The cunning of bad art

by Rob Horning

5 October 2005


Here’s yet another link to a Slate article, this one a conversation between the New York Times art critic and Steven Metcalf, a regular Slate writer. Asked about his gallery-going, Metcalf writes, “If I avoid galleries and museums, it’s because the cunning of bad art only redoubles our own boredom with ourselves back on ourselves, while making us feel excluded. No amount of air-conditioning and people-watching can make up for that.”
Not only is that eloquently phrased, but it’s exactly how I feel about contemporary music, which is redolent with the “cunning of bad art.” That phrase perfectly captures that sensation that a lot of energy is being wasted trying to trick you into thinking some band is doing something important and original—the facile cleverness, the oblique snobbery, the fallback on commercial tropes of “youth” and “energy” and “cool”—well honed by marketers and immediately palpable to any audience—to compensate for the lack of any insight. And the feeling I have at the few shows I bother to attend anymore, wondering if the crowd really likes what they are hearing or if they are even paying attention and are instead making the scene and “people-watching.” And all of this does indeed make me more aware of my boredom with myself, seeming to constrict the possibilities of my life, curtailing them by justifying every cynical instinct I have. Perhaps this boredom is ideally transformed into a restlessness, a critical frame of mind, and that the boredom provides a necessary backdrop to appreciate those things that truly reward our attention, to make them stand out with the appropriate amount of contrast. What an astonishing sense of relief one has to discover that some band doesn’t suck, or that some artist is calculating not how to impress and dazzle you and be immediately accessible but how to push further toward articulating some notion that can find no expression in any other way but what they are struggling to make. As an observer, to be able to sense those difficulties, retrace the questions and choices the artist must have faced, is exhilarating. But when the choices you percieve reveal only that cunning, that marketer’s sensibility, it’s crushing, alienating. It makes one feel liike an elitist, and that’s a lonely feeling.

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