Critics Despise the Application of the Market to Any Area of Culture
OCTOBER 01, 2002 by LARRY SCHWEIKART
How many times have you gone to a movie and left thinking, “That was fun. I was entertained”? Then you get the newspaper the next day and read what the movie critics have to say about the picture you just enjoyed: “Two stars. Predictable, wooden acting.” “Two thumbs down. Don’t producers and directors have any respect for the audience any more?”
About that time, you begin to think, “What’s wrong with me? Is my taste really that poor? Why is it that the movies I like the critics always hate?”
This question nagged me as I watched a television biography of the famous “BAM!” chef, Emeril Lagasse. People who don’t know garbanzos from garlic know Emeril. His live concert-type shows draw thousands, and people line up for hours to—are you ready for this?—watch a guy cook! I can understand: I’ve watched his show, and realize that even if you don’t like to cook, you like to eat. Anyone who makes cooking and eating so much fun has to be on the right track.
Not according to the critics. A New York Times food writer trashed Emeril’s live show and his cookbooks, complaining he doesn’t “educate” enough. Or, in other words, Emeril makes food too much fun. Even in food, it seems, critics insist on belittling and attacking anything that in the slightest way seems popular.
You realize I must not have had much to do when, at this point, I began to ponder seriously this as an economic problem. Think of a television show, or a movie, or a novel, or any entertainment as a collection of scarce resources. With a movie, we have, within about two hours, elements of plot, character, photography, and music as just a few of the major pieces that go into a motion picture. So when we see Spider-Man or Episode II: Attack of the Clones, we are really looking at how the producers and directors allocated their scarce resources. Did they spend two hours developing character? Did the camera linger endlessly on scenery and color? Was the music intended as a central factor in moving the plot?
Believe it or not, these essentially are economic questions put to film. The filmmaker cannot, under normal circumstances, develop character, feature action, celebrate beauty, weave intricate plots, and underscore music at the same time. The eye–and the ear–naturally choose something on which to focus. Imagine, for example, Annakin Skywalker and Padme having meaningful discussions of their inner thoughts while evil robots blasted at them and winged insectoids zipped by. On the other hand, any appreciation of scenery (even computer-generated scenery!) or animated art demands the viewer’s attention. If it is diluted by action or dialogue or music, it loses its impact.
So how does that relate to Emeril? It struck me that what the critics were complaining about—and what they always seem to complain about—is that we, the viewing/reading/dining/listening public allocate our limited resources differently than they do.
They choose the “education” function of Emeril’s show as the most valuable aspect, but most viewers obviously do not. They choose the entertainment function. That drives the critics wild! Elite critics, or “the anointed,” as Thomas Sowell calls them, know what is best for people. When they attack Emeril for “too much” entertainment, or Spider-Man for shallow characters, their real targets are the viewers, who must be made to allocate resources the way the critics see fit.
Ahead of the Market
In areas of culture, more so than in economics, critics can hide behind a mystical veil of “taste” and savoir-faire. Food preparation, music, theater, after all, have no “bottom line” in and of themselves. Thus it becomes easy for the failed producer of a musical, or the writer whose manuscripts never sell, to claim that they are in reality “ahead” of the market. Once in a while, they are right. Literary history is full of people who became famous and whose works became best sellers after their deaths. However, more often than not, this is an out. Usually, unless people are willing to pay for something, it does not have a great deal of value.
Which brings us back to our critics. Ever notice how the “People’s Choice” awards have almost nothing in common with the Oscars, the Emmys, or other awards shows? With the “People’s Choice,” the voting usually (though not always) reflects the fact that people were willing to spend money—their scarce resources—on someone else’s labor. It is, of course, the application of the market to any area of culture or “taste” that critics despise most of all, because it is the one area where there is no appeal, no equivocation. When the market rules something a success, regardless of what one thinks of the person, song, book, or movie, the profit line cannot be explained away.
Now, “The Osbournes,” anyone?
Larry Schweikart teaches history at the University of Dayton.