When we say art is “good” or “bad” what we mean is that it is “effective” or “ineffective” at things that are better or worse to be effective at.
This “effective at what” thing divides art up into species. Maybe phylums. It’s a bigger category than genre, because it doesn’t have anything to do with superficial content, it has to do with priorities and methods.
When people have tried to divide art along “effective at what” lines in the past, we’ve ended up with categories like “style” or “meaning” or “skill.” The very very best and most sophisticated version of this division is the 6 levels of making art from Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics.
According to McCloud, the greatest art (so-called Great Art) usually displays excellence at all of the above, but “Idea/Purpose” drives that excellence, like giving an already strong person a tool to build a skyscraper. By comparison, a strong person strutting around can seem impressive too, but only for its own sake.
I pretty much agree with McCloud, but just this second I’m not interested in talking about what makes Great Art great, but rather the ways in which things that aren’t great art can be better or worse. Die Hard, for example, is not great art, but it is excellent and iconic. It is very effective at something. Furthermore, it is more effective at that thing than, say, Guardians of the Galaxy, even if you like that movie too.
So I’m going to talk about a few different categories of artistic goals or in other words, different ways in which non-great art can be excellent.
Ketchup and Mainstream Art
10 years ago Malcolm Gladwell wrote a piece about why certain packaged foods become popular and others don’t—French’s mustard, Grey Poupon, Heinz Ketchup and Coke versus artisanal catsups and local sodas.
(Like other Gladwell writing, his piece is based on a very strong observation/truism that is backed up by a lot of data, but his desire for narrative and approachability can lead to overfitting or ignoring outlying data. It doesn’t change the basic observation, which is what I’m interested in here.)
Ketchup is a metaphor for things that have been so perfectly engineered that you can no longer really taste the individual flavors that have gone into them. Every component, of hundreds, is in such correct proportion that you can’t imagine the end result tasting any other way. It’s its own perfect chord of flavor. This is a great quality for processed food to have, because the consistency and memorability make branding automatic. Ketchup is popular, but it’s popular because it’s a feat of engineering.
The art version of ketchup is an equal feat. Ketchup is usually mainstream, but mainstream things aren’t always ketchup. Jaws is ketchup. Die Hard is ketchup. The original Star Wars is ketchup. Titanic is ketchup—but Avatar is mainstream. The later Star Wars is mainstream. Mainstream aims for populism, but it is not necessarily skilled, complex, or coherent. Guardians of the Galaxy feels more like failed ketchup to me than it does mainstream because it seems to have aimed for some alchemy without understanding what the alchemy was really made of. Of course that’s a whole other piece.
So if we’re talking about “effective at what,” ketchup wants to be effective at chemistry, and probably make money because of that chemistry. Mainstream wants to be effective at making money.
Catsup is what I call “artisanal” art, and it is good or bad the way other artisanal things, like homemade pie or hand-tooled leather, can be. In catsup you can taste the individual flavors—the tomato, the vinegar, the spice, the molasses. When it’s good, it’s messy and spiky in a compelling, revealing way, like looking at a tiger through a pane of glass. It’s hard to recreate the patterns in a grain of wood artificially, so it’s better to get really good at putting them on display. When catsup bad it’s a just a mess. And/or falsely profound.
That language is a bit beside the point. The real point, for my purposes, the “effective at what” purposes, is that the more one focuses on particular flavors and irreproducible occurrences, the more niche one’s audience is going to be. It’s going to be niche whether the thing is good or bad. Only a few things are truly so great in such a high level way that only a few people can understand them. Stephen King is ketchup (if anyone is). Junot Diaz is really smart, super high level ketchup. But Jonathan Safran Foer is catsup.
Dada was catsup. Futurism was catsup. In other words, catsup can be really good, it’s just pointy. It’s trying to do a particular thing and who cares about anything else.
The fact that catsup is niche means that there are lots of ways that art can be successful catsup, but only a few that it can be successful ketchup.
There’s a variant on the “perfectly engineered thing” that I call the swiss watch. Looper is a swiss watch. So is Fincher’s Girl With a Dragon Tattoo. Pixar movies are great swiss watches. The swiss watch is something that tackles many moving parts in a way that looks effortless. The swiss watch is a demonstration of skill. It is precisely engineered, like ketchup, but is it not interested in being easy to chew, per se. The appeal and feat of ketchup is that its “created” nature feels invisible. Ketchup feels like a sort of inevitable part of the landscape; it’s pavement and electricity and air. The swiss watch is impressive and skillful on some level—narrative, technique, emotion, all of the above. But it is not unified by purpose the way “Great” art is, and it is not unified by chemistry, like ketchup is, and it is not unified by money, like mainstream is. Yet it is also massively effective.
I’m not introducing these distinctions because I want to cram every work into one category or another and then pit them against each other (they hardly encompass everything). But I do think articulating how priorities cluster helps one optimize those priorities; I also think that optimization is what makes art good. And being able to master all of these priorities is what lies at the heart of things that are inarguably great.
In the case of ketchup, “engineered inevitability” is an important skill to pay attention to because it’s representative of more than the swiss watch’s mechanical talent. Ketchup is a kind of compression. It’s not that ketchup is latching onto something profound, necessarily, but that the things that compress meaning best will have the same feeling that ketchup does. Ketchup is the art of sweet spots.
On the other hand, catsup is the art of “including all the data.” Kind of ironic, given that it’s pointy, but catsup can go deeper the way a specialist can go deeper than a generalist. Ketchup is a summary, catsup is raw.
Swiss watches are the art of multitasking. Swiss watches are about tackling complexity and juggling threads. Reality is complex, which means that anything that truly reflects reality should be able to juggle complexity too. Compare how many jobs UP does compared to your average, even good, Disney movie–that’s why I call Pixar movies swiss watches (for kids).
I like these categories because it’s useful to think of art in terms other than technique and genre or even theme. Those are specific rather than abstract descriptions of “what art does” and “what art is” or even “what are artistic tools.” Whereas how and why you combine those tools is where the hard stuff starts happening.