Is It Wrong to Be a Snob? Yes. Yes It Is.
Want to wow friends and acquaintances with your encyclopedic knowledge and artfully formed opinions? Read this instead.
Yesterday afternoon, my esteemed co-editor Dubya sent me an article and suggested, without any other commentary, that I was the perfect person to write about it. If you’ve read his work or had a personal relationship with the man, you may think that Dubya is the nicest man in the world. Ladies and gentlemen, I assure you, this image is a facade. Dubya conspired to to completely ruin my day, first by forcing me to read this self-aggrandizing bloat, then by suggesting that I write a reaction.
The piece in question is by a man named A. O. Scott. Scott is a film critic. He has carved out a very comfortable niche as an authority on movies. He knows his shit, and people enjoy reading his opinions. Good on him. Seriously, that’s a pretty sweet gig, and I’m sure he worked very hard to achieve it. I don’t begrudge the man his success, but I do take great umbrage with his piece in last week’s The New York Times, “Film Snob? Is That So Wrong?“.
Though he makes his case for the nobility of snobbery in the world of film criticism, much of Scott’s piece could easily be applied to the realm of music. Film and music, particularly metal, seem analogous. We both have our celebrated trash (Pink Flamingos and Cannibal Corpse), equally loved and loathed indie darlings (the collected works of Wes Anderson and Deafheaven), universally-respected classics (Citizen Kane and Black Sabbath), and weirdo arthouse jumble (The Cremaster Cycle and Todesstoß). Reading Scott’s commentary, you read the words of a man who wants to reclaim the title of “Snob” and argues that there’s nothing wrong with identifying as such.
Scott begins his defense of snobbery with roughly the introduction with which thousands of struggling college students are currently opening their English mid-term papers, “Webster’s Dictionary defines [SUBJECT] as…”. It doesn’t get much better from there. I applaud the playful sensibility with which A.O. Scott, an affluent middle aged man, applies his defense of his own personal taste in the highbrow and lowbrow. Additionally, I find it shocking that the critics of the New York Times, full-time champions of grotesque luxury, don’t advocate for sympathy more often. And while I can empathize with A.O. Scott’s situation as a critic myself, it is my sincerest recommendation that he go get fucked.
“…I find myself lately feeling less like a caricature — a prig in an ascot, a fuddy-duddy with a pipe or any of the other amusing types a Google image search will yield — than like a fossil, the last devotee of an obscure and obsolescent creed, or the only participant in an argument that has long since been settled. It seems to be an article of modern democratic faith that disputing taste is taboo: at best a lapse in manners, at worst an offense against feelings or social order (which sometimes seem to amount to the same thing). Our nation is at present riven by social inequality and polarized by ideology, but the last thing anyone wants to be called is an elitist.”
First, let’s completely abandon the notion that there is any inherent nobility in holding tastes in art that are not consistent with the unwashed masses. Watching an obscure film will not make you a better person. Listening to a critically beloved record will not make you a better friend. Reading an esoteric book will not make you more interesting. All forms of art have a use, whether they be engaging curiosity, diversion, or personal challenge. And if we meet like-minded people, all the better, for we have so many wonderful subjects to discuss. But these movies, these records, these books, they are all things we simply consume. What worth do you derive by proclaiming that your consumption habits are somehow more vociferous and complex than the rest of the world?
Additionally, let’s take a brief moment to address the societal divide that Scott gives all of one sentence of lip service before moving on with his entirely unnecessary attempts to “take back” the word “snob”. As a high-society New Yorker, A. O. Scott may not be cognizant of the fact that Jean-Luc Godard isn’t exactly an option at the multiplexes across this vast country. Similarly, for legions of young metalheads in the Midwest, Kayo Dot will not blare from truck radios. That’s OK. Thanks to the democratization of the Internet, those who have the desire to go deeper, can. Personal taste is not an Us vs. Them existence.
Furthermore, why on Earth would we want to redefine and reclaim the title of “Snob”? Why is it important that we have another acceptable word to use to lord our tastes over another? Why not Enthusiast? Connoisseur? Opinionated Butthole?
“What I’m trying to say is: Yes, fine, I am a snob. I revere the formal achievement of the first and most recent “Mad Max” movies. I sneer at most biopics and costume dramas. I like my pleasures slow and difficult. I would rather watch a mediocre film from South America or Eastern Europe about the sufferings of poor people than a mediocre Hollywood comedy about the inconveniences of the affluent.”
A. O. Scott is an ILE Snob.
I understand that people have regular deadlines to meet, but did any of this need to be said? Why is it so important for A. O. Scott to use an additional word to elevate his own tastes above those of his peers? He’s already well-known and handsomely rewarded by the newspaper of record. Why is he asking for more recognition for his rarefied skills of perception, not just as a Critic, but a respected Snob? Insecurity? If Scott is feeling perhaps a bit insecure about his tastes and his vocation, he has good reason.
A critic is a mostly useless thing. The critic may, in a roundabout way, contribute to the development of art, but his voice should be taken as a helpful waypoint at best, a detrimental nuisance at most common. Statistically speaking, roughly 99.99999985714286% of people are NOT paid to write their criticisms of art for large newspapers. If that .00000014286% of paid critic population were to suddenly vanish from the face of the Earth, the world of art and creativity would be just fine. Musicians would continue to create music. Painters would continue to paint. Performance artists would continue to make their friends and family uncomfortable. And like the turning of the tide, the critic will continue to prattle on and on with the fanatical belief that his or her opinion is somehow better than the rest of us uncultured swine.
If anyone feels insecure in their own Big Important Artistic Tastes, maybe it’s time to practice some self-reflection rather than pointing the finger at the world. Does no one care about the amazing but obscure Danish film you love? Too fucking bad. Does no one want to listen to the demo of your favorite Finnish black metal band? Tough fuckin’ titties. The world don’t care. The world is trying to get through an agonizing work week, and get the kids into a decent school, and maybe try to catch a half hour of television in between remembering to go to the grocery store so it can cook something half-way healthy. World don’t give a shit. At some point, you have to ask yourself why you care so much about forcing your opinions on it. The things you like are not your identity.
“There is a rich tradition, for instance, of film snobbery, or rather of passionate cinephiles being derided as snobs because of their willingness to read subtitles. The film industry does what it can in the autumn months to beckon them back into theaters with promises of “seriousness,” but a true snob will disdain obvious Oscar bait. If, that is, there are any true film snobs left. As subtitled movies grow scarcer on American screens, the traditional signifiers of snobbery grow scarce. Is a film snob someone who name-checks Pedro Costa, Michael Haneke or other international auteurs? Someone who drops the word “auteur” into a discussion of “Mad Max: Fury Road”? A person who admires Kristen Wiig, but only in her serious roles?”
You are not somehow special for holding onto standards of personal preference. You are, however, a tremendous asshole for believing that you alone possess these magical skills of discernment over the rest of the world.
Does this screed sound familiar to you? I read Scott’s words and I hear the voice of the metal elitist. We’ve all heard that voice offhandedly denigrating the pleasures we most enjoy, dismissing “lower” forms of art as course and childish, loudly proclaiming that the rest don’t know where it’s REALLY at. How many times have you been browbeaten by some Internet Metal Nerd for ignoring some “underground” scene? It is pure self-aggrandizement. These people are Snobs, and they deserve every bit of condescension that the word entails.
I’m not familiar with much of A. O. Scott’s body of work prior to this piece (truth be told, I’m more of a fan of Armond White‘s signature arch, contrarian views of film). When I want to enjoy the criticism of much more thoughtful writers than myself, I love looking through Roger Ebert’s excellent posthumous collection of film criticism and Mark Prindle’s hilarious and thoughtful musings on music. The latter two writers saw no virtue in being a “snob”. Instead, they wrote with a populist bent that was intended for an audience that valued their lack of pretension.
Though I hardly consider myself a critic, much less a writer, I say this to you from the perspective of a music critic: Let it go. Derision at music preference? Let it go. Sense of worth from the art you consume? Let it go. For most of the world, art is a diversion from the grind of life, jobs, and responsibilities. As music enthusiasts, we should do our best to have clearheaded discussions about the genre. As friends, we should feel comfortable playfully dumping on the tastes of our pals. As people, we should never strive to be a Snob.
Also, video games are not art and should never be afforded consideration as such. Fuck you, Seacrest out.
Agree? Disagree? Am I a pompous asshole? Let’s discuss it in the comments below. Unlike the Times, we’re not too highfalutin to have a democratic chat about it.