What to do about bad art.
I’ve been lamenting for oh, a couple months now, about my lack of good reading material. Seriously, I haven’t posted any reviews of the books I’m reading on the blog because, to be frank, they were so lackluster and not terribly interesting that I can’t even summon the energy to devote an hour to writing about them. Ouch.
But an article from the LA Times a couple weeks about James Franco’s dismal turn in Broadway’s “Of Mice and Men” inspired me to talk about bad art. Or rather, art that is perceived to be bad. First of all, I define an artist as any creative being, whether its an actor, writer, painter, potterer, performer, musician, etc. Secondly, as an artist myself (sometime writer, actor, and card maker enthusiast), I’m acutely aware that I myself have probably been guilty of creating some bad art in my time. Who hasn’t? But the question then becomes: is it really the artist’s fault?
Look, I’ve written some posts that I consider subpar. I’ve given a few performances in plays in my day that were less than inspiring. In any of these cases, I don’t think of myself as lazy or purposeful in my horrible artistry. I simply wasn’t good. And this doesn’t mean I didn’t try. Call it a case of poor training, or I just wasn’t ready at the time, but I always consider my heart in the right place.
James Franco, per LA Times theater critic Charles McNulty, gave a bad performance to last a lifetime. And it appears that McNulty is accusing Franco of not doing the work.
He’s obviously an actor of wide-ranging intelligence, but his intellectualism doesn’t serve him here. His acting — unspontaneous, utterly devoid of reflexes and lacking the gremlin smirk of his best film work — happens strictly from the neck up…
Realistic acting of the kind demanded by “Of Mice and Men” doesn’t allow for short cuts. There’s a difference between behaving and signaling behavior, and onstage, where there’s nowhere to hide, it’s glaring. When Franco is overcome with strong emotion at a climactic juncture in the play, he does what any actor more comfortable with cliché than with actual feeling does: he retches.
To play devil’s advocate here, can we honestly say that Franco didn’t do the work? Maybe he’s acting his heart out up there and it’s just not working for us. Maybe he sat with the material for weeks and weeks and struggled and toiled and felt in the depths of his soul that he fully embodied that character, but we are the ones who are simply not buying it?
When is it ok for us to judge art as “bad” or “good”?
I can recognize bad writing, for sure. I can recognize when sheer laziness is involved and someone took the leap to make a quick buck (ahem, E.L. James of “50 Shades of Grey” fame). And I can absolutely ascertain a great story with so-so writing, but the editing is just out of whack (my recent reading of “Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin falls in this category).
I judge bad art by its poor preparation. If someone merely “phones it in” on a performance or written piece, I get angry. And you can definitely tell when it’s a lackadaisical effort. I highly doubt anyone wakes up in the morning and says, “You know what? I’m going to create something shitty and half-assed today!”, but I do believe that sometimes we wake up and say, “I’m tired. I’m not into this right now. And I’m not going to do much about it”. So if the reviewer for “Of Mice and Men” fully believed that Franco put his laziest foot forward then I agree with his decision to call him out on it.
On the flip side, however, is the fact that art is so subjective to begin with. For every person appalled by Franco’s acting is one person captivated by it. No formula exists, to my knowledge, that can really predict or put a label on “good” or “bad” art. My acting teacher says at the very least all we want is to feel moved. If we felt emotionally moved by any piece of art then the artist fulfilled his/her requirement ten-fold.
Take the recent paintings by George W. Bush, for example. His art has been lambasted for being childish and insipid. I actually found them charming. Really, I did. Despite all of my dislike for the former President and everything he stands for, I found his paintings of former Presidents quite whimsical with a child-like air. He managed to make his father look like a soft-spoken and mild-mannered human being with a whiff of befuddled grandpa. Were these Bush’s own perceptions captured on canvas or were they the product of his limitations in his art skills? He does know how to paint, that’s for sure. And whether he lacks the right skills or not remains to be seen. He captured something that someone, somewhere (me) thought endearing and heartfelt. I was moved. Maybe not moved enough to a point where I would want to buy one, but I liked his art.
So if I go back to my original statement at the top of this post about my recent lack of good reading material, am I calling the books I read a case of “bad art”? Not necessarily. I just wasn’t moved. I feel no emotional connection to any of the 4 books I’ve finished in the last 2 months. I sensed the writers enthusiastic and inspired about the material, but the execution in the storytelling wasn’t there. And if ever I come across another writer who I feel is writing for the sake of a paycheck, believe me, I’m calling them bad artists here and now.
You will all be the first ones to know.