Why Nerds Have Bad Taste

This is a continuation of my Better Art Vocabulary series. You don’t need to have read the others, but feel free.

I grew up encouraged to an old-school sense of taste. Not as old-school as opera and $300 bottles of wine, but as old-school as liking literature and paintings and museums for no real reason other than that I was supposed to, and thinking that other stuff was kind of…unclean. I have two peculiarly strong memories from when I was young: one was my mother saving up to take me to a DaVinci show in New York, and the other was being caught watching Pokemon–which struck about the same fear in my heart as being caught masturbating might have done. Taking me to that show was a truly beautiful thing to do, and an important youthful artistic experience, but it caused some internal conflict. Why did certain artistic things deserve sacrifice, and others shame? 

As not even teenage rebellion, but simply frustration at my own judgmentalness, I made a deliberate decision at age 15 to watch every single science fiction show I could get ahold of. I scoured forums, made a list, and went down it. Star Trek: TOS to Dark Angel. Lexx. Blake’s 7. I got a LiveJournal to post about Farscape, and I liked it. Nerdism is good for art, but more importantly good for people, because it operates at the level of pleasure. Whether the pleasure is from the work of art itself, a character, or a community, it at least produces an honest answer to the question: Do I really like this? It gives you permission to pay attention to how something makes you feel. Nerdism is also good for art because it operates at the level of obsession. The mid-00’s is when online popular art criticism really started to take off, and I benefited from writers who were obsessed enough with artworks to shamelessly, and in depth, explain why the works were actually artistically successful (or not). Which is something no one bothers to do for your high school or even college reading. At least not nearly as often as they should. Essentially, nerdism gave teenage me a roadmap for how to interact with art in a more casual, authentic, and desacralized way.

I stopped participating in fandom around the time I started college because I realized I didn’t like the source material any more, and I didn’t like the conversations I was having about it either. It increasingly seemed that while nerdism was valuable (or at the very worst, harmless) for art in general, it was often bad for artworks in particular. On the other hand, college art history classes gave me a first row seat to performative taste. And to that murky inner region where the pleasure from performing taste was satisfying enough that it was nigh-indistinguishable from genuine enjoyment (for more on this, I always recommend Peli Grietzer’s take). The questions such experiences makes me ask are these: when a work of art makes you feel good, when does it indicate that the art itself is some vaguely more objective version of ‘good art’? Good at what? Conversely: when a work of art makes you feel bad, when does it indicate that the art itself is bad?

Effectiveness

Art that is good is effective at achieving its goals. Effectiveness is a subset of skill. If an artist wants to make you feel afraid, and not only succeeds in making you afraid, but afraid in some very precise version of afraid the artist had in mind, we’d call that work effective. I find Indiana Jones better than Guardians of the Galaxy, because relative to their seemingly shared goal of engineering fun, Indiana Jones is more successful at it, at many more levels, and for more people.

People argue that the reason it’s immoral to fetishize things like race and disability, is because fetishistic admiration exists independently of the qualities a person actually possesses, making the admiration shallow and suspect. A fetish is distinct from a preference in two important ways. One: its value is symbolic. Consider: someone with a preference for missionary sex because it’s comfortable and easy, versus someone with a fetish for missionary sex because it’s so conventional. The pleasure of the latter is abstract. Two: the inclusion of a fetish alone makes an experience satisfying, all other qualities remaining the same. Consider: someone who doesn’t like ice cream sandwiches liking ice cream sandwiches when they are green, because having a green ice cream sandwich is sufficiently whimsical.

When an artist indulges their own fetishes, this can also be a failure mode, and the reason is that it produces extraneous information. When Woody Allen portrays May-December relationships, or Murakami writes a mysterious spritely ingenue, or your friend writes a Harry Potter fic except all the characters are gay, to what extent is this just the artist writing what they want to read, a choice on the level of genre, or some kind of aesthetic flaw? In theory, it’s really just the former. But in practice indulging fetish often inhibits self-examination. Moreover, it makes inhibiting self-examination feel good. Woody Allen is not gonna be looking too hard at why he loves pairing older men with much younger women, even though by now the pattern is glaringly obvious and cries out for some kind of engagement. It become something extra and random. This weakness makes his art just slightly less effective, slightly less coherent, and slightly less pleasant. On the other hand, sometimes fetish just means fascination, or sensibility, and it produces insight into something that others would not otherwise bother with. Peter Greenaway, for example, is clearly obsessed with the contradictions of beauty and decay, and he makes highly theatrical movies full of images of food, rotting, bodies, and death. His movies aren’t quite coherent or always effective either, but not because of lack of self-awareness.

When an artist appeals to an audience‘s fetishes, it is kind of like playing art on cheat mode. Appealing to an audience’s fetish will be extremely effective at producing a reaction–but only as long as everyone in the audience shares the fetish. Thank goodness Sarah Perry’s “Fungibility and the Loss of Demandingness” (an extremely good essay that you should read) showed up on Twitter yesterday, because it provides at least one answer to this piece’s title. In her essay Perry suggests that items that demand time and effort from their users are perceived as more valuable (and the people that own them are perceived as more interesting), because owning them is truly a costly signal. Describing the implications of buying and caring for a carbon steel knife, versus buying one at Bed Bath and Beyond, she writes:

“The market, exemplified by the Bed, Bath and Beyond I mentioned, removes near ‘pain’ – non-monetary costs and demandingness – and renders items legible to the purchaser without culture, knowledge, or care.”

It follows that because art that panders to fetishes demands little in the way of effort or virtuosity on the part of the people consuming or providing it, preferring or fawning over such art indicates a “lack of taste.”

While reading Infinite Jest might have once been a costly signal, choosing to read Infinite Jest is no longer a decision that requires connoisseurship to make, at least within certain circles. Which diminishes its value. This suggests that just because some things are hard to do–and reading a long book remains hard, even when deciding which long book does not–doesn’t mean that the people that do the things have good taste. Just because you didn’t like reading Shakespeare, it does not mean that Shakespeare is good. Though it doesn’t mean Shakespeare is bad either. 

I won’t say much about the ‘sublime’ reaction to art, as this deserves its own post. However, I’m aware that one of the reasons DaVinci is higher in status than Pokemon is not ‘merely’ for social reasons, but because DaVinci supposedly induces some higher order of experience.  Not merely effectiveness or nutrition, but beauty. I am careful about talking about ‘sublime’ experiences, because they have much in common with spiritual experiences, in that it’s unclear how much they have been provoked by something external to the person having the experience (whether the provocation is God existing, or an artwork being good).

Nutrition

Still, in theory some kinds of effort are good for you, and some kinds aren’t. Some kinds of laziness are bad for you and some kinds aren’t. ‘Taste’ can be an upsetting concept because it suggests that one should feel shame at one’s own pleasure, only the rules are opaque and if you weren’t born understanding them, you never will.

I like the word nutrition because it’s neutral. People who like the tastes of different foods can usually agree on what’s nutritious. The idea that the best food tastes good and is good for you is, to me, comfortingly non-controversial. Unfortunately, what counts as art that’s good for you, is.

My friend Gabriel Duquette says that what the meaning-making, argumentative, understanding-the-world part of art does is “improve our intuitions about reality.” Art can accomplish this a lot of different ways. One of the ways is compression, or mapmaking, which I’ve talked about before. Compression is what happens when you try to impart information of a certain quantity and complexity in a smaller amount of space, like a caricature. Another way is charting territory, or coming up with ideas that never existed before. For example, and this is a terrible summation, one could say the Cubist style compresses the experience of looking at someone, or unsettlement, but it also helped create the idea that abstraction did not necessitate a loss of information. And in fact provided new kinds of information. Imagine seeing a Picasso for the first time having only seen realistic or religious paintings in your life, and imagine the stretching your mind would have to do to accommodate it.

People are drawn into a strange Twinkie/Broccoli dichotomy when it comes to art. Where if I say that a movie that people like is bad, I must be suggesting that they go read Ivanhoe instead (is Ivanhoe good?). On the other hand, some people think that making something hard to read or filling it with fashionable morals will make it good for you. As if the only way to eat brussels sprouts is boiled. What nutrition really feels like, in art, is that Picasso feeling of stretching. Nutrition feels like something rewarding your attention on multiple levels. Monty Python is nutritious because its manner of funniness is so complete. It is surprising, intelligent, always complicating itself, and causes you to make strange, mind-stretching leaps. These aspects don’t make it less funny, they make it more funny. They make you enjoy the funniness more. Go watch a sketch, like “Self Defense Against Fresh Fruit” and pay attention every time it switches ideas. It starts out being funny just from seeing John Cleese do military bluster accurately, and seeing the others do middle-class haplessness accurately. Then you find out members of the class are missing. Why? “Perhaps they’ve got flu.” Every line of Python has some unexpectedly perfect phrasing like that. Then you find out the class is to defend against fresh fruit (where did that association come from). Then the sergeant announces the dangers of fresh fruit (is he serious, is he not?). Then just as that’s about to get tiresome, he defends himself by shooting a student. Then by dropping a 16-ton anvil on another. When the sketch runs out of escalation, it ends.

Or read some of Jack Handy’s Deep Thoughts, or @dril’s tweets and think about why they’re funnier than SNL’s latest impression of a celebrity. The former give you the feeling of finding two puzzle pieces at opposite sides of a room and putting them together. Once you’ve found them, you want to keep taking the two pieces apart and putting them back together just because it’s so delightful.

When the stretching that nutritious artwork does is not pleasant, it’s usually because the artwork is confronting a cognitive dissonance. It’s understandable that one might not like The Piano Teacher, because European ‘psychosexual drama’ (as every movie review is required to call it) can be an acquired taste, but not because it’s giving you bad intuitions about reality. If you wanted to fetishize feminism, you’d make a female Ghostbusters, and if you wanted to fetishize BDSM (ironic!) you’d make 50 Shades of Gray. Because The Piano Teacher is neither it tells me something real about a particularly female psychology, even if it’s not a pleasant real thing. There is something inherently respectful about reality. 

I never feel apocalyptic about much with regards to art. Nothing bad happens to art, in the long term, if people like Frozen. When it comes to nutrition in art, the question is not whether you should read War and Peace instead of Harry Potter. But whether, if you’re choosing between Harry Potter and a worse YA book, you’d grudgingly conclude that you’d prefer a world where all of the options were at least as satisfying as Harry Potter. If you’re not equipped to absorb whatever nutrients Shakespeare has to offer, the nutritional model suggests you should consume artworks whose nutrients you can absorb. People are going to react to art however they like. While it’s true that not everyone can parse the difference between Monty Python and SNL, and might enjoy them both, or might like Monty Python for a ‘wrong’ reason, a consumer can enjoy the effects of art being good without understanding how the effects are created. Just because people find a drug store cookie fine doesn’t mean they wouldn’t find a fresh baked cookie better.

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About Haley Thurston

Haley Thurston is a resident blogger. In her posts, she explores what it would mean for us to move away from a self-reflexive, tvtropes understanding of how art works to something more fundamental. You can find out more about her on her website.

Comments

  1. Interesting post.

    I can’t help feel though that multiple functions of art are being mixed together.

    Art in and of itself is in the realm of the individual: an individual artist expresses something and an individual viewer responds to it. In this frame, “better” art is a richer, fuller communication between individuals.

    But since pretty much anything humans do also get turned into tribal symbols and status markers, you also get art that is “better for you” because it marks you as belonging to a tribe ( Star Trek for nerds, opera for “cultured people”, etc.), or because it signals a status achievement ( having read Infinite Jest, in some circles, etc.).

    You seem to touch on all three kinds of “better” without distinguishing them. Or do you really think they are all the same?

    • Not sure if this totally answers your question, but let know:

      I’m interested in distinguishing between what concepts about art are socially constructed or subjective, and which are more objective or consistent. So, status, tribalism, fetishism and the individual reaction all get grouped in the category of “not consistent, therefore not something I can use.” There are lots of way that art can be good for people, and lots of reasons that people can think that an artwork is good that don’t…I don’t want to say have *nothing* to do with whether an artwork is good, but it’s more like the goodness influences the reasons, rather than actually is the reason. So I’m less interested in taxonomizing cognitive biases than using them as a jumping off point to figure out what the unbiased thing might be.

      • To give this discussion focus, it might be useful to have an example of a work of art that is lauded for “socially constructed or subjective” reasons and to have an example of a work of art that is lauded for reasons that are “more objective or consistent”. If you can provide these as a reference for developing this idea further, I promise not to play now-I’ve-got-you-you-son-of-a-bitch with you, and I promise to try to make useful observations about them.

        • I get antsy spending time on the ‘socially constructed or subjective’ thing, just because there’s a tendency there to malinger playing ‘gotcha’ about it in a masturbatory way, instead of moving on to the latter thing, which is more interesting to me. To make my biases clear.

          That said, my response at the bottom of this post might be helpful: http://thesublemon.tumblr.com/post/128867603552/wish-it-were-true-itis

          To sum it up: the most common critical failure mode I see is ‘symbolic thinking,’ where ‘Frozen’ or ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ or ‘Mad Max’ or Christopher Nolan’s latest (well, less so now) have praise heaped upon them because the artwork is doing something that’s a win for some kind of team, whether the team is ‘feminism’ or something that sounds more arty like ‘soaring emotions’ or ‘action + funny jokes.’ Like I remember tumblr fell in love with ‘Frozen’ because it was a kids movie that somewhat said something about depression….when a movie having those characteristics might be special to those people but it doesn’t say anything about its artistic merit. The category of ‘high art’ is also an easy target for accusations of being socially constructed, insofar as ‘high’ is supposed to map to ‘good’ and not ‘art that is high class.’

          Things I think are good get praise too, like say ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ or ‘Lolita’ but that doesn’t mean the praise for those is for the right reasons either. Criticism of art that talks about it in terms like those I’ve outlined in this series so far (compression, bandwidth, coherence, effect, effectiveness, nutrition) are the ones I find more correct, which is why I’ve outlined them.

      • You might be interested in the ideas of Gurdjieff on the concept of “objective art” .

        I’m less convinced than he was that such a thing exists without qualification, but I agree with him on the criteria for what it would look like: objective art would affect all who perceived it in the same way, or at least in a predictable way based on objective criteria about the perceiver.

        My experience is that all art forms and traditions require some acculturation to appreciate, but once you have such an acculturation there may be a consensus as to which pieces are more or less good within that form or tradition. (This can be independent of whether everyone LIKES the piece or not, which is inherently subjective…)

        “Socially constructed” and “subjective” are slippery terms at the best of times, since they suggest that everything is arbitrary. Finer taxonomies of the factors that lead to an individual judgement often allow a more objective assessment, i.e. given factors X, Y, Z, artwork A is considered (or much more likely to be considered) a better work of art than artwork B.

  2. What art blogs/sites do you recommend?

    • I don’t really read any, honestly, but my friend Gabriel Duquette made this great list of pieces which includes most things I’d recommend off the top of my head:

      https://docs.google.com/document/d/1KDcxw9v9A16EAFJU86lYkc3WH-Z5iugFt0dTog41e8Y/edit?usp=sharing

      this essay is also fun:
      http://www.canopycanopycanopy.com/contents/international_art_english

      • Chris Johnson says:

        I was going to recommend another article on canopy^3 that pairs nicely with this essay: http://www.canopycanopycanopy.com/contents/anonymity_as_culture__treatise

        What Auerbach identifies as “otaku” culture — when the “obsessive, fanlike interests in geeky things like video games, anime and manga, computers, comic books, science fiction […] are such that they become a distraction from “real life.”” — describes a category of aesthetic experience at least partially unexplained by performative taste. My take is that nerdy interests produce a response similar to the intrinsic pleasure of (say) solving logic puzzles; highly concentrated cerebral activity, now aided by a slew of hyper-stimulative technologies like moving pictures, interactive games, etc. Consider a movie like Primer, whose chief value (among other merits) is its sheer mindfuck-producing convolution, creating a fun game of interpretation among participants. Or an anime like Death Note, whose primary drama consists of an intricate logic battle between its two hyper-rational protagonists.

        The “effectiveness” of these experiences are determined by how well they provoke this sort of cognitive stimulation. Other works of art outside of cerebral genres can provide this as well, depending on the individual’s ability to construct convincing interpretations of the work, how it was crafted, etc. [1] A piece’s overall effectiveness along this dimension is its ability to support a wide variety of deep responses for a diverse audience.

        You could say this subset of aesthetics isn’t “nutritious” in the sense that it doesn’t need to operation in an emotionally, thematically, or narratively fulfilling way. But it’s at least defines one dimension of goodness in a manner that is relatively objective and internally credible to its consumers. It also makes it easy to detect in nerdy subcultures when democratizing forces dilute the purity of nerdy experience by injecting less-dimensional narratives and agendized emotional engagement, but that’s a larger conversation.

        [1] Film Crit Hulk has a great essay about the 4 layers of how we consume media. Layers 3 and 4 can easily induce cognitive enjoyment for most types of art. http://ckjohnson7.tumblr.com/post/128882668482/film-crit-hulks-four-groups-of-media-consumers

  3. Not as old-school as opera and $300 bottles of wine…

    I would try it if you can afford it. But I sense this isn’t only about price but one
    wants to be up-to-date, join all the the conversations about the latest media items and
    more generally live the life of a well informed digital-hipster. It doesn’t make much sense to
    be upper class if one is the single instance of it, which is also why class is fate.

    They were offered the choice between becoming kings or the couriers of kings. The way children would, they all wanted to be couriers. Therefore there are only couriers who hurry about the world, shouting to each other–since there are no kings–messages that have become meaningless. They would like to put an end to this miserable life of theirs but they dare not because of their oaths of service. ( Franz Kafka )

  4. Do you have an idea about how camp and other ironic forms of art consumption map to the taste-as-nutrition analogy? Enjoying Star Trek TOS or the old Japanese Godzillas unironically is bad taste. Enjoying them as unintended camp is good taste. Here the difference is clearly on the side of the person doing the consumption rather than in the food.

    How does your model account essentially for subjective posture turning twinkies into broccoli?

    Susan Sontag’s model of camp as “failed seriousness” combined with your effectiveness theory would make the viewer the creator of the nutrition in that case. Semi-home-made basically.

    Also, your opening reminded me of the scene in Dead Poets Society where Robin Williams makes his students tear up the introduction to the textbook by “J Evans Pritchard” where the textbook authors proclaims that quality of poetry is about how worthy is the goal of the poem and how well does the poem achieve that goal. I think you almost went into that territory, but stopped short and pulled back :)

    • For me enjoying something as unintentionally camp is, if not an acceptable guilty pleasure, kind of bad taste. Given that camp has a long history and does in fact have a specific mechanism for delivering incredible artistic critique (see for a popular example, Planet Terror), this just makes unintended camp a bit shallow by comparison. Although to people who don’t understand camp of course they find it hard to tell the difference…which ties back into this article some what since I feel that often these disagreements become a false dichotomy whereby one person is arguing from an enlightened position on the merits of the artwork, and the other person is arguing from the false position (straw man) that the first person only enjoys the “good” camp because of the “guilty pleasure” aspects.

  5. Great post. It resonates so much with my own model of art. Art is a form of communication. And good communication is good informational density. What great art achieves is compression of information.

    Also the good information is Truth by definition. (the Not Truth is falsities/distortions – chaos). That is why many books/movies we liked when young lose their luster when we older – we intuitively spot the irregularities even if most audience can’t quite quantify them

  6. Hey, stumbled upon this on twitter while wasting time online (the true junk food of media)! This was thoughtful, and reminds me of my own time in high school when I’d review and analyze shows on the long dead tvtome, and how that probably did more than anything in school in helping me learn to engage and critically appreciate media. And frankly probably helped me with a whole lot of other things too. Following.

    A bit of a tangent but I think it’s impossible to escape the subjective – or at least the intersubjective – when discussing any media’s effectiveness, because even media that’s effective in conveying its desired and specific emotion at one point and time is often making specific assumptions about its audience, as well as specific assumptions in regard to how the piece of media is appreciated. For example, with Shakespeare the context of how his plays are appreciated are starkly different now from way back in his day. His writing – especially for high schoolers – often feels like a translation effort understanding his now archaic English. And the context of how its presented is different too. Whether you’re seeing an actual play, a movie, or just reading the text out loud in class, all of them are a different experience than being in the globe theater’s pit watching men and boys play Romeo and Juliet. Whether good or bad, nutritious or not, whatever is good and nutritious about Shakespeare now means something different I think than what was good and nutritious about him then.

  7. Nice article. I agree mostly with what you’re saying. I get the feeling this can apply to a lot of “art” like comic books as well, which is often only art in the sense that it appears artistic, but is usually so generic and obvious that the “message”, to me, tends to be trite and pointless. I’d much rather the likes of Lars Von Trier (for example) or music like Pink Floyd.

    I think there is an element of miscommunication though. Like when people often say they “don’t like Pink Floyd” what they mean subjectively is that it makes them feel sad (which is the intended consequence). By your definition this means that it is successful art, however we often get caught up on arguing others by their direct interpretation of their words. On the other hand I like to say “this is rubbish”, with the intention that I think it is artistically vapid, although others assume I mean that it’s completely void of worth. Sometimes it’s nice to get someones hackles up though. This is a kind of performance art in itself. :D

  8. Im tempted to try to sum it up like this: some pleasures are richer and deeper than others. One should probably preferentially consume those richer and deeper pleasures because otherwise one starts resembling a stimulus-response automaton.

  9. Extending my comment above: One of the reasons that the analogy with nutrition is so apt is that while there is something entirely natural and spontaneous about enjoying and preferring nutritional food (or even more precisely, the foods that meets one’s particular nutritional needs), there are also a number of things that can hijack that sense of pleasure and take you onto a path of nutritional deficiency (lots of sugar and salt, mostly, although there are probably a bunch of higher-tech ingredients which have the same purpose). Thus one has to be on-guard against this and cultivate a discernment about which pleasure signals one is receiving. Likewise with art, getting prodded with one’s particular fetish, or looking good because one is into the “right” things, and so on, these are like sugar and salt.