Three Cheers for Boring Art

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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 Meeks Crossing.

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