Trash Art, Equivocally Trashed

Dora’s post on the end of her affair with romance novels over at Exponent II got me thinking again about fluffy, escapist, trash art, and what role it plays, or ought to play, in our lives.

It’s unfortunate but probably inevitable that to profess aesthetic pleasure or distate is, unavoidably, to profess education and class. To my own surprise, I’ve stepped on more Bloggernacle toes in discussions of kitsch than in discussions of gender (maybe, as Lynnette suggested, because I know enough to tread a little more delicately through the gender minefield). I hadn’t realized how sensitive an issue trash art is. Whenever I say I can’t bear Janice Kapp Perry and wish she’d beat a rapid exit from sacrament meetings worldwide, or that I’d like to see recitations of doggerel over the pulpit ended, I belatedly realize that I have also–inadvertently–made a statement about my superior taste. Then I have to hastily backpedal and bring out my own trash: the Top-40 addiction of my early teens, the second-rate Romantic poetry of a later phase, the Yanni and the ABBA I’ve never wholly shaken off, more recent forays into the junky TV shows forbidden in my youth: ER and Buffy the Vampire Slayer and (worst of all) Grey’s Anatomy (which Janet’s candid confession here–scroll to comment 30–gave me the courage to own). Given the existence of my own little garbage-art collection, I’m clearly in no position to claw the romance-novel mote out of someone else’s eye.

But there’s no doubt that trash art, no less than “high” or “middlebrow” art, has profound political and moral significance. As Ursula LeGuin observes in one of her essays, “Sometimes the works that weigh the heaviest are those apparently fluffy or escapist fictions whose authors declare themselves ‘above politics,’ ‘just entertainers,’ and so on” (Dancing on the Edge of the World 199). Similarly, in a devastating critique of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind entitled “Look Away, Dixieland,” Patricia Storace notes that the novel’s sentimental portrayals of black characters are not merely an aesthetic lapse, but a moral one, a profoundly significant failure to imagine certain lives in fully complex and human terms, a willful and dangerous ethical blindness.

The reduction to caricature matters. It is in this reduction that the sentimental is the cousin, the necessary counterpart to, the pornographic. I still vividly remember being amazed and stung in my teens at the narrow, physical terms in which so many male novelists sketch their female characters, holding the vacuous wide-eyed virgins and worldly temptresses, with their grossly exaggerated sexual significance, against my ordinary life of joy and rage and sorrow and wonder, and angrily refusing to cast my existence in such alien, restrictive contours. And while we Mormons rightly denounce pornography, the cheap venerating sentimentality with which we too often speak of women and mothers may remain the more deeply embedded, unacknowledged sin. I’m past the point of endurance with the annual Mother Dear, I Love You Little Nell tripe, and I’m evil enough to wish that the mother who almost burned up in the fire to save her necklace and her daughter, whom she then proceeded to raise in heroic, fortified poverty, had died in the damn fire and spared us all the endless recitation.

That’s the trouble with trash. Whether in exaltation or in shame, it trashes people. And the tired barbarians-at-the-gates critiques of trash too often trash people as well.

And then there’s the problem of time. Kristine’s BCC post on the mortal significance of time captures it well:

As mortals, we experience this pressure both as the daily lack of enough time to do all the things we should or want to do, and as we contemplate the span of our lives, knowing that we will not live long enough to finish the !()#$##! Ph.D., become a world-class cellist, go to medical school, and learn to play timpani and French horn passably well.

Given injunctions like this, given the painful limitations of mortality, the heartbreaking, essentially infinite number of books we will never read, the transcendent music we will never hear, the exquisite art we will never see, should we waste our time on trash? I confess to a double sense of delicious liberation and gnawing guilt when I indulge in Buffy the Vampire Slayer–and yet the very relentlessness of my sense that I should be productive (at all times, and in all things, and in all places, as I do most solemmly strive to live the Young Women values, smile nicely at my fellow Saints even during sacrament meeting at the unholy hour of 9:00 a.m., and keep my grubby paws out of the Ben & Jerry’s).

Great art demands and rewards sustained, almost devotional, attention. There’s so much literature and music that I love, love beyond the expressing of it, and yet at times my attention fails, I turn away, I long, however ambivalently, for brain candy and easy pleasure. Too many easy pleasures are, I believe, insidious, but it doesn’t follow that all moral pleasures must therefore be hard.

Two cheers for trash art. Or, at least, a cheer and a half.

31 comments / Add your comment below

  1. In light of the quasi-official directive against using anything except hymns in sacrament meeting (a trend I deplore!), why is it that a Janice Kapp Perry ditty is able to sneak in unchallenged, and something more eloquent, lovely, classical, etc. is not? (Other than the fact that the Ward Choir would most likely mutilate it.)

  2. Very nice post.

    I too share your distaste for Janice Kapp Perry, (although I’ll always have a special place in my heart for her “Modesty is Always in Style”.)

    I also share in the struggle between feeding my brain with intelligent subject matter, and feeding it trash. I’ve just come to realize that, ‘all work and no play, makes Jared a dull boy’. And what’s more, the person who cannot relax and join me in a rousing viewing of ‘Happy Gilmore’, is not the person with whom I would like to hang.

  3. Two very quick observations:

    1. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is not trash. Except for much of season four, which was just gag-worthy. And a little bit of season five. But those kind of aesthetic flaws just give the series character — it can’t very well be send-Angel-to-Hell plot arcs all the time, can it?

    Where was I? Oh, yeah.

    2. Your random quote generator is awesome. And likely to result in people hitting “refresh” a lot. At the risk of encouraging your trashier proclivities, can I suggest you add a few good Buffy quotes to the random-quote pool?

  4. Given injunctions like this, given the painful limitations of mortality, the heartbreaking, essentially infinite number of books we will never read, the transcendent music we will never hear, the exquisite art we will never see, should we waste our time on trash?

    What I have to say may be offensive to some. My apologies in advance. I have to admit that this struggle has come up for me in relation to church attendance. I have felt a yearning to deepen my spiritual practice. I’d love to spend time meditating, reading books of great spiritual teachers, attending various worship services, visiting museums, etc etc. I feel like the time I spend in church does not feed my spiritual practice and that time could be much better spent. I’d be more enriched from a few hours at the Met than sitting through the same lessons and talks I’ve heard over and over, trying to ignore how I feel about my standing as a woman in this institution.

    Perhaps I am being selfish and hard-headed. Maybe I should give up watching 24 or Law & Order reruns and spend that time on my spiritual growth and imbibing of great art.

  5. ooohhh, Amy, honey, I am right with you. I LOVE your comment. And I look around me every Sunday and wonder if there is anyone else who would like to deepen their spiritual practice, or if they are all totally satisfied with things the way they are.

    I do have a reason for attending every Sunday– it is just that I can’t help but feel that perhaps I can make things better from the inside. Especially for the youth. I want to give them a sense of the joy of the gospel. They seem so tired of hearing don’t, don’t, don’t all the time.

    But for me…I wish, I wish someone like you was in my ward. Want to move to Vernal? (No Met here, though.)

  6. Nice thoughts, Eve. I’m attracted to the argument in many ways, but how do we then avoid the conclusion—given the logic laid out here—that superior taste not only implies superior class and education but also superior moral sensibility? And, further, that great artists are possessed of great moral sensibilities? Both propositions seem to me demonstrably false, as well as—um—distasteful.

    I think the argument works in relation to a narrow class of art—the sort of moral realism of Tolstoy, for example, or that George Eliot developed in her theoretical writings (and, incidentally, did so in the context of the sort of sentimentalism you seem especially to deplore). But I’m not sure it makes much sense when we look at, say, Samuel Beckett or Stravinsky or Kandinsky.

    Also, and you gesture toward this, there’s the equal-and-opposite moral danger of despising those with inferior taste once one has acquired the superior sort oneself. (Not you! But others, many others.)

  7. Bored in Vernal, good question. I’ve also observed the prejudice against the classical and in favor of the cheesy that you have. (Although I’m also the kind of person in the ward choir who does mutilate lovely music, I’m afraid. I’m hoping to be resurrected with a beautiful voice. It seems a small request, given that my sister Kiskilili is planning to ask for two voiceboxes so that she can sing in harmony 😉 )

    Jared E., I definitely agree–I like people who will share my lowbrow pleasures with me and not condemn me for them.

    AmyB, I’ve definitely had similar thoughts at times. I believe that God is uniquely involved in the LDS Church, but at many different periods I’ve found church more draining than edifying, and it’s hard at such times not to wonder what I’m doing there–when, as you note, I could be doing so many, many other things. (I’m bad with opera, though. One of these days I’ll do my post on being a philistine. Maybe if you and Bored in Vernal took me, you could help me appreciate it?) I’m also bad with museums. I race through in 10 minutes and ask, wow! When do we eat? My husband, who likes both opera and museums, is in mild, resigned despair over this aesthetic limitations of mine.

    Kaimi, Thanks for the gallant attempt to rehabilitate my trash. You may be right–I’m not really sure what I think of some of my low pleasures. I’m glad you like the quote generator! I’m afraid it’s become a timewaster for me. Let’s see, should I grade papers or find more fun quotes to enter? Guess which wins??

    Rosalynde, very good points. The simple answer is, I guess, that I agree with what I understand you to be saying: that aesthetics and morality sometimes coincide and sometimes don’t, are sometimes mutually implicating and sometimes aren’t. Frankly, my own trash collection, while it should always be open and subject to criticism, clearly predisposes me to argue that at least some aesthetic trash is morally harmless.

    Part of what I’m wondering about here is the my own hypocrisy in taking down sentimentality while indulging in other forms of trash myself. Do I have a double standard? If I really thought about it, would I be forced to admit that my trash is just as insidious as I think sentimentality is?

    Of course if I gave up all trash, as Jared notes, then who would want to hang out with me? 😉

  8. My brain may be a bit fried from having recently watched all seven seasons of Buffy in the space of only a few months, but I have to agree with Kaimi on this one. Eve, if you want to see real trash art, you should watch something like Beverly Hills 90210 (which I watched with both guilt and fascination during my undergrad days).

  9. Lynnette, I’ll have to give 90210 a try. Let my research on this question leave no trash unturned!

    Ziff, I’d love to see you do a post on that issue. I have a hypothesis that we project a lot of our anxieties onto youth and hem them about with excessive gravity. (When was the last time we heard a lesson on the law of chastity aimed at adults?)

  10. Bored in Vernal,

    Perhaps you can find something spiritual among all the dinosaur bones. Hee hee. How about you move to the Big Apple instead. 🙂 Or maybe we can all set up some sort of women’s teleconference branch. That could be fun!

    On the subject of trash art, it’s easy for me to pass judgement on the stuff I don’t like, but at the same time I’d prefer not to give up my pet trash. I think it’s okay to escape for a while into the fluffy stuff.

  11. I’m torn when it comes to sentimentalism. I tend to have a difficult time with it in church settings, but I find the tradition of sentimentalism (especially in literature, since that’s what I study) compelling. Especially in the 19th century, women used sentimental fiction to make powerful social statements. Of course, those social statements weren’t always expressed in ways that would be palatable to a modern audience–I’m thinking here of the slaves=children equation in _Uncle Tom’s Cabin_. Still, it’s been an aesthetic tradition that has played an important role in women’s lives (and their ability to impact the world around them). I’m also really compelled by the inclusion of the emotional in sentimental fiction–as much as I love modernist stuff (it is what I’m writing my diss. on), T.S. Eliot and his “get rid of personal emotion” and “all emotion must correspond to an object” drive me nuts. Of course, the over the top pathos of sentimentality can drive me nuts too… 🙂

  12. s, thanks for offering a more nuanced view of the sentimental than I seem capable of. (It was a family tradition to express nausea at Uncle Tom’s Cabin as we each had to read it for American history in high school.) I would agree that it’s equally worth criticizing the opposite, masculine tendency to write with a wholly mechanistic detachment. That’s just as distorting.

  13. I can’t help but feel that perhaps I can make things better from the inside. Especially for the youth. I want to give them a sense of the joy of the gospel. They seem so tired of hearing don’t, don’t, don’t all the time.

    Thank you for your dedication, Bored in Vernal. As a youth, I heard “don’t, don’t, don’t” so much that I decided that clearly the central commandment to the whole gospel was this: Thou shalt not have any fun.

  14. . . . I agree with what I understand you to be saying: that aesthetics and morality sometimes coincide and sometimes don’t, are sometimes mutually implicating and sometimes aren’t. Frankly, my own trash collection, while it should always be open and subject to criticism, clearly predisposes me to argue that at least some aesthetic trash is morally harmless.


    I’d make a distinction between trash that is always harmful and trash that isn’t harmful, in moderation, in the same way that smoking cigarettes is always harmful, at any level, but eating ice cream, in moderation, really isn’t. (But it still shouldn’t be substituted for good nutritious food – it’s a treat, not a staple.)

    Likewise, I don’t know that some sentimentality is necessarily harmful. (Of course, you’ll probably always react badly to it – perhaps I could extend my metaphor to include food allergies?) That said, it is disturbing the degree to which sentimentality is substituted in our Church “diet” for real emotion, real spirituality (if I can use that loaded word), or a real engagement with issues and doctrine.

  15. maybe we can all set up some sort of women’s teleconference branch

    Set it up, and I am there! Every Sunday. And I’ll accept any calling, RS Pres, Nursery Leader, Choir Director (oh, couldn’t that be fun!)

  16. Bumped into the site by accident while gathering material for my gospel doctrine lesson tomorrow. It’s far too late to post anything lengthy, but I will suggest you take a look at a book that came out recently called Everything Bad is Good for You. It’s a sociologist’s look at the rising complexity and intelligence involved in modern pop culture. Contrary to what your parents might have told you, shows like Buffy are actually quite good for you and definitely are not “trash.”

  17. Contrary to what your parents might have told you, shows like Buffy are actually quite good for you and definitely are not “trash.”

    That’s a very bold statement! I’m interested in what the definition of “good for you” is, and how you can say it is “definitely” not “trash.” I imagine that to some extent “trash” like “beauty” is in the eye of the beholder. I’m sure there are some things that would be generally agreed upon. However, I would also contend that in the realm of literature, arts, popular media, etc. a blanket statement about them being “good for you” cannot be made. Just like in Dora’s post at ExII referenced in the initial post here, certain things might not be good for certain people for various reasons.

  18. I enjoyed Everything Bad is Good For You; I thought it was a fascinating analysis of how popular media has gotten far more complex over the years. Though I’d agree with Amy that when it comes to what’s good for you (or maybe more to the point, what’s potentially harmful), there’s doubtless some amount of individual variation.

    That’s an interesting question about what gets defined as “trash.” I think there’s quite a wide range of quality in what might be called “escapist” literature or movies or television, and while some of it could certainly be classified as trash (even some that I like), I wouldn’t use that term for all of it. In my book, something like Buffy isn’t trash; it’s quality escapism. (Or is that just evidence of my trashy tastes? ;))

  19. One unusual phenomenon is the rapid improvment in the quality of the best television over the past few years, especially compared to cinema. It is as if television is becoming more of the adult medium, while most movies focus on a juvenile audience.

    Of course quality does not generally mean morally uplifting, but there is certainly a seriousness there that was lacking before, at least in the better television shows. Reality TV is the exception that proves the rule.

  20. Mark, I’m curious about your assertions. I think I could agree that some tv shows are getting better- the production values and writing seem to be better, but then again I might be able to be convinced otherwise.

    I’m not sure I agree about most movies focusing on a juvenile audience. At least, it’s not obvious to me. I think the big Disney films and others aimed at a younger audience may get more trailers run on tv, but I have the impression there are a wide variety of movies being released, many aimed at adult audiences. I imagine there is an objective way to determine the percentages of types of movies released to certain audiences, but I am not the type to go to the trouble.

    I had an English teacher in undergrad that was a big fan of pop culture, and tv watching in particular. He stated that it helped him connect with people, giving them things to talk about and be interested in together. I think there’s a case to be made for that.

  21. Not to be too literalistic, but by “Good for you,” I meant, well, “good for you.” I don’t want to simply parrot the book wholesale, but his point was that modern shows like Buffy are complex enough in terms of plotlines, #’s of subthreads that the viewer has to follow, etc., that simply watching them is in and of itself mental exercise.

    Now obviously, anything good can be taken to excess. Watching Buffy, 24, or even the History Channel all day would be a bad thing. It would also be a bad thing, for that matter, to eat carrots all day, but done in moderation, carrots can be, well, “good for you” too.

    Mark: I thought your point was interesting. Two quibbles, th0ugh. First, with a few exceptions, I think that reality TV actually gets a bum rap. Take Survivor. In the reunion show a few seasons ago, one of the contestants openly talked about how he’d prepared for the show by studying advanced game theory and then applying it throughout the game. He did quite well, as I recall. In essence, most of the reality shows have a heavy component of social networking involved. In order to follow the plotline, the viewer in turn is encouraged to second guess these highly intricate dynamics. They may be ultimately pointless, but I don’t think such shows can be dismissed as easily as a lot of commentars seem to think.

    As for the movie/TV paradox, seems to me that there is still an important subgenre of movies that are shooting high. For every Ricky Bobby out there, there is an Eternal Sunshine. They may not make as much money, but they are certainly there for those who are looking…

  22. For clarity, I guess I should explain my perspective on the issue a little further. I’m a late 20’s male, active in the church, married. As part of the entertainment generation, I openly admit that I like video games (thankfully, I married a girl who likes them too), I like a lot of what’s on TV, and I like movies. I do my best to avoid both fluff and filth, but I like the escapism and the entertainment of a lot of what’s out there.

    With all that said, it’s sometimes difficult to deal with the constant harping that goes on in the church about how we should be avoiding Babylon by throwing out our TVs and preventing our kids from having access to playstations. My parents, for example, are of the firm opinion that all video games are evil and a waste of time, and no amount of reasoning from my end has been able to shake them from that hard-line position.

    Personally, I think that one of the reasons that a lot of the youth are tuning the church out is that they simply can’t relate to the constant parade of speakers who are telling them that SimCity, Halo, and CSI are Satan’s tools on earth (almost a direct quote from a talk I heard a few weeks ago in church). I’m at least old enough and grounded enough to filter that stuff out, but I wonder how I’d have reacted if I’d been 17 instead of 27.

    Thus, while Buffy clearly isn’t Shakespeare, I just don’t like the suggestion that it and its companions are “trash” or anything like unto it. I think there’s definite value in a lot of this stuff…

  23. RT, I agree that many video games, movies and TV shows are intellectually stimulating, but one of Eve’s points was that “trash” art can be morally degrading, as well. There are plenty of clever, sophisticated shows and games that are still incredibly violent and graphic or disturbingly amoral.

  24. You’re right. There are the two different components to it that Eve addressed–the first being whether such art is a waste of time in light of the high art that is also out there, the second being the moral component to pop culture. My posts were primarily focused on the first.

  25. RT, thanks for the clarification. Saying that the shows are complex and watching them is a mental exercise is much more clear and precise than “good for you”. Now I know what you mean, although I would also have agree with Katya’s point that there can be moral or other pitfalls.

    I wholeheartedly empathise with you on the point of the church’s treatment of media/pop culture. There is plenty of good stuff out there and I don’t think we should be made to feel guilty or shamed for enjoying it. I think you have an excellent point that this stance could distance younger people in the church. I think for some reason the church tends to create an “us and them” and the popular media, representing “the world” (now why is the world bad, again?) gives us something against which to pit ourselves. I’m not down with that.

    When I was taking a group dynamics course in grad school I loved watching reality shows. It was a fun way to see what I was learning in class put into action. Many of those shows create a crucible in which the group dynamics come out quickly and intensely, and they make for a very interesting study.

  26. All of you great scholars of the humanities are much more qualified than me to speak to this point, but isn’t our distinction between highbrow, middlebrow and lowbrow art a modern development? In ancient Greece, didn’t everyone go to the theatre and listen to Homer recited, didn’t the groundlings as well as the aristocrats go to the Globe, didn’t everyone in Vienna love the opera in Mozart’s day? It seems to me that our modern distinction between high and low art has as much to do with signifying social class as aesthetic standards. In the name of latter-day egalitarianism, I say throw off the chains of bourgeois pretension and celebrate your appreciation of Buffy without apology or embarrassment.

  27. JWL, what a great question! Wish I knew. (Someone in this family, or on this blog, needs to go into classics. Volunteers? Maybe we can dragoon a classicist, and an eighteenth-century specialist while we’re at it.)

    The highbrow/lowbrow distinction does seem to have undergone a lot of challenges in the last few decades–I regularly get conference announcements for Harry Potter and Joss Whedon. I love your rallying cry. I’m being gripped by another of those vivid fantasies in which I’m starting a twenty-minute testimony of aesthetics, morality, spirituality, and the gospel with it. I will, of course, credit you and all other sources. 😉

  28. JWL,

    I think it’s wrong to assume that something can’t be both high quality and highly popular, but I also think that there’s a lot of popular drivel out there.

    I currently have a job which involves cataloging 19th century books. I really like literature from that time period, but I’ve been amazed at how bad some of these novels are. My theory is that the good stuff gets reprinted and reread, even when the style is no longer current, and the bad stuff gets forgotten, even if it was really popular at the time (some of these books went into a dozen printings, or more). So, yes, sometimes great work can be also be highly popular in its own time, but for every Harry Potter there are a lot of Da Vinci Codes.

  29. Like JWL, I think it’s worth keeping in mind that at least some of what is now coded as high-brow, sophisticated art is nothing more than the popular art of previous centuries. (Granted, we hope it’s quality popular art of previous centuries.) It’s fun (and salutary) to think that Handel once had approximately the status of Elvis, or that the Iliad may have been the equivalent of our comic books.

  30. JWL, I definitely think there’s a modern association between aesthetic classifications and class, though I don’t think things were as simple in olden days as you paint them (i.e. everyone went to see opera or the theater). For instance, while playwrights such as Shakespeare may have performed for both royalty and the common masses, I don’t think royalty typically went to see theater in the actual theatre–it was usually performed for them in their palaces, manors, etc. Anyway, I don’t know that they had “highbrow” vs. “lowbrow” art back then, but they certainly had aesthetic theories and standards that affected who saw what art and when (many of them based on religious morality). Of course, I am in no way a specialist in anything prior to the 20th century, so I could be highly mistaken.

  31. I also think it is good to realize that there is not much sense to our highbrow-lowbrow pigeonholing. Specifically in the context of our church, we are probably all very quick to pick up any hint of judging and understand it as disapproval. I have always admired those who have the ability to work with everyone, regardless of personal achievments, tastes, education or financial status. They are able to convey love and acceptance, something I aspire to do as well.


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