Bad taste & good art

“I just don’t get why you want to keep me away from her, though?!”

“Alright, I’ll tell ya! I slept with her, din’t I?”

Dum, dum, dum dum dum dum-dum-dum-dum –

And the Eastenders credits roll down on yet another cliff-hanger.

There’s something in the overly dramatic ending that causes a little cringe. It’s the same, sometimes, in books:

At the sudden knock on the door, she whips around, shock written all over her face. It opens with a creak. Her jaw drops even further as she realizes it’s him; back again, come to collect his debt, as she had always known he would.

The door shuts behind him, he pushes back his cloak to reveal a fully-loaded pistol pointing straight at her chest, and –

A loud thud resounds as she hits the floor.

She’s fallen into a dead faint.

[End of chapter]

If it’s not cringeable, it’s a little laughable. It’s hard to take seriously something that takes itself so seriously.

Yet we’re meant to be experiencing art here, visual or literary or whatever else it is; why the note of discord? Flaubert didn’t feel the need to end his chapters on cliff-hangers, Austen’s pace was a little more subtle than this obvious signalling of important moments; what’s different here?

Umberto Eco has the answer – as always!

A neat little book called Apocalittici e integrati contains a set of essays about mass media and pop culture written just as these were becoming a phenomenon to be critically analysed in the ‘60s. In one of them, ‘La struttura del cattivo gusto’ (‘The Structure of Bad Taste’), Eco sets out what makes something ‘kitsch’ and how kitsch art forms interact with their superior peers. Here is my summary of his thesis:

For a certain period of time after a new work of art is published, critical analysis will attempt to decode the art and provide an interpretation of its possible meaning(s). After this period, one or other of these interpretations will be agreed upon and promulgated as correct. The art that began as sufficiently ambiguous to merit various interpretations of it loses its ambiguity as a fixed interpretation is agreed upon; it has been ‘consumed’. The avant-garde will continue to “innovate”, producing “original” works of not yet fixed interpretation; in the meantime, the stylistic memes of ‘consumed’ works of art will be imitated by less original artists. The latter are ‘kitsch’; they reproduce already consumed models that pose as original works, although they are not.

A good, original piece of art will provoke a reaction in its audience just because; by virtue of theme, language, form, or some other feature. Part of the way that kitsch imitates good art is that, where it isn’t good enough per se to affect the audience, it will deliberately attempt to stimulate some kind of prefabricated emotional effect, so that we think we’re experiencing what we experience with good art, and thus confuse the two.

To illustrate this, look at the above pieces. One is the end of an episode of a television series, one the end of a chapter. Both TV and novels can be artistic or have the characteristics of art, if they use appropriate techniques to convey something subtle, the interpretation of which couldn’t be exhausted by just one work of critical analysis (people are still saying new things about Dante 700 years later … just saying). Is that happening here or are these pieces deliberately attempting to set off an emotional reaction? The Eastenders episode will probably end with a frame that shows the stricken traduced woman’s tearful face. We are clearly being told by the writer/director (in the imaged language of television, rather than with words) that this is a shocking moment. Look at how shocked this woman is! There is nothing subtle or ambiguous here.

The written piece is the same. It gives us cues, anticipating and directing our reaction using the characters’ reactions as a proxy, and the narrative is deliberately constructed so as to prolong that reaction and our anticipation of its resolution (the narrative itself delays revelations, and the extra-text makes us wait the length of a line break or a page turn). This is fairly normal procedure, we might think (even if generally less obvious than here), but I think Eco’s point is that these are the hallmarks of pandering to a lazy readership (and indulging a lazy creative instinct), that good art doesn’t need these artificial accoutrements to affect the reader in some way, that we can all do better than taking for our artistic purpose the stirring up of an emotional reaction.

Compare this to two random sentences of James Joyce’s Ulysses:

Paris rawly waking, crude sunlight on her lemon streets. Moist pith of farls of bread, the froggreen wormwood, her matin incense, court the air

Or to a nugget from War and Peace:

beneath the layer of silt that covered her soul and seemed to her impenetrable, delicate young shoots of grass were already sprouting, which, taking root, would so cover with their living verdure the grief that weighed her down that it would soon no longer be seen or noticed

We’re not conditioned to react to this description of Natasha’s mental state in any particular way; it’s not ‘Her relatives smiled and rejoiced to see that she was recovering’; all that seems to be expected of us is the same sympathy for the human condition with which Tolstoy treats the gory battlefield decisions, the spousal cruelty, love and degeneracy portrayed elsewhere in the book. Moreover, Natasha is not narrated in certain terms here; her mental state is merely suggested through metaphor. The figurative language provides some of that openness and ambiguity that should make the difference in artistic quality that Eco is talking about quite plain.

So what? I have at least three reasons to care about this definition of art and to protect its boundaries:

  1. Far from creating division between (perhaps) different social groups and their ways of expressing themselves, far from putting art beyond the reach of anyone not already provisioned with ten years of reading ‘the critics’, this way of distinguishing between more or less perfect forms of artistic creation is rather anti-elitist. It says that the experience of art that best respects the purpose of art not as message but as a ‘wellspring’ of different messages (Eco would say) is the freshest, the least encumbered by received critical apparatus, the closest to that of the first audiences who approached the work bewildered by something they were as yet unequipped to decipher. So while I’ve always found it helpful to read some critical analysis of a good book before reading it, as a guide to what the book ‘really means’, perhaps this was the wrong approach. A clear delineation between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ art does away with elitism far better than trying to say that all art works have equal value, because it gives us all the possibility of contributing to their interpretation and embedding them in our cultural history. We should all feel encouraged to dig in.

2. Secondly, there is an ethical dimension to what is exposed to us in mass culture that a poor definition of art allows to be swept under the rug. In a previous blog post, I talked about how both pornography and Greek tragedy present pre-packaged to us aspects of the human experience for the sole purpose of stimulating our emotions. According to Eco’s logic, if this is the sole purpose and effect, neither of these can really be great art (although I’m sure Classical scholars would disagree, and for good reason). Yet the old ‘Botticelli painted naked women and no one objects, why can’t Page 3 do the same?’ argument continues to recur when I question, for example, whether the multiple depictions of Daenerys Targaryen being raped by her husband was strictly artistically necessary. They probably weren’t, but then arguably HBO’s Game of Thrones is not an artistic work. Equally, I think we are now justified in stating that the presence of Page 3 (etc) in our lives, on a magazine shelf or in a ‘newspaper’, cannot be defended by claiming that it is artistic (i.e. ‘but all those old paintings are showing the same thing’).

3. Thirdly, for there to be a possibility of art at all (bearing in mind the ease with which one can slip into a mode of representation like my screenplay/novel examples above), it needs to be defined clearly, and not with a catch-all that says that any piece of visual representation is artistic, that a graffiti tag under a bridge at Clapham Junction is just as ‘valid’ as the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Graffiti can be studied and analysed on its own terms, as Eco does with cartoon strips and pop music, and found to be extremely valuable as, for example, an expression of group identity, or whatever other purposes people get out their spray cans for – I wouldn’t know. But for that difference in purpose I doubt the scrawls under the bridge will stand up as great art. If we don’t make this distinction, if we insist on judging every piece of expression in the same terms, we risk muddling our criteria for judgement, and artistic works will come to be judged on other than artistic merits, which will mean for example that Dante will be found to be unacceptably homophobic (etc), difficult and irrelevant and no longer worthy of consideration.

The involuntary smirk or cringe we experience as the soap opera credits roll is a natural reaction that occurs when we realise we are being manipulated by what we’re reading or witnessing on-screen; it’s our intellectual or aesthetic instincts shouting ‘bad taste alert’. This instinct should not be dismissed as snobbish, but should be honed so that we in turn can more critically analyse and refine what we are consuming and creating – and of course prevent civilisation from crumbling about our ears.

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9 thoughts on “Bad taste & good art

  1. Interesting reflections. I can see your point, which as I’ve understood it, is that anything/everything can’t be called art. There should be characteristics and limits. My two cents worth is that ultimately it doesn’t really matter what anyone thinks about art. It’s so much bigger than any person or culture, that it has no limits. The graffiti at Clapham Junction is as much art as Miro’s strokes and shapes at the Tate Modern. I prefer to include whatever anyone decides as art, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it or even appreciate it. I can ignore it or criticise it as rubbish, but I can’t make it disappear ir stop others liking or supporting it. Sorry for the rant and thanks for your thoughts.

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    1. That’s interesting, so you’re happy with the distinction between good and bad art but not with the concept that some visual or written expression might not be art? What if I said my wallpaper was art? Or if I said a newspaper article was literature? For me there are obvious differences in purpose and intention within the same medium – what are your thoughts?

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      1. An artist designed your wallpaper. Picasso drew a mural for a bar/restaurant in New York. Why would your wallpaper be less art than Picasso ‘ s wallpaper? Because it’s unique? Because it’s expensive? Because someone said Picasso was a great artist and your wallpaper designer is unknown? I feel unable to make the distinction between what is art or isn’t and even less to identify good or bad art. I know what I like and appreciate, but I’m also sure that is totally subjective.
        Regarding literature, well that’s an equally hard distinction for me to make. Some Old English Riddles are studied as literature when they were probably just intended as word games when they were written. Some scholars study fragments of Latin graffiti as a literary manuscript.
        I think if someone thinks it’s art or literature it probably is.
        It’s a fscinating topic and I understand your desire to find a clear cut definition, an answer to the question ‘what is art?’ but I don’t think there is, at least not one that will satisfy everyone.

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      2. Sooo I think potentially you can distinguish between art and design. Art=no purpose/for the sake of it/to self-express. Design (eg wallpapers)=for a purpose (doesn’t mean it doesn’t use skill & technique).
        I know what you’re saying, but it seems to me that saying anything could be art means we could waste our time studying different things that don’t belong in the category, etc. There are sufficient differences to merit different categories as far as I can see. 🙂

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      3. Yes, I agree that making categories helps us to digest/study art in manageable chunks, but these categories could be another trap/mirage, because they’ll change/evolve over time and in different places/cultures.
        I prefer to open windows and be inclusive, why exclude?
        Nothing you study is ever a waste of time, you either change your mind, think of o ther possibilities, or reinforce previous beliefs.
        I believe in keeping my eyes and mind open and then I make my own decisions, which I’m also allowed to change if there’s new evidence/experiences at a later date.
        I was a Londoner for 22 years! Wonderful place to live, so much to see and do 🙂 Full of artists! Then I moved to Spain with my Spanish husband, but I return for hols at least once a year.

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      4. I agree with what you’ve said, it’s not incompatible with what you’ve said. Defining categories doesn’t exclude, it just defines. There’s nothing to say graffiti (etc) can’t be studied. That’s perfectly valid. 🙂

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