In Praise of Bad Content

Last week, my girlfriend did something she’s never done before: she failed to finish a book.

Once Ann makes it past the first few pages of anything, regardless of how good or bad it might be, she feels obliged to finish it.  And in the four years we’ve been dating, I’ve seen her slog through some real tripe.  But it took until last week for her to finally meet her literary match — a title I won’t divulge, for fear that its defenders will flood my blog with their impassioned rationales.  (It’s too late; she’s already returned it to the library and moved on to something less oppressive.)

In this case, as in many others, I took her side.  The world is full of books that do deserve her time, and every lousy novel, film or other work of art that we needless suffer through out of duty or misplaced politeness is a pitfall that robs us of an opportunity to experience something truly great.

But I also know how defeated I felt the first time I failed to finish a book because I found it completely unrewarding.  Or the first time I walked out in the middle of a movie I’d paid good money for.  Or the first play I abandoned during intermission because I’d rather do hard labor than be subjected to a second act.  As necessary as it is in those moments to flee the unspeakable horror, we’re left asking ourselves: Is it me?  Did I miss something?

Yes.  No.  Probably.  It depends.

And it’s from this perch of uncertainty that I suggest these 10 defenses in the name of bad art (and bad artists) everywhere.

  1. It’s not you, it’s me. All experiences — especially artistic ones — are subjective.  What moves one audience may infuriate another.  Because everyone brings their own frame of reference into an experience, it’s that context coupled with one’s openness to change that dictates his or her ability to process and appreciate anything new.
  2. Every revolution eventually becomes history. What shook the world a century (or even a decade) ago may not have the same effect for you today.  Culture absorbs its own breakthroughs and normalizes them into something mundane that future audiences take for granted.  For example, a friend who’d never seen Reservoir Dogs until 2004 was ultimately bored by it because he’d already seen every derivative film made in response to it; every innovation comes with a ticking clock.
  3. Without the bad, there is no good. If everyone created good art all the time, we wouldn’t think of it as good; we’d see it all as common and mediocre.  Understanding how truly bad something can be helps us to more fully appreciate the exceptional.
  4. You can never trust a word from a virgin or a whore. The first time you read Dostoyevsky, watch a film noir or hear a steel drum band, you have minimal context on which to base your opinion.  At the other extreme, if you’ve read every Tom Clancy novel ever printed, you’re likely to be biased against other genres and jaded within your own.  Therefore, any new media you’re experiencing may not actually be bad; you just might be too under- or over-exposed to it to accurately evaluate it.
  5. Everyone has bad days. Not every Kubrick film is 2001 and not every Shakespeare play is Hamlet.  Even the best-reviewed artists have duds on their resume.  The lucky ones have enough good ideas early on in their careers that their eventual missteps are forgiven; it’s the ones we accuse of having bad ideas from the start who rarely get the chance to prove us wrong.
  6. Sometimes “bad” is the price of exploration. If artists only ever stuck with what worked, they’d never grow.  If audiences don’t allow artists to make mistakes, they’ll never find new ways to surprise us.
  7. Nothing is ever all bad (or all good). Even in the lowliest of trash, there’s still the occasional glimpse of genius.  (If you doubt this, try watching any Troma film; no matter how much your internal film snob wants to drag them to the pillory, there’s inevitably an unexpected laugh that prevents you from being able to write them off completely.)
  8. If you can’t appreciate it for what it is, admire it for what it was. If you’re watching a film or reading a book that’s beloved by critics the world over but you fail to see anything remarkable about it, congratulations: you’ve just validated Point #2.  So instead of comparing the work to everything that’s come after it, try viewing it through the lens of history and dissect its cultural impact, rather than decrying its absence of modern relevance.
  9. It’s so bad, it’s good. Sometimes the elements that were supposed to succeed have failed so spectacularly, they create a vortex of unintentional charm.  (See: Xanadu.)
  10. Expectations are the enemy of understanding. Maybe the album is horribly produced but the lyrics are astounding.  Maybe the acting is atrocious but the lighting is phenomenal.  Maybe he’s ugly but he loves dogs.  You may not always find what you were looking for, but if you’re open-minded, you’ll be surprised at the number of gems you can find among the drivel.

None of this is meant to excuse laziness, ignorance or an abject lack of talent.  In all things — from art to war, sex to enchiladas — there are winners and losers, quality and blight.  But true worthlessness is as mathematically unlikely as perfection.  Most of us — and most of what we create — is somewhere in the middle.  Embrace it.  Learn from it.  Absorb it.

But you still don’t have to finish it.

  • http://www.WDOphoto.com WDOphoto

    I’ve never walked out on a movie in a theater but I was interrupted by a guy sitting in front of me who eventually walked out on Solaris. It was all because Clooney’s ass made him uncomfortable.

    They flash George’s ass like 3 or 4 times in the film. The first time he wiggled and looked around, then told his date the movie was stupid.

    The second time he looked back at me, the only man he could whisper to and said – this movie is stupid, are you about ready to leave?

    Personally I’m a huge fan of the science fiction writer S. Lem who wrote the story the movie was based on and I didn’t think it was that bad of a film so I said – with you? No. Sorry, I’m with her. and I pointed to my wife.

    This made him even more uncomfortable. The next time they showed George’s rump he stood up and told his date he was leaving with or without her. He walked out and she sat there for a minute before she realized he wasn’t coming back and ran after him. I don’t think it was their first date but they didn’t look like they were dating for that long. I do assume it was their last date.

  • Ann

    I’m not ashamed: It was Naked Lunch. There is only so much necrophilia I can handle, allegorical or not.

    It was strange and moving, but I didn’t feel like I needed to persevere to get the point. What was I missing out on?

  • http://amongthechosen.com Dan

    I got one word for you, man:

    Dhalgren.

    Despite your inspired readings, I don’t think I EVER came close to finishing that one.

  • farvisionary

    Poor Dan. The bane of great art will also include those who truly just don’t get it. In praise of a great novel, both innovative and in many respects unmatched, which rewards repeated reading.