In America’s ongoing culture war, the right has largely embraced the idea that wokeness is a grave danger. While wokeness is seen as a general threat, there is a special focus on the damage that it is supposed to be doing to artistic media, such as movies and video games.

While The Barbie Movie did not fit the “go woke, go broke” narrative, Ben Shapiro claims to have “destroyed” the movie in a 43-minute review.  Given that the movie was a remarkable financial success that seems to have been sincerely enjoyed by millions of people, it is unclear what this destruction amounts to—but his review does serve as an example of the woke war and the movie is apparently a major battlefront in this war. Nerdrotic and the  Critical Drinker also provide examples of critics focused on wokeness on media. While some might be tempted to dismiss these criticisms as bait for a right-wing grift, I will consider the hypothesis that wokeness is causing the claimed harms.

An obvious problem is that the right uses “woke” as a catch-all term for everything they dislike. This seems to be intentional, as shown by the redefinition of “critical race theory” by Christopher Rufo: “The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think “critical race theory.” We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.” While this tactic is useful in right-wing politics, such a vague definition impedes addressing whether wokeness is damaging to media. After all, without having an adequate definition one cannot in good faith say whether it is causing the alleged harm. That said, a look at the criticisms of “woke” works reveals some common threads and these will serve as a focus for the discussion. But first, the matter of aesthetic judgment needs to be all to briefly addressed.

In Hume’s works on aesthetics, he notes that while tastes cannot be disputed, some aesthetic judgments are absurd and ridiculous. Roughly put, a person likes what they like and dislikes what they dislike, and it makes no sense to claim they are wrong. But claims about the quality and merits of works or art can be disputed rationally. While this dichotomy can be disputed, it does provide a good frame for the discussion.

If the critics who claim wokeness makes works of art bad (or worse) are merely expressing their dislike of the woke works, then they cannot be disputed. After all, if they do not like a movie because they think it is woke, then they do not like the movie and it would be absurd to try to dispute them. While one could try to convince them to reconsider, this is analogous to trying to argue someone into liking a food they detest. But if this is all there is to the claim that wokeness is making art bad, they are just telling people they dislike wokeness and this is not a meaningful criticism of the work itself, just as a child making a face and spitting out food is no meaningful criticism of the food—it is a mere expression of dislike. Naturally, this could also be performative in the hopes of imitation—that others will dislike the works they dislike. But this is also not criticism and does not show that wokeness is making artistic works bad beyond in any sense beyond their dislike. They could also simply be taking an ideological stance—woke art is “bad” because it is accused of expressing an ideology, they claim is bad. But this is not an aesthetic criticism of the work but of its alleged ideology. As such, a meaningful claim that wokeness makes art worse (as art) requires showing that the wokeness a work has a negative impact on its aesthetic qualities. There are those who do attempt to make this case.

Put in oversimplified terms, one causal argument is that wokeness causes art to be bad as art, or at least worse than it would be without the woke influence. When looking at the alleged causal connections, one must consider whether the wokeness is what makes a work of art bad. After all, a bad film set in London would presumably not be bad because it was set in London; but for other reasons-so a causal connection would be needed. That is, it needs to be the wokeness that causes the harm, not just the fact that a bad work happens to be woke. We would not say that comedy makes a work bad just because there are bad movies that contain comedy.

The causal claim cannot be that wokeness is a necessary condition for badness, since this would claim that if art is bad, then it is woke. There is an abundance of bad art that is not woke.  There does often seem to be the claim that wokeness is sufficient to make art bad, that if art is woke, then it must be bad. But someone with a more nuanced view could claim that the relation is a matter of causal influence—that a woke work is more likely to be bard art, although there could be good woke art. As nuance is usually lost in the culture wars, it does seem that most critics of wokeness see it as a sufficient condition for badness. But how does wokeness allegedly make art bad?

One general explanation is that the emphasis on ideology comes at the expense of the quality and aesthetic components of the work. What occurs, presumably, is that when those in charge must choose between making an ideological point and something that improves the aesthetic quality of a work, they will choose the ideological point. For example, the plot might contain forced and implausible events included to make a statement, even when doing so damages the story. As another example, a character arc might be abruptly terminated or abandoned because it would lead to a message contrary to the ideology that the work is intended to present.

On the face of it, this seems to be a good explanation of how “wokeness” could harm a movie. However, it is actually just a statement of the obvious: if aesthetic decisions are made on the basis of considerations outside of aesthetics, this will tend to lower the aesthetic quality of a work of art. While this would apply to a “woke” ideology, it would also apply to non-ideological concerns like costs or the desire to include product placements. For example, while an expensive special effect might make for a better movie, that effect might be cancelled due to the expense, thus making the work worse than it would have been.

It must also be pointed out that this applies to ideologies on the right. A good recent example is Lady Ballers. While “the left” has been critical of its anti-trans ideology and sexism, an analysis of the work as a work of art lays bare the problems that arise when ideology is chosen over aesthetic considerations.  Critics of God is Not Dead have also made similar points, noting that the antagonists are carboard caricatures created in service of the film’s message.

As such, the “anti-woke” critics are right that putting ideology over aesthetics can harm the aesthetics of a work; but this applies to all ideologies—even their own.  As such, while “woke” ideology could harm a work of art, this is not unique to “wokeness” but is simply a statement of the obvious fact that making aesthetic decisions based on non-aesthetic considerations can lower the aesthetic quality of a work. At best, the anti-woke critics could claim that some works might have been harmed by choosing ideology over aesthetic considerations—but this hardly shows that wokeness is ruining art. Rather, it just states the obvious: bad aesthetic decisions lead to bad works of art, regardless of whether the cause is ideological, budgetary, or a lack of talent.


3 thoughts on “Is Wokeness Killing Art? Part One: Ideology

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