How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Appreciate Bad Art
If I had a dollar for every Twilight book I saw on my college campus, I would be able to pay off my student loans. With the release of the movies, Robert Pattinson’s leer and Kristen Stewart’s vacant smile followed me everywhere, as female friends breathlessly asked me if I’d read it yet and what chapter I was on. I half expected “Team Edward or Team Jacob?” to be a job interview question — and definitely a make-it-or-break-it one. My roommate was transfixed by the books’ premise, which is that vampires, who are unchanging, can never fall out of love with their beloved.
It’s not surprising that a teen vampire love story took over pop culture. It wasn’t even the first time it had happened: As Buffy said in the Season 8 comics, “I did it first.” It may have been the first time that a book that used the word “murmured” every other page was a best-seller. In fact, the writing was as dry as a vampire’s victim, the characters two-dimensional, and the plot paper-thin until it got too thick to chew. And let’s not even get started on the glorification of stalking and the vaguely rapey love scene.
Naturally, everyone who was cultured and educated, or so they claimed, despised the books and movies and called them trash, an assessment I think is slightly unfair when we consider that some books and movies are created to be trash. Which begs an interesting question: Where is the line between trash and art? Does intention matter? Then, we must wonder, What do we do with the trash if it was created as art?
As I wrote recently, snobbery is a killer of creativity and a hallmark of entitlement. When we insist that other people kowtow to our narrow standards and accept that only our tastes are “correct,” we’re not being enlightened consumers of culture. We’re being snobs.
Someone responded to that story and complained about the “rampant it’s-all-good-ism” that he alleged I was supporting by calling out the snobs. However, there is a world of difference between being a snob and deeming something to be “not good.” As I wrote in my response, I jokingly call myself a “beer snob,” but I am not going to insist that other people not drink IPAs. In fact, actual beer snobs insist that people who drink IPAs are not “real beer fans.” That’s gatekeeping, a form of snobbery.
However, that respondent raised an important topic: What do we do about art and culture in a society where we’re increasingly praising creativity over measurable skill or objective success? By insisting that people not be snobs, are we preventing them from ever critiquing others’ work? Are we all a bunch of snowflakes?
I believe that lower barriers to becoming an artist and the ability to share your art through avenues you create are boons to creativity, not detriments to art in general. Here’s why:
The Difference Between Amateurs and Professionals
In a world where creativity has been largely democratized and even mediocre work gets seen by thousands, even millions of people, how do we set standards for good art? Are we hurting artists who have trained and practiced for years, only to struggle their entire careers while another Autotuned teen makes it big on YouTube?
First of all, success is an elusive and relative thing. Just as you should never pin success entirely on someone’s talent, you should never underestimate the combined power of marketing and networking. Those who make it big have learned how to play the game. The best singer in the world who uploads a single video to YouTube singing “Never Enough” still isn’t going to become famous overnight if she doesn’t market herself.
Second, there is a difference between an amateur and a professional. That may sound obvious, but the difference isn’t just in whether or not they’re paid. Amateurs may be paid for their work even if they have no formal training in the art form. If their art is marketable, they shouldn’t be denied money for it. (Exposure doesn’t pay the bills!)
Professionals, however, go through traditional channels of training, apprenticeship, residency, and so on. They’re creating their work as part of a strategic career push. Because they tend to gain access to exclusive galleries, troupes, or publications, their art is much more well-regarded.
However, both amateurs and professionals are capable of producing great — or shitty — works of art. They might have to take different routes to get their work seen, but their art should be judged by the same standards. And yes, there are objective standards to art.
Standards and Taste
In general, the more technical an art form, the more difficult it is to get recognition for less skilled work. Any artwork, whether it’s an oil painting, a piece of choreography, or an essay, rely upon proper technique to function. Both amateurs and professionals are capable of producing shitty work, make no mistake.
Those are standards. Amateurs can slide on this a bit, because they’re usually self-taught or have taken classes in a casual way. Professionals are more strictly held to these standards by their colleagues.
The best singer in the world who uploads a single video to YouTube singing “Never Enough” still isn’t going to become famous overnight if she doesn’t market herself.
Don’t confuse standards with taste, which is entirely arbitrary and has no right or wrong answer. If you’ve ever wondered how on earth abstract art can summon millions of dollars, you’re entitled to your opinion — but you must remember that your tastes don’t dictate others’ behavior.
Perhaps, you disagree with my opinions. However, you have to admit that this article meets the technical demands of its art form: It has proper grammar and spelling and a valid argument structure. If this article is not to your taste, that doesn’t mean that it’s not good. Unfortunately, many people using “not good” as code for “I don’t personally like it.”
The Commodification of Art
Is it “selling out” to create art for commercial purposes? From my time in community theatre, I’ve encountered the unfortunate attitude that if you want compensation for your artistic efforts, you “must not really love it.” I’ve heard many people scoff at the work of celebrity artists and exclusively consume the work of indie creators, because “they’re the real artists.” I’ve had friends who stopped listening to bands once they signed to a label, because “they sold out.”
It’s a terribly dangerous idea to characterize working artists as “sell outs” or “greedy.” Despite what some politicians and talking heads insist, arts majors can indeed have a lucrative career, and artists hold well-paying jobs in a range of industries. The act of mocking artists who want to be compensated for their work seems to insist that all creators immediately return to their starving-artist stereotype and forgo any riches they might earn.
It’s also fallacious to assert that celebrity status is mutually exclusive with talent or skills. Bizarrely, I hear people bemoaning the budget cuts to children’s art classes or calling out politicians for saying art careers aren’t lucrative, then a moment later, asserting that Katy Perry isn’t a “real artist” because she’s a wealthy pop star. Remember what I said about taste? You can dislike Perry’s music, but you can’t really say that she’s not an artist. And the woman does have some pipes.
Unfortunately, many people using “not good” as code for “I don’t personally like it.”
The Creation of Trash
All that said, the ultimate question is what to do with the trash. I don’t believe Stephenie Meyer ever intended to create a work of “great art.” She wanted to produce something that would be devoured (pun intended) and PG-smutty. She succeeded, to the chagrin of Good Writers™ everywhere.
The tradition of creating trash, or “low-brow culture,” is nothing new. From the B movies of decades past to the glut of reality TV shows to the pulp fiction novels that were literally printed on crappy paper, there have always been creative works that deliberately rejected the obscenely high “standards” (that is, “tastes”) of the elite. (Yes, the snobs.)
Ultimately, being a snob is a form of performance art. Do you really like Citizen Kane? It’s objectively an exquisite film, the best of the 20th century according to many experts. But do you like it? It’s okay if you don’t, because your tastes. and artistic standards. are not the same thing. Yet if you parade around your copy of Citizen Kane as proof that you’re “sophisticated,” you’re just being an insufferable snob.
I read as much of the Twilight series as I could. I eventually lost the energy to navigate the plot, which was both dense and scattered, and I never really cared about the characters. As a writer, I would characterize the Twilight series as Not Good. That said, I do appreciate Meyer’s creative world-building and particularly her construal of the werewolves as being fatally tied to the vampires. However, the books are not my taste.
I understand their popularity, though. As an anthropologist, I’m always looking for social trends and cultural constructs, and I see what the popular books, movies, TV shows, and songs tap into. Creators have the immense power to play with the prevailing winds of human thoughts. Twilight tapped into a deep-seated need that a lot of people felt in a post-9/11 world: a need to have eternal love, to have someone fight for them, to regard a higher order that explain the randomness of the universe. Fantasy novels provide that, even if they’re a little smutty.
I often wondered if Meyer was surprised by the books’ success. Did she think that she wasn’t good enough to make it big? We’ll never know, but we also shouldn’t despair about the downfall of Western civilization or “rampant it’s-all-good-ism” because a bunch of mediocre books were popular. Artists who know their own worth and potential don’t worry about others’ success. They focus on their own journey toward creating something great…perhaps even a masterpiece.