Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Good art bad art

As a person of strong opinions, aye, ferocious, sometimes terrifying opinions, I have had to step back on occasion and reflect on the idea of good art vs. bad art. To wit, is there really, in the end, good art and bad art? Is there an absolute, objective evaluation anywhere to be had, as it so feels like there must be, or is every shred of greatness and love or loathing held privately, one at a time, in each individual heart?


Oh, right, I must answer my own questions here.

I don't know. Over the years I answer it one way and I answer it another, but no way sticks.

On the one hand I become certain there is some weird god somewhere who can tell me there is an absolute difference between the loathsome Berenstain Bears and Dr Seuss, Garfield and Peanuts, Dark Knight Rises and The Godfather, Thomas Kinkade and John Constable, Heaven Is For Real and, well, anything, I am beside myself with choices here. And yet for each of these clear choices there are people facing the opposite direction from me. They stand rapt at their beloved Thomas Kinkade print, they obsessively pester the children's librarians for more Garfield or Berenstain Bears while the complete collection of Peanuts remains largely undisturbed these days, upstairs, in adult non fiction. They've read Heaven Is For Real seven times, and they failed to notice that Dark Knight Rises was profoundly bad. Oops. I mean, er, they really loved that Batman movie, Dark Knight Rises. Am I just supposed to say they're wrong? Well, I mean after I say they're wrong, are they actually wrong?

Oops, I think we're sort of back where we started.

Let's try another angle. Let's talk Libraries. What fun! Libraries are very much in on this discussion. After all, a Library is constantly forced to answer some version of this question. It it the job of a public library to provide materials strictly based on popularity, are we advanced scouts for popularity (it got good reviews, so we think it will be popular), can we advocate in hopes something we think is great will be popular? Is it our responsibility to decide some things are great and keep them in disproportion to their circulation and use?

Perhaps there is an answer with the critics. The really powerful critics, the deep ones, avoid the whole good and bad thing. They take the "bad" art, and, examining it, expose all its vacuous lies, its deception and meaninglessness. With the "good" art they start pulling truth out of it like its a magic hat. After that, you're on your own.

And maybe that's as close as we can get. There are things the closer you get and the deeper you look the richer and more profound and beautiful and wonderful they get, and there are things the closer you look, the emptier they get, until, eventually, you are staring into nothing.


  1. The deliberate manipulation of vacuous stupidity is hardly nothing. Maybe a critique on propeganda?
    I adore your juxtaposition. Doesn't that fiery Kinkaid make you think of "the Shire"? Now I want to go back and re-read Clement Greenburg's essay on kitch!

  2. You might appreciate the post over at

    I don't know that the author would entirely disagree with you (or disagree at all), but he finds a certain value in kitch.


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