In comments on Matt Brady’s post on Geoff Johns, several folks criticized him for attacking the readers of Johns’ comics as well as the comics themselves. This prompted Jones, One of the Jones Boys to write:

Here’s an interesting (to me!) question that’s raised by some of the push-back in these comments: is it appropriate for a critic to talk smack about people who enjoy a particular work that they personally dislike? My initial feeling is that it isn’t — it always shits me when a critic disses me for liking something, especially when they speculate as to the bad/silly/morally-incriminating character traits that would lead me to enjoy something so patently terrible. You don’t know me, man; you can’t know why I do or don’t enjoy something.

…but on the other hand, I’m not sure that there is any good reason to censure critics for doing this. After all, critics routinely speculate as to the personality traits and motivations of artists, so why can’t they do the same for the audience?

…but back on the first hand, it seems like a kind of ad hominem. If an artwork is bad, it ought to be shown so on its own (de)merits, not via the failings of its audience. Plus it’s generally counterproductive: if you want to dissuade the audience from enjoyment/consumption, you probably won’t do it by insulting them (even if the insults are accurate!).

What do other people think?

I replied:

I don’t really know that it’s that easy to draw a line. Just as a work figures an author, I think a work figures an audience. Geoff Johns assumes a reader who cares about continuity porn; who finds violence exciting and interesting; who can’t follow or doesn’t care about following plot; who wants to see Star Sapphire’s tits falling out of a pink wisp of nothing. Criticizing the work is in part figuring out what it is you’re supposed to like about it, and that involves thinking about an ideal reader. And if that ideal reader seems like a sexist, drooling idiot…well, I don’t see what’s wrong in pointing that out.

What’s tricky, of course, is that an ideal reader isn’t *only* an ideal reader — or, to put it another way, you aren’t always the person you are when you read a Geoff Johns comic. People are complicated, and it is possible to want to see Star Sapphire’s fan service while still believing that in the real world women are human beings.

But…just because you aren’t always that ideal reader doesn’t mean that that ideal reader doesn’t have something to do with you. If art matters, that means it matters to somebody, and that means that somebody is being affected by it. One of the things critics do (or can try to do) is talk about the content of that affect (or effect.) And that involves talking about how the art interacts with people…which means thinking about the kind of people who are called by the art — and who answer it.

It’s essentially another version of the question of whether art is a formal exercise or whether it’s a social and historical practice. If it’s the first, then the audience and its reaction should be bracketed. If it’s the second, that bracketing becomes a lot more difficult.

 
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