It’s Monday night at the Trocadero Theater in Philadelphia. Usually, the Trocadero is a venue for live music; on Monday nights, they show movies. Tonight, they’re showing The Room, a modern classic of what I will be calling “good-bad art”. The Room was made in 2003, driven by one man: it was directed by, produced by, written by, and starring Tommy Wiseau. The absurd dialogue (“She wants to control my life. I’m not going to put up with that. I’m going to do what I want to do, and that’s it. What do you think I should do?”), the weird obsessions of the characters (characters frequently throw around a football during dialogue), the strange sense of drama (tension revolves around jealousy) – these all lead to a jarring effect. Nothing quite makes sense, but you can’t look away. The effect is even more jarring because of the film’s fairly good editing and the plausible acting by some characters. In the audience, people shout choice lines together; they laugh gleefully and comment on the dialogue. There’s a ritual of throwing plastic forks at the screen at a particular moment. But fortunately (or unfortunately), you don’t have to travel to the Trocadero to watch The Room. There are regular midnight showings of The Room in cities across America, complete with these rituals. And this occurs more intimately, in bad movie parties across college dorms.
In The Room, and in good-bad art, we appreciate these works for their bad artistic qualities. But these works raise a philosophical problem about our appreciation: Does it make sense to say that something is good just because it’s bad? It seems like we should like art when it’s good. It is reasonable to like something in spite of its bad properties; I enjoyed the meal last night even though the salad wasn’t quite right. But how could our love for something be due entirely to its bad qualities? Is it rational to see paintings at the Museum of Bad Art – shelling out hard-earned cash, spending money and time – just because they are bad?
The paradox is all the more pressing because, it often seems, we are living in a golden age of good-bad art. Good-bad movies seem to be more popular than ever. And let’s be generous about what we count as art here. Hipster dive bars are full of velvet Elvis pictures and other cheesy paintings, hung up precisely because they’re bad. My friends often speak about how they like bad beer; so maybe this category includes some objects that aren’t art. In all of these cases, the same question arises: Does it make sense to like something because of its bad qualities?
In some ways, the problem of good-bad art is similar to a general longstanding paradox about art and painful experiences. Some artworks, like tragedy and horror, give us painful experiences. In general, we avoid painful experiences. Yet we actively seek out tragedy and horror just because of these experiences. There are various responses to this paradox. Some responses are meant to justify our practices of painful art. You might respond that we enjoy painful experiences, or that the pain is necessary for richer experiences. Another response is pessimistic: You might respond that we are irrational for engaging in painful art. My friend Greg says that it makes no sense to him why anyone would watch a horror movie.
But the paradox about good-bad art is slightly different – it is a little more puzzling. Good art and bad art are opposed in a more straightforward way than painful art and pain-avoidance. Painful experiences like being scared might be necessary for being thrilled. But we don’t need badness to get artistic goodness. There is plenty of art worth enjoying that doesn’t require artistic badness, like a Miles Davis album.
With this problem in view, it might look like we’re foolish for enjoying good-bad art. This is similar to the pessimistic response about the painful art. And it’s an option that some people like. One kind of person thinks that good art must necessarily involve some sophistication and quality. Maybe you know someone like this. Let’s call them “the harsh aesthete”. The harsh aesthete, rolling their eyes and looking down their nose, will say that our engagement with any kind of bad art, including good-bad art, is proof of the sickness of our contemporary culture. It is devoid of any value. Truly good art, they say, is subtle and refined. Most importantly, it is made well. Good-bad art is none of these things. The harsh aesthete may be inspired by Harry Frankfurt’s analysis of bullshit. According to Frankfurt, bullshit occurs when people don’t care about the truth. Maybe good-bad art is the artistic equivalent of bullshit: Audiences are drawn to good-bad art when they no longer care about artistic or aesthetic value. Or, even worse, lovers of good-bad art are aesthetic versions of Milton’s Satan: “Ugliness, be thou my beauty.” It’s not that they don’t care about aesthetic value, it’s that they love bad aesthetic value.
Another kind of person might be resistant to good-bad art in a more easy-going way. Let’s call them “the mild aesthete”. The mild aesthete’s response stems from a common explanation of good-bad art: Maybe good-bad art is good because it involves mockery; we enjoy laughing at how bad it is. The mild aesthete admits that it makes sense to enjoy good-bad art because mockery is fun. And yet, they might say, there is no rich value in it. Because the only benefit of good-bad art is mockery, there’s nothing artistically or aesthetically deep about it. You can laugh at bad movies the same way you laugh at the oaf who falls for a trick, or who trips on a banana peel. Good-bad art might be enjoyable, but it’s so trivial. It could never rise to the level of a transcendent, meaty, aesthetic experience. It is not a profound experience of beauty, like tasting a rich, subtle piece of sushi, or watching a Tarkovsky film, or listening to a Coltrane album.
The two criticisms from the two aesthetes touch on aesthetic problems with good-bad art. But the explanation of good-bad art as a kind of mockery brings up a third problem: a moral problem. The final kind of person may claim that our taste for badness is pernicious. Let’s call them “the moralist”. If we only enjoy good-bad art because we enjoy mocking others, there seems to be a moral problem with good-bad art. Enjoying it involves not just bad taste, but an evil character.
Now the big question looms: Is good-bad art worth anyone’s time? Are we wrong for enjoying it? We have to convince the aesthetes, mild and harsh, that good-bad art is aesthetically valuable. We have to convince the moralist that it is not evil. Can this be done?
And yet, these complaints also show that good-bad art is unique. I want to point out here that two closely bordering phenomena – guilty pleasures on the one hand, and camp on the other – do not give rise to these problems. People often think of guilty pleasures and camp as kinds of good-bad art. I want to show that they aren’t.
In 1969, the marvellous film critic Pauline Kael wrote an essay called “Trash, Art, and the Movies”. She defended trash movies – easy, accessible films. With trash, says Kael, we can give in to our immediate responses. We don’t have to maintain a pretentious disinterestedness. Movies can be powerful because they can have a certain directness to them. And trashy movies elevate this directness. You’re reacting on an immediate, unsophisticated level – and you’re game for it. We have another name for this kind of thing: guilty pleasures.
Guilty pleasures appeal to us on some low level – maybe a sweet-salty combo, maybe a curiosity or voyeurism. You might resist this response, or you might work your way out of it, eventually finding it revolting. Maybe you just accept that you’re fine with Big Macs and The Real Housewives. All of this is complicated, of course, by the fact that we’re constantly wrestling with social forces in our tastes. But what really makes guilty pleasures work, at their core, is that you are taken in by the immediacy and directness.
Guilty pleasures (or trash movies) are not instances of good-bad art. We don’t like our guilty pleasures because they are of poor quality per se. Our guilty pleasures are good not because they’re bad, but because they’re direct and accessible. But it’s not clear why that on its own should count as badness. In fact, it seems that you shouldn’t feel guilty about enjoying many of your guilty pleasures. Instead of characterising directness as bad, give into your first responses. You should accept the drama of Real Housewives. Just give into the pure salty-sweet-umami of the Big Mac. Guilty pleasures are just plain good. So guilty pleasures avoid the aesthete’s raised brow. The aesthete ought to enjoy simple pleasures once in a while, too. Or, at least, it’s not clear that they’re bad.
And the moralist’s problem has no bite, either. We’re not mocking anyone by giving in to dumb pleasures like a Big Mac. Of course, some people take an ironic attitude towards trash. This is exactly what can seem so problematic about ironic enjoyment that is supposed to characterise hipsters. The hipster enjoys lite beer underneath a sheen that suggests they are mocking people who genuinely enjoys the lightness of the beer. When we enjoy these pleasures on a direct level, we are doing them justice by enjoying them as such. Our guilty pleasures are often pleasurable because they succeed at satisfying us. They might have a social stigma, but often times, precisely what guilty pleasures show us is that we ought to reject that social status quo and accept our own preferences. So perhaps guilty pleasures are in fact morally good, because they cause us to reject harmful stigmas about social status.
Good-bad art is not just different from guilty pleasures, it is also different from camp. By “camp” I mean a purposeful imitation of a cheesy, bad, or outdated aesthetic. If the appetite for camp hasn’t risen, it surely hasn’t slowed. Sharknado, released a couple of years ago, is based around a tornado of sharks. The prime example of camp is Rocky Horror Picture Show. Both of these movies are ways of stylising or purposefully imitating a strange, odd, or outdated aesthetic.
Works of camp delight in their own schlockiness; campy art is in on the joke. As Susan Sontag argued, camp is primarily characterised by artifice – and artifice was certainly prominent in the recent Met Gala, the theme of which was camp. It might not be right to think of camp in terms of direct or indirect, the terms of guilty pleasures. Instead, we might think of this as distinction between the surface-level reading and the intentional reading. On the surface, these works might seem goofy. But that is part of the point; their creators intend for them to look silly. Their creators are in on the joke.
Camp passes muster for both the aesthete and the moralist. Part of the point of camp is to poke fun at a particular style or period or artistic device. The aesthete should appreciate the fact that camp looks down at a simple style. Surely anyone can admit that some aesthetic depth can be gotten from this. And the moralist shouldn’t be bothered, either. In most cases of camp, there is no one directly who the works poke fun at. But, again, camp can’t count as good-bad art because it’s not bad in the first place. Artists intend for them to look schlocky.
All of this shows how camp and guilty pleasures are different from good-bad art. The Room is not camp, because the artists don’t seem to be in on the joke. (Tommy Wiseau has since said that he intended it to be comedy, but many people don’t believe him.) And it’s not a guilty pleasure, either – the appeal of good-bad art isn’t direct or immediate. We enjoy good-bad art because of its missteps, which are often beneath the surface. In bad art, the artist has failed – they have presented a bad vision, or they have made a mistake in how they present their vision. Our delight in The Room derives from just this kind of badness. We don’t like The Room because it’s direct, or because it’s poking fun. We like it because of its artistic failure. If this much is true, then it seems that good-bad art, unlike trash and camp, is characterised by failure.
While it shows how good-bad art is distinct, the emphasis on failure puts good-bad art squarely in the crosshairs both of the aesthete and the moralist. If good-bad art is marked by failure, how could it ever be aesthetically rich? And if we are just enjoying the failure, how is this morally excusable?
A colleague and I have tried to defend good-bad art elsewhere in a longer and more formal vein (see my piece with Matt Johnson in the Journal of Value Inquiry). There we argued that works of good-bad art are marked by failure; but it is not just the failure that arrests us. If it was just the failure that we enjoyed, then we would enjoy any old bad film. But we don’t! Think of all the films that are simply too bad – too boring, too pedantic, too terrible – to be good-bad. Pure artistic failure isn’t enough for an artwork to count as good-bad art. I’ve sat through many films that were too bad to be good.
Good-bad art offers a special experience of bizarreness: The world of the film does not make sense. For one thing, it contains gaps of logic; plot points don’t quite add up; the script makes bizarre leaps. The themes don’t quite ring right – in The Room, for example, the obsessions with masculinity and betrayal get close to ordinary life, but they are just a little bit off, like a dream. Of course, some films are intentionally bizarre, like David Lynch movies. But Lynch’s movies are intended to be bizarre. In good-bad art, creators do not intend for their works to be bizarre. How could they? The bizarreness is predicated on failure! Like Lynch’s movies, good-bad art has a strange logic. Unlike Lynch’s movies, however, the bizarreness is unnoticed and unintended. And the fact that it is unnoticed and unintended it is all the more enchanting and mesmerising.
This element of unintended bizarreness is what sets good-bad art apart – it is what gives good-bad art value. Interestingly, it seems like this is the only kind of aesthetic value that requires artistic failure. Ordinarily, artworks have aesthetic value because of artistic success; good-bad art presents a striking exception. It might be the only category of art that you can’t get into by consciously trying.
With this kind of value, the moralist’s concern loses its bite. Even though good-bad art requires artistic failure, our enjoyment of failed art does not have to be an enjoyment of failed intentions per se. For we are no longer focused on the failures; instead, we can marvel at the bizarreness. Notice, furthermore, that our attitude is not one of mockery at failure, but of appreciation. We can attend with sympathy to the way that artworks can arrest us. Since we are not focused on mocking these works but on appreciating them, the moral concern is no longer there (or, at least, is no longer as serious). Good-bad art teaches us that the influence of art isn’t always planned.
Thus it seems that good-bad art’s value is aesthetic rather than artistic. Artistic value requires that the artist successfully conceives or executes their piece. Artistic value is intentional. But aesthetic value is broader. Aesthetic value (or disvalue) is not just had by artworks. It is also had by beautiful sunsets, stinky bags of trash, and good-looking people. It has to do with beauty and ugliness, coming from all kinds of places. Now, many artworks have not just artistic value but aesthetic value; they have beauty, and their beauty is related to their artistic success. This is true of works by Coltrane, Leonardo da Vinci, and Bach. What’s unique about good-bad art is that it seems to have aesthetic value – the bizarreness here is something worth appreciating. But this aesthetic value comes from artistic failure, not success. It is the failures of Tommy Wiseau that give rise to the dreamlike strangeness of the film.
I’ve seen The Room many times, but I took a break from it for about ten years. I watched it again only recently; to be honest, I was expecting it to get boring. But it didn’t. The Room still holds up. There’s something so arresting about the bizarre logic of the film: The protagonist is fascinating as the ultimate Christ-like figure: he is a martyr and a judge at the same time. I’d never noticed the many Freudian aspects to the film. It manages to strike a dream-like tone that one could never attain if by consciously trying. Sitting with my friends at a bad movie party, laughing along with everyone at the terrible lines, it’s easy to miss this. But when you watch these films alone, the failure translates into something profound. These movies, then, have value that is more than fun.
I would never discourage anyone from going to a bad movie party. But I’d offer a bit of advice: Don’t be taken away by the hooting and hollering. Don’t settle for mockery. See if you can find the aesthetic value in these films – aesthetic value that requires artistic failure. In our culture, obsessed with success as it is, it’s easy to run roughshod over anything that seems to be a failure. But the aesthetic effects of these films are unique: Since they are unintentional, they are effects that can be gotten entirely independent of the intentions of the author. These films show us that it’s worth thinking about the fact that your own projects might be good in ways you don’t intend – even, or especially, if you fail.