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Film Russell Smith: Feverish reaction to Wonder Woman is art criticism leaving the art behind

Before South African novelist and activist Nadine Gordimer won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1991, she was not always widely admired by anti-apartheid militants in her native country. She wrote about the troubles of that racist country, but from a white perspective. For many dissidents, her race in itself disqualified her from commentary. Beyond that, even though she was a member of the revolutionary African National Congress, a banned organization, she was not sufficiently propagandistic for many militants. Criticism of her work from the 1970s frequently called it ideologically flawed and "tactically incorrect."

It's a bit odd to think now of her work being disparaged with such brutally black-and-white criteria, but this happens in times when artists are told their primary role is to effect social change. Art's perceived ideological component becomes only value. If people are in the grip of a cause, all they can see around them are expressions of or obstacles to that cause.

Here's a contemporary example: If you read a lot of culture blogs, you may be puzzled and confused by the angry essays on a children's movie that have been surfacing for the past weeks. Who would have thought that a superhero movie with lots of CGI battle scenes would inspire such passion – either inspiring or oppressive, depending on your stripe?

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There have been feverish attacks on and defences of Wonder Woman this week, all among socially progressive analysts.

There is only one consensus: Wonder Woman is a political manifesto. This manifesto is either good or bad, and its value is determined solely by what side of righteousness it falls on.

The interpretation of this entertainment has gone in waves. First, it was wildly praised by feminists for its strong female character. "Wonder Woman is a masterpiece of subversive feminism," a Guardian headline read. This is the "role model" school of art criticism.

Role models are indeed great for children, but generally, criticism of grown-up art does not revolve around this criterion for evaluation (otherwise, most of Nadine Gordimer and Edith Wharton and Virginia Woolf and Margaret Atwood would by now have been dismissed).

Then came the intersectionalist backlash: This strong female character cannot be feminist because she perpetuates racism, because she is unself-consciously white and beautiful in a conventional way. In a particularly blistering essay on the site The Unpublishables, Canadian novelist Doretta Lau excoriated the movie as "white feminism." The protagonist is a "self-righteous hubristic do-gooder," she wrote. Particularly galling is a joke the Amazon princess makes about feminine work being "slavery" – an offensive joke because, of course, it's nothing like real slavery.

Then came the anti-Israel response. The film's star, Gal Gadot, is Israeli and was once in the army and once, in 2014, tweeted her support for colleagues in the military forces. Lebanon and Tunisia have declared a ban on the film, and Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement supporters are urging a boycott. This creates a tricky situation for the politically conscious art consumer.

"Declaring the film an empowering message for women while ignoring Gadot's support of the Israeli policies that leave Palestinian women disempowered is a bitter pill to swallow," a critic wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald.

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The Toronto Star published a lengthy piece ostensibly about the movie that was mostly about Israeli atrocities in Gaza. The movie is apparently in support of these. "The reaction to Wonder Woman highlights the perversity and partiality of a feminism that celebrates the cinematic representation of a fictional, purportedly anti-war female superhero, but ignores the non-fictional women (and men) who experience the real brutalities of war and occupation," Azeezah Kanji wrote. The movie does not mention contemporary Israel even indirectly.

A journal called Middle East Eye agonized over the pressing question of whether or not to like this movie, explaining, "[Gadot] is Israeli, with little appreciation for the fact that, as an Ashkenazi Jew, she belongs in the upper crust of Israeli society, with no experiential understanding of what it means to be a person of colour." After a long analysis of the movie's feminist virtues and errors, writer Nada Elia concluded that it should not be watched: "One does not wish to view Wonder Woman because the central character, a hero out to save the world, is played by a woman who cheers on genocide."

Here is the simplest form of art criticism: one that need not address art. It makes no effort to discuss a movie. What's in the movie is irrelevant. All participants in the spectacle, even if they are not the writers of it, must be screened for ideological purity before the entertainment is to be evaluated.

Whether Wonder Woman will be recorded as an important piece of art 50 years from now is impossible to foresee, but I would be willing to bet $100 on "no." But the movie has long been left behind in these non-reviews anyway – we are just arguing about Israel and Palestine again.

At any rate, this set of criteria certainly makes art criticism easier. Critics need to spend a lot less time on structure or cinematography. All they need do is consult their ideological guidelines, determine whether it exemplifies the correct moral tendencies and issue a simple yes/no verdict. They could start to use codes: CR for "correct representations"; NR for "needs re-education."

The left and the right support this approach with equal enthusiasm. The fury over Shakespeare in the United States since the Donald Trump-like representation of Julius Caesar in New York is an exemplar. "Liberal hate kills," shrieked protesters disrupting the play. In the past week, the anger at one company's interpretation of the play has spread to the whole country, with repertory theatre companies in Massachusetts and Texas reporting angry protests and even threats from Trump supporters, just because they have performed any Shakespeare play. It has been suggested that the denunciations are the result of careless googling ("Shakespeare in the park" will return quite a few cities). But it is also possible that Shakespeare himself, since he has been seen to be a tool of liberal violence, has now been deemed ideologically opposed to conservative American values. It's over for Shakespeare in the heartland: He's liberal.

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Again, the play itself is left in the dust. We are just arguing about affiliations, about badges. Amusingly, the play itself makes reference to this human propensity: the character Cicero says, "Men may construe things after their fashion, Clean from the purpose of the things themselves."

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