So I was lying in bed this morning when, for whatever reason, I started philosophizing on bad taste in Art.
Regular readers know this is something of a running theme here to The Rundown, as it creeps into post after post and has for years. They also know I am against anything that is shocking just to be shocking - the same way I am against nudity or sex just for the sake of making a work "adult," and on down the line in said fashion.
From an observer's perspective, it is simply off-putting; from a creator's perspective, it is amateurish. That is, as an audience member, when I experience something that is so obviously manufactured as to elicit a specific response, my response is a groan, a sigh, or an immediate launch into locating the remote. As a creator, I skip the first two.
John Waters is, for the most part, the indisputable king of "bad taste," so I was thinking specifically about his piece de resistance, Pink Flamingos. Now, Pink Flamingos is basically an exercise in bad taste, but it has higher aspirations, making it Art. At its root, Pink Flamingos satisfies one of the most basic fundaments of Art: it challenges the viewer. It was intentionally made to push the boundaries of what is acceptable - both socially and, specifically, on film. Yes, it was intentionally shocking and though it may have been created with little else in mind, it satisfies the criteria on that level: that it communicates its intent makes it successful.
In many cases, Family Guy is just in bad taste. More often than not, Family Guy takes "the low road" and it does not do so to push the boundaries; it does so in a juvenile attempt to be shocking when it cannot be amusing or otherwise entertaining. Of course, Family Guy has just as many moments of sheer brilliance to balance this out, and because it is a series, it has more "real estate," or a larger canvas, on which to work. For all of the times it fails creatively and resorts to shocking the viewer, it has moments where it transcends to something akin to High Art.
Okay, that's stretching things. But it certainly has its moments.
To dismiss Pink Flamingos as "trash" is unacceptable because it is erroneous; to elevate Family Guy to Art because it is animated, contains copious pop-cultural references, or basically any other reason, is just as bad. Put simpler, Pink Flamingos communicates its intention, which makes it Art; Family Guy far too often shrugs and lights a fart. Put another way, Pink Flamingos became pop-culture, where Family Guy is content simply to reference it, and both belong in the same, broad "Trash Art" category.
Trash Art is not Absurdism (though Pink Flamingos most certainly is), nor is it Dadaism; it may reach heights of Absurdity and it often does things just for the sake of doing them (especially shocking the audience), but Trash Art is a sub-genre all its own. I would say its purpose is to challenge the sensibilities of the audience, thus validating it - but that does not mean Trash Art cannot be just, plain... trash. Like most Art, it comes down to execution: what began to challenge the sensibilities of the audience can quickly become an exercise of their patience if poorly executed.
Nevertheless, there is a place for Trash Art and some trash is definitely Art. Even a clear lack of intent does not immediately invalidate a work or artist. More important than any other criterion is the execution. A poor effort will result in a poor product/ion and there is no excuse for shit - anyone can take one (pretty much anytime, anywhere) and just because some moron pays to watch it, doesn't make it Art.
At the end of the day, that is the very difference between product and a production: Pink Flamingos was a production, where Family Guy is product. Both have their place and neither is necessarily good or bad based on that alone, but there is a difference and knowing this difference helps the critic/observer delineate between Trash Art and plain, old trash.
© C Harris Lynn, 2008