Sunday, January 04, 2015

The Good and Bad

I had an interesting conversation with a woman I know recently. I was talking with her and told her I had downloaded the new Taylor Swift album "1989" last night. I may or may not have been dancing to a few tracks alone in my apartment last night, and with no witnesses that cannot be proven.

The conversation went something like this (discussion of politics and feminism deleted for expediency) :

Her: I don't listen to that kind of music.

Me. Country? This album is pop.

Her: No, I just don't listen to it. I don't like her music, whatever it is.

Me: I think it's fun and I like her and what she has to say. I've realized most of my collection is sad singer/songwriters, and I wanted some happy music.

Her: You don't have to listen to that; there's good happy music.

And scene.

This stuck in my craw, this bad/good dichotomy.  Aside from her admission that she doesn't listen to her music, and may, in fact, have never heard it, I was interested in this label of "bad."  What's bad music?  This particular album was the largest selling of 2014, so people apparently liked it.  I don't think music sales are a measurement of good and bad; plenty of great music doesn't sell. In fact, I don't think that's an apt measurement of art at all - good and bad. I can get behind the like/dislike dichotomy, as that's all about personal taste.  I personally don't like green pepper, but I don't call it "bad" and shame people for cooking with it; I just don't care for it.

I will go even one step further: I think the good/bad dichotomy is a harmful way to look at art.  It's not helpful for a viewer/receiver, as it discounts whatever their personal response may be, and it's not helpful for the artist, as it sets up a judgement of the art before/during/after it's creation.  That will, as anyone who has tried to make anything knows, shut down creativity.

A dearest friend gave me Lynda Barry's fantastic latest book Syllabus, subtitled "Notes From An Accidental Professor."  The book is notes and exercises from Barry's class about "The Unthinkable Mind" - getting to a place of creation that is beyond thinking that she teaches at University of Wisconsin/Madison.  She discusses drawing, and how the inability to render has led most people to think that they are "bad" at drawing, when, she argues, they actually have a style that has yet to form.  She encourages coloring - in silence as well as listening to music or lectures. She has great exercises. I've taken her workshop.  Her feedback is mostly an emphatic "good! good!" while encouraging no one to discuss their work or anyone else's. In fact, while you're listening to others read you are drawing a spiral and looking at your paper. Her goal is to get out of the thinking mind and in to the place where creation happens. I'm very much over-simplifying, but I thought of it when this friend told me she didn't think Taylor Swift's music wasn't "good."

Tim Burton's movie "Big Eyes" touched on this idea, telling the story of Margaret Keane's Big Eye paintings that were popular in the sixties.  Kitsch to many, the painting nevertheless sold millions of copies. They touched a chord, and were painted sincerely.  The art world may have called them "bad" art, but they were popular and beloved. Bad? Good?  Who knows.

I'm finding the more I create the less I find bad/good a useful dichotomy, either in my own creation or in the assessment of others' work.  I can tell you if I'm drawn to it or not. On a critical level, I can hopefully appraise whether it's doing what it wants to do as well as it can, and even better, how to help it get there. But bad and good are beyond me.  Even love and hate feel more apt to me.  Bad and good, at the end of the day, just aren't very helpful.

I think you get the idea.  Now I'm off to color like a ten year old, while maybe listening to something I like.  There may be dancing involved. We'll see.


Elizabeth said...

I love this.

One thing, though. Remember that David Soul song from the seventies? It really was baaaaaad, no?

Criticlasm said...

Ha. Yes. I'll give you that. 4 weeks at number 1