Have you ever walked out of a movie?

Or failed to finish a book you started reading?

Or gotten halfway through a video game and just given up?

Congratulations: you secretly won.

That’s because you stopped giving your time and attention to something that didn’t appeal to you, and turned them instead toward finding something that would.

However, that’s only half of the story.

That’s because what you don’t like today may be something you’ll love tomorrow.

How is that possible?

Because it’s not necessarily the fault of the book, movie, or game that you gave up on it. There are plenty of reasons why we quit engaging media that doesn’t hook us. But that doesn’t mean the media failed.

In fact, I’d argue “bad” media is just as important as “good” media.

Here’s why.

  1. It’s not you, it’s me. All experiences — especially artistic ones — are subjective. What enraptures one audience may infuriate another. We always brings our own frames of reference to any new experience, and our context coupled with our openness to change dictates our 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 of mine who’d never seen Reservoir Dogs (which came out in 1992) was bored by it when he did finally watch it (in 2004) because he’d already seen every derivative film made in response to it. Every innovation comes with a ticking clock toward normality.
  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. Taste and trust aren’t guaranteed. The first time you read a new author, watch a new film genre, or hear a new type of music, you have minimal context on which to base your opinion. That means you might overreact (good or bad), because your context is brand new. At the other extreme, if you’ve read every Tom Clancy novel ever printed, it’s going to take a lot to convince you that a new spy novel is any good because you’ve been oversaturated in that genre. In both of these cases, any new media you experience may not actually be “good” or “bad;” you just might be too under- (or over-) exposed to it to objectively 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. And if audiences don’t let artists 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. And even in the greatest of masterpieces, there are still questionable artistic choices that we overlook because the rest of the work is considered to be a classic.
  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 but you fail to see anything remarkable about it, you’ve just validated Point #2. So instead of comparing the work to everything that’s come after it, try seeing it as a cultural artifact so you can appreciate its impact, rather than lamenting 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. (The Room, anyone?)
  10. Expectations are the enemy of understanding. Maybe an album is poorly produced… but the lyrics are astounding. Maybe a film’s acting is wooden… but the cinematography is phenomenal. Maybe he’s forgetful… 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 pleasant surprises you can find along the way.

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, even if it’s usually a matter of opinion. But complete worthlessness is as mathematically unlikely as total perfection. Most of us — and most of what we create — is somewhere in the middle.

Embrace it. Learn from it. Absorb it.

(But no; you still don’t have to finish it.)

1 Comment

How to Succeed While Actually Trying | Justin Kownacki · May 18, 2015 at 1:58 pm

[…] If you don’t know why it happened, all you can do is guess. And if your next video is back to getting a few hundred views, then you guessed wrong. […]

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