The scribbling class, the yawning ass


It’s always bothered me when critics call a work or performer “boring,” but now Susan Sontag, in her 1965 essay “One Culture and the New Sensibility” (from Against Interpretation), helps put my finger on why:

The charge of boredom is hypocritical….Boredom is only another name for a certain species of frustration.


The moment a critic declares (through her nose) that she is bored, she’s abdicated her responsibility: to illuminate causes, not just effects. “Boring” is like “wonderful” or “marvelous” or “splendid”–it says nothing except that you liked something or didn’t, and that you are so self-evidently justified in your taste (because you are you, and you are marvelous) that you needn’t bother to say more.
That’s why teenagers, with their uncanny ability to make the most of adults’ worst traits, love the b-word: they understand “boring” annuls all argument and holds the listener at bay.

For a critic, it’s also stingy, backing away right when the writer needs to move in. It’s arrogant, asserting, “I am so much better than this dance/this performer that I will not deign to explain.”

Explanation is a humble thing–what subordinates do, never their bosses. “Boring,” on the other hand, is the aristocrat of response: a seeming explanation that tells you nothing (why Sontag calls it hypocritical). By means of indolence, the critic asserts her dominion over the reader and the art. 

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Comments

  1. says

    I appreciate your open discovery, respect for knowledge, and disrespect for pretension. Little sad about what you might say after seeing my work, but hey. : )
    Oh, I might say it drove me crazy or that I thought it was lousy, but I’d be sure to tell you why. (And this is not a cruel hint: I haven’t ever seen yr work.)
    In any case, thank you,
    Apollinaire

  2. Nancy Dalva says

    Hey, I resemble this entry. I use the word “marvelous” frequently. Why? It is the signature adjective of Merce Cunningham, who is known to say “Marvelous, marvelous” when something delights him. And to say something is full of marvels is, just possibly, descriptive, if you go on to say what’s marvelous. In my favor–I don’t believe I have ever called a dance “boring, ” though I confess I did in one piece give an accurate count of the number tiles in the ceiling over the work under consideration.
    Keep on provoking,
    Nancy
    Hehe. Well, I wasn’t thinking of you, Nancy. Most immediately, I was thinking of a slew of responses to Ann Liv Young. People said she was boring when they didn’t want to give her any credit for being outrageous, and it seemed to me cheaper than the outrage (they thought was cheap) itself. But now that I think of it, you DO often say “marvelous” and such… And, I agree, all adjectives once were descriptive–”marvelous” reminding us of marvels and “fantastic” of the fantastical. I use them (though not “marvelous”–it’s too campy for me; I’d feel like an imposter) all the time in speech, as shorthand, and when the adj. fillers are positive, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it.
    Always great to hear from you,
    Apollinaire

  3. says

    Always enjoy your blog, Apollinaire, and this post hit home. Sure I use the odd “wonderful” and “marvellous” (oh, you crazy Americans, with your madcap spelling), but try to avoid “boring.” Though, actually, I think all of these terms are fine as long as they are a point of departure rather than an attempt (as they often are) to close or forestall argument. Yes, boring — but why? Marvellous — but how?
    Having just seen Mark Morris’ “Romeo & Juliet” and finding it, to my surprise and disappointment, pretty unengaging and, yes, boring, it has been instructive to figure out why this was so. As a critic, I guess it’s ok to be bored, as long as you use the emotion constructively and don’t become boring…
    Hello, hello, David, my Artsjournal colleague and neighbor–I have been remiss in not giving a shout out already. Just discovered your blog (readers: artsjournal.com/performancemonkey, a click away from Foot) now, and what a treat. I look forward to more.
    I agree with you: a person can use any word she likes, as long as she explains. My particular beef with “boring” lately (and with regard to Ann Liv Young, in particular) was that critics were using it passive-aggressively: they understood that being outrageous was one of this performer-creator’s means of getting up and over–getting to us–and therefore that if she were “boring,” the game was off. Their charge felt very teenage in its wileyness. It’s okay by me to be bored, but you gotta do it like an adult.
    Welcome, Apollinaire

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