23 February 2013
I am listening to a radio discussion of the movie American Beauty (1999). The general tone is that this was a masterpiece. I see why they are saying this, it was very accomplished but I disliked it, not intensely but with a bored so whattish feeling. It is, in short, an example of bad-good art.
Two other examples have been in my life recently – the block of flats known as One Hyde Park and Harold Pinter’s Old Times. I used the first as an example of the ‘dark wealth’ that is ruining London. It is, in detail, a very good building, beautifully finished and full of ingenious devices. But its overall effect is sinister, over-scaled and thuggish. Old Times, like much of Pinter, is a brilliant surface stretched over a vacuum. The play is designed to make us feel there is great significance to these twists and mysteries but there is none.
Bad-good art of this kind is a trick. Contrast Pinter with Beckett. There is no vacuum in Beckett, he addresses human life full-on, the theatrical devices are not arbitrary, they arise from the necessity of how Beckett feels and, consequently, they make us feel the same way. There is no trickery – or, if you insist there is, then you must admit that it has a point beyond itself.
There is another category I call good-bad art. This is technically dubious art that is, in fact, good. Look at Bob Dylan – he can’t sing, isn’t a very good musician and he absolutely cannot play the harmonica and yet he has produced more works of genius than anybody else in folk – in which I include jazz, rock, pop etc – music. Which means, of course, that he has become a very good singer etc because he has redefined the values involved. Al Kooper said, wisely, that he was the best bad piano player in the world. Dylan is just the most obvious example of good-bad art, there are many cases of technical deficiencies becoming artistic assets. Terence Davies, for example, does not know one end of a lens from the other but he makes superb movies.
I suppose the point is that mere talent is not enough, it may not even be necessary. On the other hand, knowledge of what talent can do is necessary – you can’t even become a good-bad artist from a condition of ignorance about your predecessors and contemporaries. Immersion is essential. You must work to produce art, but, in the end, it just happens, like it or not.