Sam McNerney had another great post on his blog at Big Think. The topic was “The Virtues of a Bad Review”, and its well worth reading. Here are some excerpts from his argument:
“What happens when you ban a book? Sales increase. The modern maxim that any press is good press is true. If you really want people to read a book, tell them it’s extremely offensive; books that offend are difficult to ignore, just like provocative secrets are difficult to conceal – both spread swiftly.”
“One hallmark of modern society is a small group of Comstockians who gain notary by outlining how immoralities that break from tradition percolate through society while offering a simple prescription to remedy an upcoming moral apocalypse: in order to save the future generation we must mimic the pervious one. The paradox of modern art is that the pioneers and innovators despised Comstockians yet thrived because of them.”
“September Morn and Impression, Sunrise received so much attention not because they are inherently provocative but because they broke from tradition. The art world has heard this story before. It’s the “moral elites” scoffing at a small clique of “avant-garde” artists for challenging previous movements, styles and norms. History teaches us that the latter group eventually wins by changing what’s considered acceptable. It’s a romantic narrative – what was once rejected, rendered outrageous and unintelligible, was eventually deemed a masterpiece – yet the tension between those anchored by tradition and those who thrive on defying the norm is precisely what drives artistic innovation, from Lascaux to Rococo.
The irony is that Comstockians are partially responsible for this predictable turnover. One reason is that they provide “grisly” modern art free press….
Another reason is a simple psychological principle: we habituate to repeated stimuli. Every so often a work of art – a poem, novel, song, painting sculpture, movie, etc., – that is exceedingly novel comes along. Viewers react with confusion, sometimes anger. Then something peculiar happens. They get used to it – they incorporate the original ideas and new standards arise. There are hold outs, to be sure, but within a few years or decades what was provocative becomes modest, even expected.
From this perspective the bad review is a vital player in the history of art. First, it draws attention to a piece of art. Then, after enough exposure, the brain gets use to whatever innovation it deemed faux pas. In the end, the public comes to see the bad review as elitist, and the definition of mainstream changes once again.”
Here’s what I have to say in response:
Sam, I love this essay! I have been thinking a lot recently about how necessary it is to challenge preconceptions in art. Its not just a strategy for notoriety or the pathology of change, but I think it also serves a different purpose. ‘Bad’ art is necessary if only because accepting convention removes the need for us to think for ourselves. Even ‘bad’ art has virtue if it stops us from being lazy, if it challenges us to rethink the world from a new perspective. It has served a purpose even if it only gives better, more clear shape to what we call ‘bad’. And the Comstocks of the world perform a service in publicity when they take something radical and ‘disagreeable’ and place it in a new conversation that allows people to examine it and have their own responses. Bad press is not a good thing because of its attention grabbing, its provincial dogmatism but because it serves as a platform for new debate. When not simply reactionary it helps clarify our perspectives. We learn from difference. It is simply more grist for the mill. We may not change the Comstockians, but more flexible minds are given the excuse they need to grow.
So it seems that what we are tempted to call ‘bad art’ is done so often only as a matter of our limitations. We all at least sometimes defend our ‘good’s and ‘bad’s with the stubborn jealousy of the worst Comstockians. If our definitions are very small, then we have not yet understood the reasons why others accept something different or more inclusive. We have not yet had this conversation. Or we cling to our own prejudice. We know what we know. We are confounded by novelty and serendipity. We are hidebound in our small mindedness. We are too often biased and can’t see beyond our own stubborn parochialisms.
Which in my mind is usually at least as bad as the things that get bashed by the ‘name calling’ of these partisan whinings. Calling something “bad art” is more a declaration that “I am blind to parts of the world and I cannot see why other people look at the world differently”. It pretends at being an informed stance when its single claim is circumscribed by narrowness. Its more about the person saying it than the work so indicated. Its saying “I know this and that’s all that matters”. In other words, its not something to always be proud of or to proselytize with. (I don’t get rap music or Opera, but my failing is not an indictment of the many millions who do….) But maybe we simply lack the natural humility to look beyond the comforts of our own convictions? Could it be? That the transparency of ‘knowing’ is mostly an illusion? Admitting one’s own ignorance and differences seems more honest than claiming one’s own judgment as final…..
So maybe ignorance is also another of those hidden virtues. Its an indication that the world is still there to be explored. I recently came across the quote that “Great achievement knows no road map”, and I think that it is probably correct in some important sense. If it is at all relevant then surely it must mean that we cannot afford to place too much emphasis on what we already take to be true, that the unknown is itself something commendable. It seems to suggest that rigid road maps are sometimes also a danger. They lead precisely where they lead. And if you know where you are going, chances are you’ve been there before. Perhaps especially so in the arts. In fact, I’d even say that it is more important to actually be wrong because any sort of radical innovation looks wrong in a purely conservative or dogmatic eye.
And so, to admit to change we must valorize our ignorance in some sense. The future is unknown. We need it to be unknown. How can it possibly be identical to the present? And we cannot reach for the stars if we only aim at the things already within our grasp. Neither science nor art operates in a vacuum. We do not know where undirected, open ended research will lead us. But its important to keep the doors open. Making ‘bad art’ is just one person’s attempt to see things differently. To change the future. Its the only way we know of not simply plowing the furrows of our forbears. And if someday it starts to resonate with an audience, then surely we have learned something new about the world.
So the ‘bad’ often precedes the ‘good’. It is its prelude. But is that a ‘bad’ thing? I think not. Aiming for the recognized good only gets us the same old same old. It gives us only the normative and the conventional. Instead, we need to have courage in the face of monotonous predictability. Monstrous predictability. We sometimes need to worry less about getting it wrong than settling for the low hanging fruit of our convictions. If our convictions are anything but provisional isn’t that a denial in some sense that the world may look different in the future? That it will look different? And that we actually get to decide how it will look? And isn’t this realization somehow fundamentally important? That it makes sense to disagree? Doesn’t the fact of disagreement teach us something important? That there is room for growth? That knowledge isn’t a closed system? Isn’t all art in fact a disagreement with the way the world is? Seems so to me, at least….
Thanks again for the great post! Your blog is one of my favorite reads!