11 Aug


Some reflections on the mainstream versus the highbrow by David Foster Wallace, from his collection of non-fiction A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. I always liked his factual writing and journalism much more than his fiction. Thanks for asking, happy to set the record straight. The eponymous essay is not related to the subject of this post, but it’s also worth reading because I think it’s one of the best and most incisive things ever written about the baffling, illogical, mindless conformity of package tourism. The supposedly fun thing is a holiday on a cruise ship, which makes him wretchedly, hilariously miserable and confused.

The original context of Wallace’s discussions were mainly related to film and television, but I think the quotes are applicable to any medium including contemporary visual art. That’s why they’re here. Duh.

“Art film is essentially ideological: it tries in various ways to “wake the audience up” or render us more “conscious.” (This kind of agenda can easily degenerate into pretentiousness and self-righteousness and condescending horsetwaddle, but the agenda itself is large-hearted and fine.) Commercial film doesn’t seem like it cares very much about an audience’s instruction or enlightenment. Commercial film’s goal is to “entertain,” which usually means enabling various fantasies that allow the moviegoer to pretend he’s somebody else and that life is somehow bigger and more coherent and more compelling and attractive and in general just more entertaining than a moviegoer’s life really is. You could say that a commercial movie doesn’t try to wake people up but rather to make their sleep so comfortable and their dreams so pleasant that they will fork over money to experience it—this seduction, a fantasy-for-money transaction, is a commercial movie’s basic point.”

(Discussing David Lynch specifically, and the period between The Elephant Man and the late nineties when his art– or at least arty– films experienced something like mainstream success. Except for Dune, which was a critical and commercial disaster.)

“Some of which [Lynch’s art photos] are creepy and moody and sexy and cool and some of which are just photos of spark plugs and dental equipment and seem kind of dumb… Watching Dune again on video you can see that some of its defects are clearly Lynch’s responsibility, e.g. casting the nerdy and potato-faced Kyle MacLachlan as an epic hero and the Police’s resoundingly unthespian Sting as a psycho villain, or— worse— trying to provide plot exposition by having characters’ thoughts audibilized (w/ that slight thinking-out-loud reverb) on the soundtrack while the camera zooms in on the character making a thinking-face… The overall result is a movie that’s funny while it’s trying to be deadly serious, which is as good a definition of a flop as there is… the movie looks gutted, unintentionally surreal.”

While also nailing the main problems with Dune, Wallace articulates here what I see as the problem that also afflicts a lot of contemporary art: it too is funny while it’s trying to be deadly serious. Hence, Artbollocks Theatre.

“TV is the epitome of Low Art in its desire to appeal to and enjoy the attention of unprecedented numbers of people. But it is not Low because it is vulgar or prurient or dumb. Television is often all these things, but this is a logical function of its need to attract and please Audience. And I’m not saying that television is vulgar and dumb because the people who compose Audience are vulgar and dumb. Television is the way it is simply because people tend to be extremely similar in their vulgar and prurient and dumb interests and wildly different in their refined and aesthetic and noble interests… the truth is that there’s some complex high-dose psychic transaction between TV and Audience whereby Audience gets trained to respond to and then like and then expect trite, hackneyed, numbing television shows, and to expect them to such an extent that when networks do occasionally abandon time-tested formulas Audience usually punishes them for it by not watching novel shows in sufficient numbers to let them get off the ground.”

3 Responses to “LOW ART, FAILED ART”

  1. jccarlton 11/08/2015 at 10:06 PM #

    Reblogged this on The Arts Mechanical and commented:
    Flop is usually what happens when somebody who doesn’t understand the material twists it into something it’s not. The classic case of this is ‘Starship Troopers.”

    • Alistair 12/08/2015 at 12:46 PM #

      Starship Troopers is in no sense a good film, but I would say it’s a flop because of the reverse of Wallace’s formulation, i.e. it’s a film that’s deadly serious/not funny while it (or at least the director, Paul Verhoeven) is trying to be funny.

  2. Alistair 12/08/2015 at 1:18 PM #

    Reblogged this on Alistair Gentry.

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