Three Cheers for Boring Art

| 6/9/2011 12:51:42 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:

Gary Ashcraft
6/17/2011 6:03:00 AM

A number of years ago Nora Ephron said "recreation is for people who lack imagination" as true now as when she first said it. Another wayback; about 20yrs ago Michael Medved wrote 'Hollywood VS America' which is more true today than when it was written. Hollywood creates mind candy to give them "bread & circus", and for the very same reason.

steve eatenson
6/15/2011 11:32:50 AM

I disagree that the purpose of movies is entertainment. Hello! The purpose of movies is to make tons of money for those who are already rich enough to be able to produce them. Secondarily, getting a message across to the masses might sometimes be a goal. Sadly, some of those messages are self-serving and not worth getting over. The greatest art is sitting still and looking at, smelling, tasting, hearing, feeling the creations all around us, put here by some power greater than human, ego driven, temporary little biological blobs of protoplasm that we are could ever create. Sitting still, being quiet, we become bored, and then, if we endure, we move on to greater awareness. The rich parasites who feed off the rest of us don't want us to be aware. We might see them for who they are. So they constantly feed our addictions to excitement to distract us from anything that might really matter. We, dumb as we are, buy into it.

6/15/2011 8:53:47 AM

Hi, Here's a good show: Thanks

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