A partial taxonomy of aesthetic compressibility

Some art doesn’t need to be experienced to be mostly apprehended.a A good enough description suffices. Maybe the thing follows convention too closely, or the author is in a rut. But less redundant art can still internally have a variety of flavors of compressibility:

  • Signposting: Rather than do the thing, loudly proclaim that you’re doing the thing. Candidates: open-world cRPGs, Inception, Guardians of the Galaxy, a lot of “experimental” things. “Pretension” may be a subset of this.
  • Inflation: Anything you can say in a sentence, say in a paragraph. Anything you can say in a paragraph, say in an essay/chapter/post. Anything you can say in a blog post, say in a book. Examples: Most popular nonfiction. A lot of TV also seems to do this, mostly out of lack of confidence that people will get it.
  • Commodification: Package your work such that it becomes fungible with similar work. Examples: [insert thing from genre you don’t like].
  • Gimmickry: Distinguish yourself by doing something whose main feature is that it distinguishes yourself. Examples: I can’t actually think of any that I agree with.
  • Seasoning: Use drop-in elements that have the same effect regardless of context. The context-insensitivity lets it feel manipulative even if it works. (The seasoning elements don’t need to be clichés, which I’d instead describe as conveying the same meaning regardless of context. Both do generally rely on external conventions.) Examples: some Pixar shorts (and movies), lots of movie and game soundtracks.

Whether or not these are “bad” depends on your goal. Done right you can use these as tools to cheaply make things more powerfully affect a broader audience—it isn’t trickery, it’s effective artistry.

Moreover, the above terms are just ways of pointing to what didn’t work for you and the sense in which it failed, and pretty much can’t themselves constitute criticism. A gimmick is usually intended to have an effect, but for whatever reason it was outweighed (for you) by its own distinctiveness. By calling it a gimmick you haven’t actually explained how it failed to have that effect. By calling something seasoning you’re just asserting that it failed to connect with the work’s substance. Why is the thing “inflated” and not “taking advantage of the effects of repetition and examples” or “helpfully spelling out the entailments of each scene”? And so on.

It’s hard for someone to know what you mean (let alone be persuaded) if all you’re doing is gesturing towards possible critiques, unless the gesture happens to resonate with them. Substantiating the thing you’re pointing to takes more astute introspection and close reading than this. So the first thing is to recognize that there is a gap between the gesture and the substance, and the next is to recognize that this can be bridged. It’s not a matter of objective substance, but neither is it a matter of inscrutable taste and ineffable experience.

(As usual, everything is like this.)

[revised from tumblr]

  1. We often call this “bad” art. Still, sometimes it can be hard to tell the difference between a commodity and a classic. We’re only able to engage with some authors by reference alone because they were so successful.  (back)

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