The “Sparks Conversation” Defense
Criticize Harry Potter. Argue that Goodfellas is a dreary celebration of the macho posturing it claims to critique. Point out that Frank Herbert loved Paul Atreides way, way too much. And when you’re done sneering at the beloved thing, someone will wander by in the comments or on social media and pat you on the head. “Okay,” said head patter will say. “So you don’t like Harry Potter. But people are still talking about it passionately. You wouldn’t be criticizing it if there wasn’t something vital and worthwhile there to criticize.”
In short, the work Sparks Conversation.
Even if that conversation is along the lines of “J.K. Rowling presented Native Americans in a racist way,” or “Hemingway is a sexist dolt,” it still redounds to the benefit of the work in question. And because lots of things are racist or sexist; there must be something about these racist and/or sexist things which makes them especially worth talking about.
The Sparks Conversation defense is meant, for the most part, as a compromise position. You don’t like Goodfellas; I like Goodfellas. But we can both agree that we’re talking about Goodfellas — and that Goodfellas is therefore an important film. Let us put aside our differences, says the Sparks Conversation defense, and appreciate that we share a common interest in talking about Star Wars, or V for Vendetta, or whatever it is we happen to be talking about.
If we both are interested in this thing, this thing must have value.
An invocation of Sparks Conversation is a kind of variation on the wisdom of crowds. Maybe 10 million Elvis fans can be wrong, but ten thousand think pieces about Elvis, good and bad, spread out over decades, can’t be. Art is meant to generate passion and thought, and so passion and thought are a sign of good art — even if the passionate thought in question is, “This art is terrible!”
It’s true that cool, interesting, vital art often makes you want to talk about that art; give me half a chance and I’ll gleefully babble on and on about the original Wonder Woman comics with their bondage and feminism and cross-dressing and giant space kangaroos. Those comics are great — and the fact that they’re great makes you (or at least me) want to talk about them.
But while art can make you talk, it’s also true that the thing that makes you talk about art isn’t always the art itself.
Or, to put it another way, you don’t encounter art in a vacuum. Art always comes to you with a context of other people, other words, and other art.
Not infrequently, the context of art is a massive marketing campaign…
Batman vs. Superman has generated a lot of discussion, some of it even by me. Is that because it’s a vital work of stirring intellectual content? I don’t think so. Instead, it’s generated a lot of comment because (a) it is focused on nostalgic legacy properties that a lot of people are invested in, and (b) it had a roughly $150 million marketing budget. As a result, everyone was talking about the movie before there was a movie.
When people excitedly chatter about casting choices or trailers, does that mean that the film itself has sparked conversation?
Pop culture is event driven; people react to, and write about, the next superhero movie, or the next Beyoncé album, or the next J.K. Rowling release, because everyone else is reacting to and writing about those things. It doesn’t have to have anything to do with the quality, or even really the existence, of the art itself.
Cultural conversations have their own momentum, which doesn’t have to have much to do with the quality of the art involved. Is To Kill a Mockingbird really massively more interesting and thoughtful than Richard Wright’s Black Boy? I certainly don’t think so. But To Kill a Mockingbird was the Jim Crow-focused book assigned to everyone in high school, while Richard Wright’s Black Boy is a book you generally have to stumble on by yourself. Sometimes you talk about art because you were forced to read it.
By the same token, there can be great art that doesn’t spark much conversation. One of my favorite contemporary writers is Gwyneth Jones — and if you said, “Gwyneth who?”, well, yes, that’s my point. The best album of 2015 in my opinion was RP Boo’s Fingers, Bank Pads & Shoe Prints. It did not launch a zillion think pieces. But that’s because before there can be conversation, there has to be attention — and who gets attention is as much a matter of luck, genre, and marketing as it is a matter of quality.
This is really what rankles about the Sparks Conversation argument. It ends up in effect being an endorsement of that familiar American myth: meritocracy.
The things that spark conversation are inevitably the things that are popular or successful or critically acclaimed, or some combination of all three. Praising them for sparking conversation becomes a circular validation of the attention status quo. Everyone is shouting at you about J.K. Rowling, but if you whisper, “stop!”, you’ve added to the conversation, and thereby supposedly cosigned the virtue of Harry Potter. All is as it should be in the best of all possible worlds, and if you demure, you’re just showing that the best of all possible worlds is even better than that.
But art can generate conversation these days just because it is in your space, and is annoying, and you want it to get out.
Your radio, for example, provides you with regular updates on traffic jams, yet that’s not necessarily because traffic jams are vital expressions of human intellect. It’s because traffic jams are in the way, and people want to know how to get around them, or else just want to let off steam. Art can be like that too, squatting in your path, bellowing “Admire me!” at every unfortunate passerby.
And sometimes the bellowed-at can’t help but stop for a moment to say, “You, Batman vs. Superman, are loud and ugly. Leave me alone.”
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