Utne Blogs > Arts and Culture

Three Cheers for Boring Art

by Will Wlizlo

Tags: cultural vegetables, cinema, boredom, New York Times, New York Times Magazine, Salon, arts, Will Wlizlo,


Boredom is still a driving—semi-popular even—force in art. Just look to the wide acclaim bestowed on Terrence Malick’s latest slow-burning film, Tree of Life, or David Foster Wallace’s epitomic The Pale King, a novel about (among other things) American tax law. But there is also a long-standing, all-or-nothing divide between those who seek out art at its most arduous and those who crave entertainment at its emptiest. The disagreement resembles a stalemate trench war, with intellectual critics and cultural arbiters pontificating on the importance of high-and-boring art against the masses that spend $186 million (so far) to guffaw through Hangover Part II. Of late, the snobs are fighting back—a courageous defense of boring art.

Just like eating a pile of wax beans and cauliflower, getting enough cultural vegetables can make you healthy and nauseous at the same time. Writing for New York Times Magazine, Dan Kois describes his love-hate relationship with high art:

Boredom isn’t supposed to be fun or easy, but it can be progressive and rewarding. “I’m saying that boredom is a productive and indeed revolutionary force, by the way,” writes Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir, “not that its results are always or everywhere pleasant.” O’Hehir is writing specifically about cinematography, but his case can be made just as well for literature, visual arts, or independent music. Hehir sees his fellow critics’ frustration as systemic:

In a joint rant, New York Times’ film critics A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis largely agree: Scott argues that the entire movie business is geared to maintain the “corporate status quo” of Hollywood and asserts “the primary purpose of movies is to provide entertainment, that the reason everyone goes to the movies is to have fun,” while Dargis scoffs at the assumption that moviegoers find that “thinking is boring.”

But, really, it’s not thinking that’s boring, but life. Ultimately, all of the aforementioned critics are taking issue with bald escapism—and O’Hehir pins down the crux of the high-versus-low divide in a few short sentences:

Sources: New York Times, New York Times Magazine, Salon 

The images are screen-stills from Hangover Part II and Meeks Crossing.