Why we love bad television and movies

There seems to be an idea that people love bad movies and television because it is somehow a “fun” activity, an indulgence in a so-called guilty pleasure that isn’t meant to be taken seriously. There is, however, an interesting psychological component when it comes to why, considering the Internet provides so many measurably superior options, people still gravitate towards bad art in 2013 .

In an era where you can theoretically share any idea, response, joke, or insight of yours with millions of strangers—and especially in an era when those ideas, responses, etc. can be monetized—reactions have importance, and nothing sparks more reactions—from biting criticism to parodical “deep analysis”—than bad art.

People don’t like bad television/bad movies because to do so is somehow ironically funny or camp, but because we live in a society that reinforces the notion that viewers’ responses are supreme over the art itself. Bad art inspires reactionary art, reaction as an art form, because of an I-could-do-better/-be-funnier impulse in the viewer, yet the intrinsic hollowness of this attitude and the reactionary art produced under it often go unexamined.

This isn’t to say that aesthetic value judgments don’t take place in a reactionary culture—think Rebecca Black’s panned video “Friday”—but rather that something being ultimately loved or derided isn’t what’s critical—the conversation is. Of course, there is not much of an actual conversation that can take place on something as vast as the Internet, but the concept of conversation can be easily approximated thanks to the prevalence of reactions. These reactions can be as small as an advice animal macro or as large as a full-blown parody video, but the important thing is that a single piece of art, however good or bad, can be expanded/expounded upon a seemingly infinite amount of times. The conversation in sum dwarfs the original piece of art.

In a culture that functions this way, bad art has the paradoxical ability to spawn good art or at least art that is more “entertaining”—though not necessarily deeper—than said original piece of bad art. There are innumerable brilliant and humorous analyses on the Internet that take pulpy, bottom-rung television shows as their subject. The joke isn’t, “Oh, isn’t it oh-so-clever that I’m pretending to critically pick apart this poorly or lazily made piece of art?” bur rather, more egotistically, “What I am creating in reaction to this piece of art may indeed be more entertaining than the original art.” To devote mental energy and creative output to a subject like Sharknado isn’t a postmodern act of blurring the lines between high and low art. It’s a marketing gimmick. It’s salesmanship. It’s putting up your artistic project (say, a screed about why Sharknado the worst movie of all time) versus another artistic project (the original movie) in direct comparison and asking viewer which of the two he or she really finds more entertaining.

A movie like Sharknado’s purpose, then, is that of creative catalyst, and in the Internet Age creative catalysts are of the utmost value. Reaction is viable content, able of being monetized. Bad art produces the most reaction because not only is it an “easy target,” but because there is a genuine sense that something produced in reaction will top the original thing itself. Nothing empowers the viewer more than bad art—there’s no feeling of intellectually and artistic superiority quite like “I could do that better!”—and the Internet Age gives said viewer the ability to go on the ‘Net and produce something of perceived and/or quantifiable value based on responding to the galvanizing bad art. Bad art is given a purpose.

This, of course, does not encourage bad art to be created, but it does create a cultural thirst for bad art. The act of sitting around and watching something schlocky and B-grade, throwing out jibes or free-associative hypotheses about the risible material, isn’t new (think Mystery Science Theater 3000), but the Internet has created a new and powerful vector by which the simple act of response has a worth, a cultural weight, an ability to be turned into page-clicks/dollars, an accepted artistic quality in and of itself. The Internet by no means invented experiencing art ironically, but it did help turn that ironic experience, the culture of reaction, into an industry.

The temptation at this point is to see the situation as a survival-of-the-fittest hall of mirrors, where all reactions to art and all reactions to those reactions (this piece?) are on technically equal playing field so are all playing the same game, really. If all the competition is towards the same number of possible views, isn’t everything fair game? If all art is justifiable via views, do distinctions between “good” and “bad” become irrelevant and pretentious? Yet this is a short hop from a complete disregard for any aesthetic considerations: SEO versus creativity, the numbers speaking for themselves. Herein lies the evil trick: not only are reactions to bad art not only made in hope of being seen as superior to the item being commented on, but they are simultaneously creating an environment where they themselves have no value beyond purely quantified attention, thereby negating all necessity of creating piece of quality response-art in the first place. Would you prefer 2,000 views for ten paragraphs or 55,000 views for 300 words and twelve GIFs? It’s a race-to-the-bottom system where you can always be undercut. Reactionary art can be undermined by similar reactionary art that panders more effectively.

Bad art, then, presents tantalizing yet tenuous opportunities. It’s cutthroat economics in an art world built on reactions, and bad art provides an opening that seemingly anyone could capitalize on with the right talent/breaks. “I see people writing thought-provoking things—or even nonthought-provoking things—about crappy pop culture for a living and I could totally do that,” is the thinking: any commentary on any “viral” topic may well go “viral” itself. While there is nothing wrong with a creative impulse or feeling inspiration, there is something misguided about continuing to build a culture were the main aesthetic is reaction and not original creation. Bad art is not inspiring, and we like it precisely because it is not inspiring; it’s saccharine, HFCS addictive. Great art is said to truly move people in grand ways, so it makes a sick logical sense that we should be drawn towards art that only nudges us. There’s comfort; there’s no challenge.Viewers of bad art aren’t moved; they do the moving and have the illusion of agency. Bad art gives us permission to react, to devote energy to the accepted artistic pursuit of viewer response, but there is no uplifting, no enlightening. The sea expands at the shores but doesn’t become any deeper.

Perhaps it is too far to say bad art is fetishized, but our relationship to it is certainly narcotized. I’m not above this; I’ve watched weeks of First Take, the oft-ridiculed ESPN morning talk show, just to have material for jokes. Those are hours I will never have back; what’s the justification? It is scary, thinking about. There seems to be an ugly system constructing itself where bad art is validated by the amount of reaction is responds, even if that reaction is derisive. The creators of said bad art may benefit from the hype on some no-press-is-bad-press credo; the people providing the reactions have a whole new temporary cultural signifier to toy with, dreck disguised muse, and the delusion that they can capitalize on the original thing’s lack of quality…only to realize later it’s a game that can’t be won. Bad art doesn’t as much perpetuate more bad art is perpetuate hopelessness.

Bad art elevates the importance of the viewer—it gives the viewer a voice and inspires the viewer to react and respond—but that voices becomes drowned out in the cacophony of others. What’s sad is we don’t even realize how feeble our voices even are; how being fed a steady diet of garbage-as-artistic-inspiration makes us sedentary, lazy in our fatuous beliefs that our comments, pontifications, and insulting criticisms actually constitute art as opposed to industrial reproduction.

Yet reproduction is production in the world of page-clicks; it seems alluring and viable as a means of artistic expression. It’s a false promise, though, or at best a promise for stunted growth, for reactionary art is only as strong as the (intrinsically weak) subject inspiring it. If bad art won’t be remembered—or, if remembered, certainly not cherished or appreciated or valued—then it seems unreasonable to expect the reactionary art to bad art to be remembered.

All of this is not to say bad art is somehow morally or intellectually problematic; people are free to enjoy whatever art they see fit to enjoy; it’s unfair to negatively judge a person’s entire personality or being simply because he or she finds pleasure in viewing something culturally labeled as “bad.”

However, the permeation of bad art throughout culture—and the codification/justification of it in an age where reaction/response as an art from is highly popular—shouldn’t just be ignored or discounted with the whole “taste is subjective” argument. Bad art serves a purpose in 2013; it provides the foundation for a system of other art—art of reaction that empowers/elevates the viewer, allowing him or her to actually become an art creator—but that foundation is shoddily built on sand and silt.

It’s analogous to an FBS football powerhouse scheduling an early season game against FCS Nowhere State. Yes, the beat down inevitably dished out by the powerhouse program will be an undeniable display of dominance and mastery of the game, just as someone’s humorous analysis of, say, Keeping Up with the Kardashians may actually be artistically better than the show it is unpacking/mocking, but is that one-upsmanship really all that impressive or good or worthwhile considering the how easily that dominance is established? Reaction as an art from is like a blowout win against an vastly inferior opponent: good for your team’s record but ultimately not a victory worth taking pride in.

Yet as a culture we’re continuously drawn to scheduling these easy opportunities; we need bad art because we as individual viewers/responders want to be seen as winners.

Tags: Movies Sharknado Television

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