IN ON THE JOKE


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SO BAD IT’S GOOD

An ironic stance gives its subjects feelings of intellectual and even moral superiority. It can feel good to delight in the misfortune of others. In a way, it’s an expression of gratitude that we were spared that humiliation. So when we share and mull lists of the worst album covers ever, or listen to The Shags, or cluck our tongues at Elvis imitators, we are silently whispering “There but for the grace of God go I.”

Most bad art is recognized as such. Much of it in intended for children or the underclass. Most of the fans of professional wrestling are not well-educated. Did anybody over the age of 10 ever think the Monkees were comparable to the Beatles?

Surely art made for children was always a bit obvious the strokes overly broad, the colors too bright, the point belabored in case little Timmy couldn’t catch the meaning.

Pop music, intended for young teens features cloying, repetitive melodies. Likewise, bubble gum is packaged in bright containers and comes in excessively fruity flavors.

But what of bad art that doesn’t know it’s bad? Some people who ought to know better simply can’t get enough of it.

Our fascination with kitsch isn’t just about demarcating a line between bad and better, or infantile and sophisticated, but is an expression of a genuine puzzlement as to why anybody deemed this worth sharing in the first place.

Some artists are merely frauds and poseurs who hope to attain the status of artiste, but then there are loads of perfectly sincere people who simply have no talent at all and this lack of talent and discernment blind them to that fact.

Most of them have no ironic distance on what they are doing. Their tongue is not in their cheek. They are sincerely bad at what they are trying to do, but they do it anyway.

Camp art became popular in the 1960’s about the same time the hippies emerged. It was deliberately created by people who should have known better, as a way of thumbing their noses at the Establishment, and to provide an in-joke in order to amplify the cohesion of their in-group.

Naïve art has always been with us, and is valued for its authenticity and lack of pretension. But now, thanks to the Internet, everyone is searching for the next epic fail, the newest work that is so bad it’s great.

No longer the domain of the over-educated and snobbish, camp is no longer restricted to a certain class. Everybody, even the participants, know that Reality TV shows are meant to be appreciated ironically.

Whole-heartedness and authenticity might be in decline, as Youtube succeeds in minting millions of new painfully self-conscious producers who use irony as a cloak to hide behind.

Elvis and Bing had no ironic distance on what they were doing. They did their best to entertain. And for that they were rewarded with more than a few minutes of fleeting fame. From about 1935 to 1955, every minute of every day Bing Crosby’s voice could be heard somewhere on this planet. Today, there are more than eighty thousand full-time Elvis impersonators working in over a hundred different countries, and every year since his death in 1977, Elvis Presley enterprises makes more money than the year before.

A few actors have worn irony well. Early in his career, Vincent Price was first serious, then by the sixties he became camp. He seemed in on the joke, while the interior decorating pretensions of Liberace or the noveau riche are often seen funny and sad at the same time. We like to look down and laugh at trailer trash.

Some of the hundred hours of videos posted every minute on Youtube go viral, making some people famous overnight. Think Gangnam Style. What is it like to be famous for massive incompetence? How does it feel to laughed at, not with, yet still enjoy celebrity?

What’s it like to be the only one not in on the joke?

When I was a boy, I read Superman comics, and remember clearly the moment I realized I was sophisticated enough to get the whole concept of Bizarro World. In that crude approximation of our reality, values were inverted. Bad was good. “Bizarro Lois, this food tastes terrible!” “Thank you, Bizarro Clark.”

When we share and laugh at bad art, we are asserting our sophistication. Ed Wood movies are incomprehensibly bad. That’s why Tim Burton made the eponymous movie. This century has its own Ed Wood, a guy named Tommy Wiseau, and his deservingly mocked feature The Room. I remember cringing through quite a few Henry Jaglom movies, a seventies/eighties ersatz Woody Allen who seemed to lack a sense of humor.

Seems like today the entire nation of North Korea qualifies as not being in on the joke. You can nudge and wink at Kim Jong Un all you want, but when you’re done he’ll still stand you in front of a firing squad.

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