A DUNCE’S GUIDE TO CONFEDERATE AND ART CRITICISM

by Richard Worth

Often my articles here in the Arts section follow a similar pattern; I observe what I think is a poor defence or poor criticism of a subject, give my contrary reasoning and cast some shade, then tried to conclude with what I think is a better approach to art in general. The overall meta-thesis tends to be “artists and audiences need to be smarter and less sensitive”.

Whilst I do have fun writing such pieces, I feel that my critical pattern is par for the course for liberalism in general. There is an overwhelming feeling of being against something rather than for something. Politically I can reason myself around this. If I’m against inequality in the workplace, I’m de facto for equality. With the arts though it can make me feel like a grumpy old curmudgeon who hates everything and writes from a place of negativity and harsh criticism; To remedy that I wanted to write about something that I was excited about. I failed.

Not only is it a great crime drama with a nunchuck-wielding lead named Dashiell Bad Horse, but the show will have an almost entirely Native American cast and give a voice and representation to the issue of a people marginalised and mistreated in their own land.

What I wanted to write about is the upcoming television adaptation of Jason Aaron and R.M. Guéra comics series Scalped. I love Scalped. It’s a gritty western-crime-noir about an undercover F.B.I. agent on Prairie Rose Indian Reservation. It’s brutal, tense and amazing. Its depiction of life on the “rez” and the struggles of Native Americans feel raw and honest and uncomfortable. I’m not the type of guy who gets super excited for either comic book adaptations or TV series, but this is different. Not only is it a great crime drama with a nunchuck-wielding lead named Dashiell Bad Horse, but the show will have an almost entirely Native American cast and give a voice and representation to the issue of a people marginalised and mistreated in their own land.

The flipside to this is that because of its realism, the dramatis personae of Prairie Rose are not the likeable or even the good people. The poverty inherent in the community leads to widespread alcohol and drug dependency, prostitution, and rampant crime, violence and racism. I predict the op-ed pieces will praise its avoidance of the “savage noble” trope but wring hands over a negative depiction of Native Americans in arguably the first Native American led show. The reason I think this is Confederate.

This is HBO’s upcoming show from the Game of Thrones showrunners, which focuses on an alternative history where the South won the American Civil War. It’s faced a lot of backlash. Some of it, quite correctly, aimed at the utterly lazy premise, but there’s a wider concern too. Ta-Nehisi Coates has written very elegantly about the problem that the world Confederate asserts is frighteningly close to the one we already inhabit. He argues against the stance I imagine the bulk of people have taken in just waiting to see it when it’s out, on the grounds that the concept is so flawed and tarnished by history that no amount of talent can save the show.

If Confederate, a show about which we only know the premise, faces this much backlash, how will other shows fare?

I know it’s ridiculous to take a reaction to one show that hasn’t even aired and apply it to another. But it did make me think about the liberal reaction to arts. If Confederate, a show about which we only know the premise, faces this much backlash, how will other shows fare? Does fiction undermine or highlight our realities? Do our sensitivities as separate audiences hinder our stories reaching unfamiliar audiences?

To some extent, The Handmaid’s Tale takes the same flavour of “what if?” storytelling as Confederate proposes. Women still face inequality, and religious bigotry controls and dictates their societal role. Once again I know it’s not entirely fair to equate the two, but I can’t help but feel that The Handmaid’s Tale shares the same problems at conception as Confederate but is given a pass because its content has already existed in a less ubiquitous art form. Maybe that means Scalped stands a chance? Does the medium make a difference to the message? Does it mean television can’t take a chance on potentially difficult shows that aren’t adaptations? Is conception more important than execution?

It’s hard for me to answer these questions. Each one has the potential to be a full article. Each one could be a complicated criticism, taking various angles and approaches to storytelling, storytellers and audiences. Explorations of history, politics, philosophy and sociology could be undertaken and appropriated. I could invert by critical thinking and redesign my articles, but I think the same patterns always emerge. In art, all this debate, dialectic and discussion is weighted always against one reductive and brilliant question; “Is it good art?”

I didn’t really get to rave about something I enjoyed for an entire article, and still have the sensation of being a grumpy old curmudgeon but there is a positive outcome to this. Whichever side of the Confederate debate you fall on, you should still ask “is it good art?” because art criticism forces us to say, “Yes because…” or, “No because…”. Both answers help to refine and improve art, both at conception and execution.

Featured image credit: Thwipster, Flickr

 


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