Art Without Qualities: 6.8, 3 Stars, B

In Mike Leigh’s Naked, David Thewlis’ Johnny, gives one of the great acidic movie monologues—the “I’m not fuckin’ bored” rebuke. The meat: “You’ve ’ad nature explained to you and you’re bored with it. You’ve ’ad the living body explained to you and you’re bored with it. You’ve ’ad the universe explained to you and you’re bored with it. So now you just want cheap thrills and like plenty of ’em, and it dun’t matter ’ow tawdry or vacuous they are as long as it’s new, as long as it’s new, as long as it flashes and fuckin’ bleeps in forty fuckin’ different colours.” It’s 28 seconds of pure venom delivered by an irredeemable protagonist. It’s vile but admittedly accurate—like Dialectic of Enlightenment Cliff’s Notes.

For better or worse, I think of this vitriol every time my attention drifts and I feel restless, and when I imbibe critiques that fail to commit. Media criticism is a dull-instrument. Case in point: In 2001, Pitchfork, “The Most Trusted Voice in Music” (i.e. easy punching bag), gave Daft Punk’s landmark, Discovery, a paltry 6.4 score—“prog and disco Frankenbaby is alive, whether we like it or not.” 9 years later, they named it the 3rd finest album of the decade—“rewriting electronic pop’s pleasure principles…house music as string theory.” This is what you might call non-standardized. You might find it to be endearingly inexact. You might also call it the creep of subjectivity. You might also call it garbage. It’s a combination—we should experiment with this alchemy more. There are larger mea culpas out there, ones that even feature crow consumption, but I’m interested in this middle-of-the road vortex, the bored wasteland (when “mixed” sometimes gives way to critical reassessment); there’s something more damning in it. In the modern critical era, there are scores I just can’t shake; they feel utterly meaningless in the grand scheme—alongside the 6ish range (usually 6.8 does the trick) sits 3 stars and B. They’re less functional critiques than markers of the end of the line for ontological reductionism.

What does this bell-curve say about the system? That it’s working? Or that it has been properly bent to meet our expectation based on the ridiculous sample size? In the face of this, the more you think about it, and break it down, the less sense it makes, the harder it is to defend/lambast, and the more it seems like you are screaming at a wall. Feigning faux-calculable certainty and setting a baseline that represents apathy is inherently absurd—a measure of malaise (‘the measure of fidget,’ props to that bastard Galton). We humans have this evolutionary capacity to adapt to environments, surroundings, stimuli—it has something to do with information processing too, understanding how scenarios play out and forming a schematic for future experience. With overstimulation, as is the norm in the age of information, our capacity for ennui is a useful defense mechanism.

If we fight boredom with media, wouldn’t marks down the middle be the ultimate indicator of failure, far worse than something that elicits revulsion? It’s kind of the fundamental question and possible paradox of the ratings: What are they measuring and against what? As a fair weather crate digger, I’m aware that research, consensus, opinion plays a role in selection—like coming up for air while swimming upstream. There’s a fine line between curation and molding, though. It also speaks, to my mind, to the human-specific quality that is boredom. Boredom, as someone put it, is the last best freedom we have. It’s a byproduct of sentience that we hold over the beasts. It’s a luxury and it’s a generational, regional, personality-type demarcation. It has shades and variations—like all things, it is a spectrum unto itself and it exists on a larger spectrum of experience.

You can follow existential vapor trails through Nietzsche and Kierkegaard—and Pascal and Aquinas, for that matter—all you like; this will, more than likely, qualify as lived experience, reinforcing the mystery with a meta-feedback loop. There’s meaninglessness, sure, but could we not say that the void at the center of our lives gives the deviations weight? So the rationale goes: You need the mediocrity to appreciate the fantastic. Or, is this lifeless core a black hole that saps the allure of the incredible and dilutes it systematically over time? It’s dispiriting stuff, and it’s all enfolded in these grades. Is art a distraction or a mirror? That’s the age-old question. Boredom is not about anything; it is our encounter with pure time as form and content. This is probably about half-right; if only I had a convincing way to quantify my indifference. Until then, I’ll fight the void with cacophony.

This article was written by Oliver O’Sullivan, a writer for dusk magazine.

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