“We are in the midst of hard times now, and it feels as if art is failing us,” writes New York Times film and cultural critic A.O. Scott in a piece titled, “Is Our Art Equal to the Challenges of Our Times?” His essay, bemoaning a lack of contemporary Great Social Art, laments the absence of Dickenses and Steinbecks, the Zolas and Arthur Millers of yesteryear, even as it introduces a roundtable about art and current affairs featuring artists as diverse as J. Cole, Patricia Lockwood, David Simon, and Ken Burns.
Naturally, the very breadth of medium and style found in the ensuing panel provides an answer Scott’s initial query. Many of these artists are indeed rising to the challenge of exploring “issues” with approaches ranging from subtlety to bluntness (a movie called Dear White People can hardly be accused of shying away from contemporary racial anxieties). Yet we no longer live in an era where one medium dominates the discourse and one or two auteurs dominate that medium. Dickens was a giant on the scene the way no one person, not even Rupert Murdoch or Jeff Bezos, can be today: novelist, editor, journalist, op-ed columnist, and publisher all at once.
Today, subcultures flourish. Media has fragmented, so that one consumer may be getting her commentary from Tumblr, another from a Jonathan Franzen novel, and a third from a mixtape. Furthermore, a lot of the (beautiful and excellent) preaching and polemics once found as asides or “Dear Reader”-type addresses in the heavy novels of yore absolutely still exist. They have evolved into the viral thinkpieces of the Internet age, or the social media rants of conscious authors like Cheryl Strayed, Anne Lamott, or Junot Diaz, to name just a few.
Practical and technological reasons explain in part why no Dickens or Zola has emerged today to sit on top of the cultural heap and wag a finger at the “nobs” in power, as Dickens called them. As a fan of 19th-century social problem novels, I sympathize deeply with Scott’s cry from the heart. Yet I also think an argument like this glides over the fact that many of his beloved figures weren’t considered highbrow when they produced their work. They were pioneering a new form of pop culture and writing for the masses.
Which brings us to another strain of political critique in this moment’s art that Scott — who also wrote an overblown elegy for “the death of adulthood” in culture this year — doesn’t seem to want to reckon with. Because in fact, this weekend, Americans did flock to see a social-issue movie based on a social-issue book. That book, of course, is Mockingjay, which tackles huge topics such as the messy ethics of revolution, the genuine value and contrasting dark side of propaganda, the individual’s desire for love and family vs. social expediency, and the damaging but perhaps necessary role of violence in standing up to authority. Maybe it’s an allegory, and maybe it’s broadly interpretable and far from nuanced, but (and I say this as someone who has read the majority of the 19th-century British canon), Zola and Steinbeck were often as nuanced as a blow to the head. Still, Scott is stubborn, writing this summer of his “feeling a twinge of disapproval when I see one of my peers clutching a volume of ‘Harry Potter’ or ‘The Hunger Games.'”
Unfortunately for Scott, YA-novel culture is indeed one major inheritor of the “social problem” art that 19th-century and early-20th-century novelists and playwrights tackled. And so are its “lowbrow” kin. Science-fiction, fantasy, graphic novels, and even women’s fiction are dealing directly with social issues. MTV runs YouTube shows about race, sex, and gender. Hip-hop narrates the experience of violence and poverty as a matter of course.
So yes, in our Thanksgiving arguments about drone warfare and Ferguson, Americans may be as likely to mention Magneto or the Malfoy family as we are to mention an accomplished novel by one of Brooklyn’s most beloved hipster writers that, in an effort to be current, is packed so full of cultural signifiers that only a small group of readers will be able to relate. But that makes sense given the cultural context. Our viewpoints are indeed so fractured by the diverse media landscape, by social privilege or lack thereof, and by subcultures, that perhaps it takes allegory, or fantasy, to bring us together as one audience.
Far beyond critical darlings on AMC, HBO, the Times bestseller list, and hyper-realist culture, sweeping social discussions are fermenting in art, whether underground or mainstream, whether it simply depicts our world or directly comments on it. It’s disingenuous to say one has a “hunger” for era-defining art while ignoring the fact that such art is being created in genres that doesn’t meet arbitrary standards of sophistication.