Taste and Transformation

by Allison Hewitt Ward

Michael Bay’s 2007 Transformers is, by any reasonable account, a terrible movie. The nearly two and a half hours of abrasive CGI, only vaguely stitched together with a thin plot, was, almost unanimously, critically panned. But audiences did not agree. It was the third highest grossing movie that year and spurred an ongoing franchise. The MTV Movie Awards gave it their top prize. The success of Transformers neatly crystalizes the reality that something very bad can do very, very well. The film is a bulwark against criticality, a bratty child sticking its tongue out at the very notion of taste. It achieved this—hardly singularly—by eschewing the ontology of film: this movie was not a series of images and sounds to be seen, heard and contemplated; it was a goddamn experience. One does not view Transformers, she is inundated by it.

Transformers has come to serve as a deranged signpost in my thinking about art, criticism and audiences. It didn’t have to be Transformers, it could have been any number of movies, musical works, or, let’s be honest, works of art. Transformers represents the supplanting of things with experiences, the triumph of the fetishization of objects to the extent that the objects are no longer necessary. The franchise it inaugurates points to the victory of the familiar (quite unlike the obsession with nouveauté that once made its mark on cultural production). While the storyline of the next sequel may see some slight alterations, the real content—that is, warring alien robots that transform inexplicably into American cars—will remain pleasantly consistent. It was hardly the first movie to monopolize the symptoms of neoliberal society which privilege the immediate at the expense of the considered, but it is certainly among the more memorable.

This movie (which, in the interest of full disclosure, I was thoroughly entertained by) holds my enduring fascination because of the gulf it reveals between professional criticism and popular reception. A movie with, as one New York Times critic put it, the “dumbest setup” is currently holding strong on IMDB with 7.1 stars (a high rating for the site). In this juxtaposition, the work of the critic appears quite futile. He spills as many pixels as he must to rip the movie a new one, collects his paycheck and goes home. The filmmakers, utterly unfazed by the rebuke, collect their (substantially larger) paychecks and get to work on the next installment. In this massive gulf, the relevance, or necessity, of the critic is thrown into doubt.

This disparity is not limited to so-called mass media. Critics may sneer at Jay Z’s performance at Pace Gallery, we may wring our hands over the troubling populism and problematic funding of the popular Grand Rapids Art Prize, release an exaggerated sigh at the success of Jeff Koons or the mania surrounding Banksy. But none of that does anything to challenge the success of these projects. More than that: it does nothing to meaningfully address why these projects are successful, or what exactly constitutes that success.

Critics have a long history of being “wrong.” The chorus condemning Manet now seems quite out of tune with the history of modern art. But their opinions were subject to the test of history, not the measure of popularity. The critics of modernity enjoyed an implied authority. By virtue of their training or talent they were qualified to make judgments—judgments that were assumed valuable to the viewing public. Today it is clear that something changed between criticism’s best years at the pinnacle of modernity (I’m thinking here of Baudelaire, Benjamin, Greenberg and their ilk) and the present moment, whether you’d prefer to call it late capitalism, neoliberalism or postmodernity. The social necessity (authority) of criticism, is no longer self-evident, its objects (works of art) no longer clearly defined and its loci (publications) no longer consolidated. The degree to which it participates in the shaping of culture has been reduced to a footnote, a dissenting opinion left behind by the deluge of popular consensus.

The disintegration of art criticism does not have a single locus. But it does coincide with another decline: the decline of the political Left as an active force in the shaping of history. International socialist parties, which coalesced in the wake of the revolutions of 1848 and built substantial political power culminating in the Russian revolution of 1917 had, by the 1930s become all but impotent. The possibility that was crystalized in these efforts—that of the transformation of all society towards the ends of a more complete human freedom—had all but receded into the horizon of memory by midcentury. If, as Adorno tells us in “Commitment,” “even in the most sublime work of art, there lies the whisper it should be otherwise,” how can that ‘otherwise’ be effectively imagined without the real possibility of qualitative change? In the flotsam of the 20th century the conceptual framework upon which the modern critical tradition was built was questioned and often rejected.

The reaction against modernist (and Trotskyist) critic Clement Greenberg speaks most clearly to this. The judgment of taste that served as the critical foundation for his work was rejected on the basis of its bourgeois character. Bourgeois came to be seen as a damper placed on human freedom, a negative counterpoint to the people. Never mind the fact that the very possibility of art as we know if today emerged—and only could have emerged—within bourgeois society. The New Left ushered in a distrust and condemnation of bourgeois society and its institutions. This reaction was not and should not be viewed as a product of ignorance or stupidity: by the 1960s the promises of bourgeois society languished unfulfilled. The present forms taken by society appeared rigid and eternal, and any path toward transformation invisible. The possibility of a radical and qualitative transformation was blotted out by the ultimate failure of the Russian Revolution and the European left. If art was to continue to be a project of freedom, bourgeois society no longer appeared to be adequate scaffolding. Out of this tendency came a vehement anti-authoritarianism, to which critics were quick to fall victim. The positing of the critic as an arbiter of taste was anathema to increasingly populist tendencies.

The authority of the critic was further undermined by moves in the art of the 1960s, particularly by Robert Morris and Donald Judd, to blur the lines between viewer and artwork, and by extension, artist and critic, object and critique. It was the beginning of a transition that had initially sought to undermine the authority of the person of the artist but which, by the beginning of the 21st century, positioned the artist as the final authority on her own work to the exclusion of the critic, historian, and, despite stated intentions, the viewer. Rather than becoming more relevant, as early proponents of this turn hoped, these moves made work of art all the more reified and remote. Concurrently, the artworks emerging from the conceptual turn, Hans Haacke, for example, took on a character more similar to hypothesis than objects, rendering them subject to testing rather than critique.

I don’t intend to couch the fate of art criticism in the history of politics to the exclusion of a more nuanced analysis of its internal movements and relationship with art. These developments deserve more detailed consideration elsewhere. I mean only to bring attention to a small part of this saga and to make the (not at all humble) assertion that the possibility of art and the possibility criticism is bound up in the political possibility of transformation. The degree to which art was neutralized beginning in the mid-20th century must be considered not only as a function of its own internal history but as a function of the neutralization of revolutionary thought and imagination. This leads to a difficult question: how can we, in a present that appears impervious to transformation, imagine things as they could be in order to render ourselves capable of critiquing things as they are?

I have no answer to this question, besides an inclination that to ask it is a step in the right direction, and asking it is integral to what I understand the Cæsura project to be. I certainly do not suggest that we retreat to the 1960s, or even the 1930s. While Adorno, Greenberg et. al were among the most coherent voices of their moment, they cannot simply be transposed onto the present. Further, they too were symptomatic of politics in decline. They don’t represent a way forward, but the last gasps of the greatest failure in human history.

My hunch is that the way forward for criticism lies not in the rejection of the judgment of taste (as the two generations prior have done), but the assertion that such a judgment is integral to any critical project, only as a means rather than an end. To return to the case of Transformers, we can see that the aesthetic judgment—that it’s a terrible movie—is not false or superfluous. Nor is it elitist, despite populist tendencies that would tell us otherwise. It is a judgment of taste, and an adequate one. Yet it does not answer the more pressing questions: what is it that makes it so attractive and what does it have to tell us about the society from which it emerged? In what ways does it, in spite of itself, tell us the truth about an untrue world? These are our questions.

This article is part of a series, Four Essays on Late Criticism.

Transformers . Directed by Michael Bay. 2007. 

Transformers. Directed by Michael Bay. 2007.