Thursday, June 09, 2011 12:51 PM
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:
As a viewer whose default mode of interaction with images has consisted, for as long as I can remember, of intense, rapid-fire decoding of text, subtext, metatext and hypertext, I’ve long had a queasy fascination with slow-moving, meditative drama. Those are the kinds of films dearly loved by the writers, thinkers and friends I most respect, so I, too, seek them out; I usually doze lightly through them; and I often feel moved, if sleepy, afterward. But am I actually moved? Or am I responding to the rhythms of emotionally affecting cinema? Am I laughing because I get the jokes or because I know what jokes sound like?
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:
I think what gets critics all het up about contemporary culture from time to time is the sense that the tyranny or hegemony of entertainment has pushed boredom so far into the margins that it’s no longer available, or at least not in the density or quality required to produce cultural revolutions. What we have instead is the meta-boredom of a pop culture that’s all bells and whistles all the time, can’t be switched off and watches us while we’re watching it, rather too much like the telescreens of Orwell’s 1984.
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:
What remains of aristocratic high culture in the art-house tradition really does embody some of the finest aesthetic values of the post-Renaissance West, but it can also be a masochistic and exclusionary ritual, like Odysseus tied to the mast and listening to the Sirens sing. What is boring? A lot of human life is boring, and we’ve all got to pick our poison. Most people, most of the time, prefer to be distracted from the boredom of everyday life with movies that labor to entertain them—and they may get understandably pissed off at those of us who claim that those things, too, are boring.
Sources: New York Times, New York Times Magazine, Salon
The images are screen-stills from Hangover Part II and Meek’s Crossing.
Monday, March 22, 2010 3:25 PM
In “The Shrine Down the Hall,” a photo essay for the New York Times Magazine, Ashley Gilbertson takes us inside the bedrooms of young Americans killed in the Iraq War. According to the Brookings Institution, almost 4,400 U.S. soldiers have died since 2003. Some 9,400 Iraqi military and police have perished, as well as 108,000 Iraqi civilians. Gilbertson is the author of Whisky Tango Foxtrot and “The Life and Lonely Death of Noah Pierce,” an essay from Virginia Quarterly Review that we had the good fortune to reprint in our March-April 2009 issue.
Sources: New York Times Magazine, Brookings Institution (pdf), Virginia Quarterly Review
Monday, September 15, 2008 2:05 PM
Fact checkers have been all over John McCain lately, exposing a bevy of fibs, half-truths, and straight-up lies emanating from his campaign. Even Karl Rove, the king of political dirty tricks, scolded the campaign (and Obama’s) this weekend for going too far. But McCain’s troops have paid their critics little attention.
Why? Because lying works, according to Farhad Manjoo, writing for Slate. Manjoo calls facts “a stock of faltering value.” He says the increasingly fragmented media landscape “lets us consume news that we like and avoid news that we don’t, leading people to perceive reality in a way that conforms to their long-held beliefs.”
Blogging for the Nation, Ari Berman looks back at a 2004 Ron Suskind piece from the New York Times Magazine that noted the irrelevance of facts in the Bush administration:
The aide said that guys like me were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.''
The McCain camp seems to agree. Berman quotes the campaign’s response to stories about their truth-stretching: “We recognize it's not going to be 2000 again. But he lost then. We're running a campaign to win. And we're not too concerned about what the media filter tries to say about it.”
Andrew Sullivan, for one, doesn’t think it will work. From his blog:
Reading the "press" in this surreal climate right now, one is tempted to despair. I'm not giving in to it, because I still believe that the actual truth matters in the world. If propaganda could win in the end against truth, then Bush's approval ratings would be somewhere in the high 80s. They are in the lower 30s. In the end, the American people are not fools. And facts are facts.…
…We cannot control these despicable liars in the McCain campaign. We can only tell the truth as fearlessly and as relentlessly and as continuously as we can until November 4. We must do our duty. And if the American people want to re-elect the machine that has helped destroy this country's national security, global reputation and economic health, then that is their choice. But I am not so depressed to think that they will.
Image by RiverBissonnette.
Tuesday, May 27, 2008 10:29 AM
Those with their fingers (cursors? browsers? aggregators?) on the pulse of the blogosphere, along with regular readers of the New York Times Magazine, are by now probably familiar with—if not already tired of—the online fracas surrounding Emily Gould’s 8,000-word cover story about her meteoric rise to celebrity as a blogger and the complete erasure of whatever boundaries might have once existed between her public and private lives. Whatever your opinion of Gould, her piece, or the entities (ex-boyfriends, former employers, herself) she alternately skewers and exonerates, the piece and resulting online meta-noise illuminate some interesting points about online culture, the current media landscape, and the millennial generation’s tendency to overshare. But if you’re one of those rare souls who have more important things to do than read blogs all day and just need a (relatively) quick gloss, the Huffington Post provides a comprehensive link dump regarding the whole sordid, incestuous affair, while the Columbia Journalism Review offers a concise and cogent analysis that might, if we're lucky, serve as the last word on the brouhaha.
Wednesday, January 09, 2008 4:34 PM
Anyone who’s cracked open a supposedly groundbreaking graphic novel in recent years and found themselves bored silly by panel after nearly identical panel depicting an endless parade of young-adult ennui: You’ve got an ally in Ted Rall. In a recent commentary, Rall hauls Chris Ware, Daniel Clowes, and other darlings of the art-comics world to the woodshed in an acerbic takedown. Describing how the New York Times’ foray into art comics, The Funny Pages literary supplement to the New York Times Magazine, has been a flop, Rall summarizes Ware’s serialized work “Building Stories” thusly:
“Anticipation yielded to disappointment as Ware, in his typically mannered and obtuse style, rendered the paint-drying anti-drama of a dowdy middle-aged, one-legged . . . spinster wallowing in self-inflicted depression in a hundred thousand earth-toned squares. Unless you count phony, plot-less, generalized angst, nothing happened in ‘Building Stories.’ Ever.”
Ouch. As a syndicated editorial cartoonist himself who is unabashedly topical and political, Rall is of course wide open to the charge that he just doesn’t get it, that his hit-you-over-the-head style is itself flawed and unfunny, or that he’s simply swinging back after the art-comic tastemakers at Comics Journal called him an “utterly worthless political cartoonist.” But at its core Rall’s critique must sting because there’s a bit of truth to it. “When a reader doesn’t understand a cartoon, it isn’t because he is stupid,” he writes. “It is because the cartoonist has failed.”
Now that’s something for a comic artist to be depressed about—and to turn into a novel, of course.
Image from the New York Times, by Daniel Clowes.
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