Taste and Scholarship
The conversation continues on over chez Girish. One question that Girish raises:
Also, to touch on Elkins again for a second: he wishes at one point in the book for art critics who not only make evaluative judgments but also perform reflections on their own judgments, thus laying bare and reflecting upon the criteria they apply to their evaluations. This is a valuable form of self-consciousness, a self-reflection upon the critic's own taste: the criteria applied by the critic, what that critic's taste values and does not value, which includes a connecting up of one's taste with history, i.e. inserting oneself into a historical lineage of thought about art and its evaluation. This is an interesting challenge.
Gareth pipes in that scholars often ignore popular cinema and don't take its aesthetic value seriously.
Their points made me wonder: how much does canonicity still hold in the field? How self-conscious are scholars about their own taste formations and biases?
I'll reveal my cards first: I see no problem with canons per se, since the academy can be a useful place for discussing and upholding work (experimental film, social documentary, national cinema) that lacks a broad constituency. And my tastes are canonical, more canonical than most. At the same time, my approach to research is resolutely anti-canonical. I find that canons get in the way of a broader understanding of cinematic history.
What of the field as a whole? My generalizations:
- Scholars of Hollywood (and of British cinema) tend to be more populist than area scholars studying prestige national cinemas. There are signs this is changing, with recent conferences and books on European popular cinema, but even still studies of popular French or German films, say, seem thin on the ground.
- The field embraces low culture as well as high culture, but rarely the middle.
- On one hand, cultural studies has left its mark in the field as a whole, pushing it in a populist direction. On the other hand, the move it is often at the price of a full aesthetic understanding of popular cinema.
- What I call the New Theoretical Turn in film studies has reacted not only against historicism but also against cultural studies. As such, it has embraced noticeably more canonical objects of study and with them a more canonical attitude. To take one example, when Tom Conley seeks to understand a cartographic discourse in Cartographic Cinema, his first examples of recourse are Casablanca and The 400 Blows. He certainly reads these differently than auteurists would but does not submit them to an objectifying analysis. Nor does he ever entertain the possibility that one might need to find a more typical film to establish a broad discourse.
- Even with these vicissitudes (populism, followed by theoretical turn), there remains a split psyche for many scholars. Certainly for me. Many embody a cinephile taste and teach some variant of this taste, all the while sidestepping judgment in research. I'm happy with this split approach but understand others might call it hypocrisy.