Today in Slate

Slaying Sacred Cows

Great art doesn’t need to be subtle, and American progress isn’t inevitable.


Sacred cows are meant to be slain, and Monday, Slate took the cleaver to holy heifers of cultural criticism and American exceptionalism.

Why do critics fetishize subtlety? Lots of great artists hit that nail right on the head.

Critics have reached a consensus that books, movies, TV, and music are better if their metaphors, symbols, and messages are subtle, rather than overt: This Mad Men episode was too heavy-handed, a metaphor in Purity is a bit on the nose, the new Spielberg movie’s message hits you like an anvil. But is subtlety a virtue in and of itself? Forrest Wickman argues that frankly, subtlety sucks. Some of the best and most enduring pieces of art—whether it’s The Great Gatsby, Citizen Kane, or The Wire—wear their themes and morals on their sleeves. Wickman concedes that there’s a place for understated art, but I agree with him that it hardly seems virtuous for artists to willfully obscure messages from their audiences. Even in art, is it really so bad to say what you mean?

Perpetual American progress isn’t inevitable. In fact, a new book argues that much has been lost.

Culture is not the only realm of in-vogue opining. In politics, too, we hear a lot about living in a new Gilded Age while simultaneously hearing about the country’s inevitable march toward “a more perfect union.” The authors of These United States argue that there’s nothing inevitable about that progress, and that economics is not the only area where America looks like the 19th century. Rather, they say, nearly all the progress of 20th-century America has been undone. That loss of progress, they write, appears in wider wealth gaps, renewed racial segregation, and resurgent nativism, for starters. It’s a harsh view of recent American history, but it isn’t defeatist. Instead, These United States argues that 20th-century progress was only achieved because of extraordinary, widespread social and political action. The suggestion is not subtle: If Americans become more politically engaged, all that progress doesn’t need to be lost for good.

Losing the death penalty, losing control, and losing Chipotles.

A bit on the shnoz,
Seth Maxon
Home page editor for nights and weekends

If you like what you see, please encourage a friend, family member, or enemy to sign up for the Today in Slate email newsletter here.