As much as I personally dislike him, I’ve tried not to spend much time thinking about the Ben Lyons debate. If you don’t follow film critic/nerd circles as closely as I do, here’s the gist of it:

In the four months since the fresh-faced 27-year-old “movie dude” for the E! Entertainment Network was installed to co-host a revamped version of [Roger Ebert’s] venerable movie review program “At the Movies,” he has gotten a resounding thumbs down […] “His integrity’s out the window. He has no taste,” said Erik Childress, vice president of the Chicago Film Critics Assn. “Everyone thinks he’s a joke.”

Lyon’s claim to fame to this point has been serving as “douchebag that loved I Am Legend” on E!. His promotion to what was once the showcase for the most famous film critic in America has irked many in the film-culture community. Now Ebert is a fantastic critic and writer, but certainly cannot be compared to the more esoteric writing of even a Johnathan Rosenbaum (my favorite critic) let alone any of the major theorists.  Still, the producers of “At the Movies” made a clear decision to dumb down and generalize the topics of conversation on their program.

Now televised film criticism is essentially a dead form, with the wave of new media taking over the film culture as the forum for discussion: a wide and diverse film blogosphere ranging from film geeks to the heady film commentary. It can certainly be argued that Ben Lyons is effectivly irrelevant, and his waning viewership would seem to attest to that. But this piece over at HuffPo really got to me. Uygur’s defense of Lyon’s essentially boils down to “I don’t like to think of films as art, I don’t like ‘art films’, and I like that Ben Lyons doesn’t make me feel bad about that”.

This has been part of the on going debate in film criticism over the last year. As more and more film critics have lost their jobs, and at the same time the booming online world adds as much to the noise as to the discussion, the need to draw a line in the sand becomes ever more clear. For too long film critics in America have essentially been film reviewers, and that’s an important distinction. There is no cultural value to someone just telling you if a film is good or not; at that level it’s more the Consumer Reports of arts journalism.

If that’s what “At The Movies” is to become (and honestly it has always had a predilection towards what with the thumbs and all), then that is their choice. What is more worrisome to me is the backlash to the backlash, as represented Uygur’s piece. Any standing of film as art has always had a tenuous place in American culture, with opinions towards what might be considered acceptable art in cinema always placed towards the perfectly middlebrow. Compare Oscar favorite The Curious Case of Benjamin Button with David Fincher’s interesting and challenge box office flop Zodiac from last year. And while film has always had this problem due to its widespread popularity, the attitude effects all the arts in society. It’s not just that a strand of the public dislikes self consciously artistic creations, but indeed that the reaction is violent. Which would in and of itself be interesting if it was more of a moral stance placing a considered value on quick experiential excitement; but instead it comes from a place of do not disturb.

So the question seems to be: why does the mere existence of art frighten some people?

h/t Vulture