Must art be boring?

“You know me—I’m acting dumb
You know the scene—very humdrum
Boredom, boredom, boredom”
The Buzzcocks, “Boredom”

The world is awash in boring art. It’s tempting to chalk this up to the operation of Sturgeon’s Law, but in his recent book Strange Tools, Alva Noë makes the provocative claim that art and boredom are intrinsically linked. “Art,” he claims, “is boring on purpose. Or rather, it confronts you with a situation that makes boredom a natural, a spontaneous response” (p. 116). Moreover, “[a]rt is valuable only in direct proportion to the degree to which it can, or might, bore us” (p. 114).

What’s at issue here is not art that explicitly tries to bore the audience, like Warhol’s unendurable films, compositions by Erik Satie, many of Beckett’s plays, or Kenny Goldsmith’s uncreative writings. Those works evoke the experience of boredom in order to probe and dissect it. Boring us is a success, so long as it also spurs interesting reflections on the state itself.

Art, such as Walter Sickert’s “Ennui,” can also take boredom as its theme without intentionally evoking it, although this is a less stable line to walk. In fiction this is exemplified by Pessoa, though David Foster Wallace’s oeuvre, notably The Pale King, is probably the most discussed contemporary example. Wallace wants to illuminate that repellently vacant experience, even espouse it as a peculiar state of grace, but only from a safe distance outside.

Most of the time, boring art is a failure. The artist fails to engage us, or we fail to rouse ourselves to the demands of engagement. But for Noë, it’s inherent to art-making that it leads, inexorably, to the possibility of this sort of missed connection. This risk is part of art’s value and purpose. Striking as these claims are, I think they’re wrong both about the function of art and the character of everyday boredom itself.

Noë opens with the extraordinary statement that “[g]rown-ups don’t get bored.” In fact, boredom is impossible for adults, since “that distinct emotional state, vaguely painful, that sense of being trapped in the unending and meaningless, that state is available only in the absence of structure, plan, task, obligation. The preconditions for boredom are absent in adult life” (p. 114).

The specific boredom of childhood may be inaccessible to most of us, tied as it is to the unrecoverable feeling of days stretching out before us like a hazy field, a soft, shapeless blur of tantalizing possibilities always just out of grasp. Childhood boredom has an illusory endlessness because children lack an awareness of life’s horizon. We adults can only fitfully experience time like this. We are too persistently aware that our days are finite and fading.

But boredom readily leaks into even the most purposeful life. Diagnosing and managing the everyday alienation endemic to capitalism has preoccupied social theorists for over a century. Generations of countercultural movements (Situationists, Beats, and punks alike) have railed against that system and its imposed ennui. There is, of course, an argument to be made that in our present age of global economic precarity the dominant emotion of economic life is no longer boredom, but anxiety. Still, if one doubts how resilient these frustrations are, just note that Google search thinks the phrase “bored with…” is best completed as, in order: “my life,” “my job,” “my marriage.”

So take those two durable American institutions, work and family. Forget the grey tedium of the Fordist factory—a leaden dullness swaddles the most responsible, well-planned lives. People report the most boredom when studying, doing nothing, or working, and they deem spending time with co-workers as one of the most boring social settings. For that matter, just ask any junior associate attorney how they feel about doing doc review, or any burned-out faculty member about grading final exams or delivering the same lecture for the nth time.

Home life fares no better. The sour cliché casts marriage as a stifling atmosphere that strangles romance, spontaneity, and play. Boredom reliably predicts declining relationship quality years into the future. Mid-20th century American fiction in the Updike/Cheever mold would be unimaginable without the struggle to relieve sexual boredom in (white, middle-class, Protestant) marriage. What else were all those suburban satyrs frantically trysting to escape from? As today’s mommy-bloggers attest, the boredom of raising children, too, is an evergreen theme.

In the office or in the bedroom, then, “grown up” life is threaded with a throbbing circuit of acedia. Boredom is the price of predictability and security in an atomized society. The idea is familiar—from Simmel through Heidegger to Lefebvre—particularly as an organizing principle for the social affects of modernity, which makes it all the weirder that Noë’s text skips silently over it. This elision is central to his argument concerning art and its relation to the everyday.

According to Noë, we need art precisely because our lives are hemmed in by rules and routines. Art suspends all of those, calling ordinary practices into question by pulling them out of their normal settings. “A work of art is a strange tool; it is an implement or instrument that has been denuded of its function. Art is the enemy of function, it is the perversion of technology” (p. 98).

In everyday life we draw, sing, dance, make pictures, craft clothes and build objects, use language for all sorts of serious, pragmatic functions. In art, these useful habits are decontextualized and put on display, turned into reflexive commentary on their daily roles. Unmoored from schemes of practical organization, artworks demand that we become absorbed only in them, and in the order of things that they present us with. But since artworks are no longer subject to the rules of the everyday, understanding them requires approaching them without preconceptions, on their own terms—thus the “strangeness” of these tools.

For Noë, the necessary absence of any familiar rules and structures is what generates the possibility of boredom when encountering art. Since boredom is linked with formless experience, and since art is always an encounter with objects that are ungoverned by the strictures and norms of daily life, art provides a breeding ground for experiences of boredom, alienation, and disengagement.

This idea partially echoes one made by Susan Sontag in her diaries, where she observes that “most of the interesting art of our time is boring,” and suggests as a possible explanation that “[w]e are learning new modes of attention—say, favoring the ear more than the eye—but so long as we work within the old attention-frame we find X boring.” This jibes with Noë’s thought that art bores us when we haven’t yet found the key to interpreting it. Once we have grasped its system, the maker’s intended mode of organization, the possibility of boredom falls away.

The problem, though, is that when Sontag speculates that “[m]aybe art has to be boring, now,” her list of paradigms is Jasper Johns, Beckett, and Robbe-Grillet, all canonical high modernists. Few can match the purposiveness with which these figures upended the conventions of artistic media to generate feelings of detachment. This project can’t be dehistoricized and turned into a free-floating template for all art-making in all periods. Noë claims that depictive artworks “put us and our picture making activities on display, in a way that enables us to do it all differently.” Would this also hold of Fra Angelico or Poussin? Of Bernini? Of Orson Welles or Hitchcock? Even if art emerges out of life’s organized activities, not all arts derive from a corresponding first-order daily practice, and not all of them are second-order reflections on those practices. To think so is to project the distinctive set of questions that gave birth to modernism—especially questions about the reflexive exploration of the nature of each distinctive medium—backwards onto all periods. Yet this seems to be exactly what Noë (though, I think, not Sontag) is doing when he sweepingly proposes that all art is an exercise in making “strange tools.”

Most decisively, though, the link between boredom and artistic formlessness of the “strange tools” variety is psychologically unpersuasive. The reaction to being unable to grasp the system at work in a piece of art is often not boredom but frustration and annoyance. Although Mulholland Drive is one of my favorite films, I’ll confess this was my first reaction to seeing it in the theater. I worked myself into a pitch of irritation trying to unravel the damn thing. It was the opposite of boredom, an experience of mental overstimulation like being needled. Why, we ask as we grit our teeth and turn away, can’t the artist just make their point clear? Being unable to find an interpretive path into a work is enough reason to stop looking, reading, or listening. But it is a different reason than being bored with it.

By the same token, I can grasp the system implicit in an artwork perfectly well yet still be bored by it. Isn’t this how everyone responds to Damien Hirst’s stupid little colored spots? (Be honest.) I can’t see how to reconcile this fact with Noë’s claim that rules are the rails that keep us from veering off into the muddy thickets of boredom. It’s instructive in this context that one sociological definition of boredom directly links it with the too-familiar: “the socially disvalued emotion we experience in a setting where the drama fails for some reason; when the only scripts and props available are too well rehearsed and overly familiar; any roles which exist are undesirable and without the possibility of negotiation; there are no others whose roles we can or want to take, and we feel distant from our roles.”

So if there is a special sort of relationship between art and boredom, I don’t think Noë has put his finger on it. Perhaps art is boring for much the same reasons as everything else: because it exists and intrudes on our experience, making claims on our attention that it cannot deliver on. It asks for something of value—our ears and eyes, our time, our thoughts and words, even our love—but it can’t give us enough in return. Boredom arises out of a defective relationship to our circumstances, and this gap between what is asked or expected and what is offered is one that can emerge just as easily in the presence of order as it can in formlessness.


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