A Philosopher's Blog

Aesthetic Masochism

Posted in Aesthetics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on July 5, 2013
English: Double Stuf Oreos, by Nabisco.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Like many philosophers, I am rather drawn to science-fiction movies. One of my colleagues, Stephen, deviates from this usual path-while he does not dislike science fiction, his experience with the genre was somewhat limited. After learning that I was “big into sci-fi” he asked me for some recommendations. While he did like some of the films I suggested, he regarded some as rather awful. As should come as no surprise, this got me thinking about the enjoyment (or lack thereof) of bad films.

As my colleague pointed out, one common approach to explaining the enjoyment of bad films is to appeal to the notion that something can be so bad that it is good. On the face of it, bad would seem to be, well, bad. As such, there is a need to sort out what it could mean for something to be so bad that it is good.

One possibility is what could be called accidental aesthetic success. This is when a work succeeds not at what it was intended to be, but rather in being an accidental parody or mockery of the genre. Using the example of science fiction, this commonly occurs when the work is so absurd that although it is horrible science-fiction, it succeeds as an unintentional comedy. Thus the work is a failure in one sense (to borrow from Aristotle, it fails to produce the  intended effect on the audience). But it succeeds in another sense, by producing an unintended but valuable aesthetic experience for the audience.

While this view is certainly tempting, it can also be disputed by contending that the work does not actually succeed. To be specific, while it does produce an effect on the audience, this is a matter of accident rather than intent and hence to credit the work with success would be an error. To use an analogy, if someone intends to defend himself with a devastating martial arts attack, but slips on a banana to great comic effect, then he has not succeeded. Rather, his failure has caused the sort of mocking amusement reserved for failures.

That said, I am willing to extend a certain sort of aesthetic success to works that are so accidentally bad that they are good. There are, of course, works that endeavor to be good at being bad (such as the film Black Dynamite). These works can be assessed at how well they succeed at being good at what is attempted. Intentionally making a work that is good at being bad does open the possibility that the work could fail at being bad in such a way that makes it good in another way. But perhaps in that way lies madness.

Another approach to good badness can be used by drawing an analogy to junk food. Junk food is, by its nature, bad food. At least, it is bad food in terms of its nutritional value. However, people do rather like junk food and regard it as good in regards to how it tastes. The reverse holds for other types of food. For example, as a runner I have tried a wide variety of food products designed for athletes. While such food is often rather good in terms of its nutritional content, the taste is often rather bad (leading to my bad jokes about junk food and anti-junk food).

Going with the food analogy, some works that are so bad they are good could be rather like junk food. That is, they are deficient in what might be regarded as aesthetic nutritional value, yet have a certain tastiness-at least while they are being experienced. As with junk food, the after effects can be rather less pleasant. For example: for me, watching True Blood is like eating a mix of Cheetos and Oreo Cookies washed down with Mountain Dew. Somehow it is enjoyable while it is happening, but after it is done I wonder why the hell I did that…and I feel vaguely sick.

In such cases, I am willing to grant that such works have some sort of aesthetic value, much as I am willing to grant that junk food has some sort of value. However, the value does often seem rather dubious.

One counter to this is to contend that valuing “junk food” aesthetic value is just as big a mistake as valuing actual junk food. While a person might enjoy such experiences, she is making an error. In the case of food, she is making a poor nutritional choice that is masked by a pleasant taste. In the case of art, she is making a poor aesthetic choice, masked by a superficially pleasant experience.

It could be responded that a work might seem to be junk, but that it is actually better than it seems (or sounds, to steal from Twain). Going back to the food analogy, this could have some appeal. After all, food could be bad in one area (taste) but excel in another (nutrition). So, a food could actually be much better than it tastes. However, this sort of approach only works when the thing in question does actually have the capacity to be better than it seems.

In the case of aesthetic experiences it would certainly seem that a work cannot be better than it seems. After all, the aesthetic experience would be the seeming and it is exactly what it is. For example, consider a song that sounds awful. To claim it is better than it sounds would seem to be an error. After all, the song is what it sounds like and if it sounds bad, it is bad. There is nothing beyond the sound that could be appealed to in order to claim that it is better than it sounds. After all, it sounds what it sounds like. This is, of course, in contrast with many other things. For example, it makes sense to say of a wound that it looks worse than it is-the appearance (lots of blood, for example) is distinct from the seriousness of the wound. As another example, it makes sense to say that a car is better than it looks-it  might look like a junker on the outside, but the engine might be brand new.  Naturally, if it can be shown that art has these multiple aspects, then this matter could be properly addressed.

Before moving on, I must note that I am aware that a work of art can be good or bad in various aspects. For example, a song could have great lyrics, but be sung poorly. As another example, a film could have terrible special effects, but a brilliant story. This is, however, a different matter-in the above I am considering the aesthetic experience as a whole. To use an analogy, while a hamburger might have good cheese but a crappy burger, what would be considered is the overall experience of eating the hamburger.

Like other folks I know, I will sometimes indulge in watching a bad sci-fi/horror/fantasy movie that I recognize as being awful and hence prevents any appeal to the idea of good badness. As might be suspected, my colleague asked me why I would waste my time on bad movies that I actually admitted were bad.

My initial response was a somewhat practical one: there are only a limited number of good movies in those genres and when I get a craving for a genre, sometimes the only option is something bad. To use an analogy, this is like getting a craving for a certain food late at night and the only place that is open is rather bad. So, the only options are going without or going bad. In some cases, just as a bad burger is better than no burger, a bad film is better than no film. However, in other cases nothing is better than something bad.

My second response arose from conversations that my colleague and I had about running. While we are both runners, my colleague is the sort of runner who runs for himself and has no real interest in training for or competing in races. I am, however, very much into training and competition. In addition to enjoying the competition, I must admit that I enjoy the painful experience of hard training and running. That is, I obviously have some mild sort of masochism going on in this area which my colleague lacks.

This difference seems to extend beyond running and into aesthetics-I can actually enjoy suffering through a bad movie. Since I know other folks who are the same way, I believe that there is a certain aesthetic masochism that some people possess. I have not worked out a full theory of this, but given the volume of bad films and shows, this does seem like a promising area.

Test your aesthetic masochism on My Amazon Author Page.

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One Response

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  1. Lauren Liedel said, on October 1, 2013 at 3:29 pm

    Mr. LaBossiere,
    As I have a slightly masochistic background from rowing, the analogy of running to aesthetic experience illuminated your claim about the existence of aesthetic masochism within some people. However, while trying to engage my limited knowledge of science-fiction films, I found many similarities within the popular music industry. By rightfully separating the aesthetic value and appeal value, namely the tastiness from the junk food analogy, we can see why popular songs such as Blurred Lines peak charts without a little more than the stereotypical formula for a hit song. This formula being composed of certain beat per minute and basic construction layers—this established by a few mathematicians from Bristol University. Although there is a 60% accuracy rate, the nature of the “Hit Equation” comprises of what they consider to be “the fundamental characteristics of all music.” I follow your thinking by rejecting the claim that the overall aesthetic value is not entirely separate from the appeal value. Without including the appeal value or establishing that aesthetic value includes some sort of appeal feature, I feel that the practicality of a theory supporting aesthetic masochism would be compromised. Using my popular song analogy, we ought to look at the Grammy Awards, arguably one of the highest achievements for modern artists thereby creating some sort of aesthetic valuation. An article released in 2010 by Billboard compared how Grammy winners for “Record of the Year” fared on the charts. Every Grammy winner since 2000’s “Smooth” by Santana has yet to climb into that number one spot for their year. However, in 2011 and 2012 both Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know” and Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” were chart toppers. In the slight shifting trend favoring more popular music, perhaps this indicates our current nature of including appeal value as a part of the aesthetic.

    I had one slight concern with the construction of recognizing a work as awful which in turn prevents the appeal to the concept of “good badness.” Your argument is quite similar to the Paradox of Tragedy as discussed by both Feagin and Hume, but my question is have you even established that the experience is in fact pleasurable? Hume, in his theory of conversion, barely touches upon how the pain of say watching your awful sci-fi films can be turned into this pleasurable experience that is rooted in aesthetic masochism. Feagin does no better with her meta-response theory. While I initially agree with the aesthetic masochism on the surface, I worry that there may not be an actual way to assert that watching bad movies can be considered an actual event of some kind of pleasure. Do you have some solution to this potential problem? If not, perhaps there might be a way to adapt aesthetic masochism? I know you said you have yet to work out a full theory on this, but I am quite interested to see any specific cases you can present.


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