would be:
Meletus: Tell us, Socrates. How do you respond to the charges that you do not believe in the gods, and that you have corrupted the young people of Athens?
Meletus: By the dog, Socrates! I stand refuted. You are free to go.
The ludicrousness of Socrates's response in my imaginary dialogue shows that the "whatever" response is not one that serious thinkers employ. It's the critical equivalent of preaching to the choir. Writers for The New Criterion ought not to employ it, if they wish to be taken seriously. And since they clearly want to be taken seriously, they should not employ it.
Readers of this blog might be wondering why I'm discussing something that I came across nearly six months ago. Well, obviously, it stuck in my mind, and at the time I didn't have a blog but now I do. More important, though, is that I've read The New Criterion off and on for years and this "whatever" incident was the straw that broke the camel's back. I decided that I would subscribe to the magazine and regularly comment on it in my blog.
I've had my subscription for a couple of months, and I already see that I'll have plenty to discuss in the future. As you can see, this post falls under The New Criterion category, which I've just created. (See the end of this post as well as the list of categories in the right-hand column.) From now on that's where you'll be able to find my efforts to read, criticize, and appreciate The New Criterion.