Look at a million paintings

My wife and I recently rented Les Miserables. We had seen the stage version (thanks to DeAnne’s company Christmas party) and wanted to see how the film stacked up. It was good. We were both surprised by Hugh Jackman’s performance and both disappointed by Russel Crowe’s, but that isn’t what I wanted to talk about.

While we were at the video store, my wife suggested that we grab something new for our oldest daughter to enjoy. The place where we rent videos from has free kids movies, so it was a good way to show her something new without breaking the bank. After some discussion a while back, my wife and I decided to allow our oldest a half hour of video time each week. This way, she can be exposed to new things without totally melting her brain.

The video that we grabbed for her was the animated “classic”, Dr. Seuss’ Cat in the Hat. I hadn’t seen it before, but I knew that my daughter loves the book version, so we thought it a safe choice. After all, I was familiar with the cartoon version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas with its catchy songs and half hour length; this had to be as good, right?


It was terrible. The plot was only semi-related to the original story. The songs were just awful. It was a half hour that none of us will ever get back. But here’s the thing. My daughter didn’t care how bad it was. She watched it all the same. And she might even have enjoyed it.

How is that possible? How could she not know how bad it really was?

Well, for one thing, she’s two. She likes anything on a computer or television screen that moves. And for another, she has so few things to compare it against to know how good it was.

As we were watching the travesty that was The Cat in the Hat, I was reminded of a passage in a book by my favorite author, Kurt Vonnegut. The following is from Bluebeard.

Circe Berman has just asked me how to tell a good painting from a bad one.

I said that the best answer I had ever heard to that question, although imperfect, came from a painter named Syd Solomon […]

“How can you tell a good painting from a bad one? […] All you have to do my dear,” he said, “is look at a million paintings, and then you can never be mistaken.”

It’s true! It’s true!

What’s great about this passage is that it applies to all areas of art, not just paintings. The more books, music, art, films, food, whatever we consume, the better equipped we are to tell the good from the bad.

This also answers how some books can become bestsellers when the writing is so honestly terrible. It is because the people who are reading it are not typical book readers. They don’t know it’s bad!

Anyway, if you are ever tempted to watch The Cat in the Hat, don’t waste your time. But if you want to ignore my advice, feel free.

Are there any things that you liked at first, but after expanding your repitoire, you realized were actually pretty bad?


3 responses to “Look at a million paintings

  1. Are you trying to suggest that something as subjective as art (or books or movies or whatever form of entertainment you wish to consider) can be judged in a singularly objective way as either good or bad? If the purpose of the material (perhaps including this blog) is to entertain the audience (such as myself) and the audience feels entertained, was it not good or successful?

    Aside from consuming the entire body of a particular kind of work (reading every blog entry of every blog ever written), how does one become credentialed to judge authoritatively whether a given example is either good or bad? I’ve marked some truly lame movies as five-star films lately, not because they’d win any Oscars but because they entertained me and scratched the movie itch I had at that moment. Bestsellers that are not up to the standards of snobby book critics may still satisfy the desires of the consumer; such works of “art” do not stand on their own without an audience, but that’s all art exists for, to connect with and generate a reaction in an audience.

    P.S. I would have agreed completely with a bad assessment of the non-animated version of The Cat In The Hat (the one with Mike Myers) because that really /was/ a bad movie, and borderline inappropriate for kids, IMHO.

    • Obviously, there is no accounting for taste when it comes to scratching certain itches. DeAnne and I are more inclined toward action films than chick-flicks. As to whether it is possible to judge a single piece of art on its own merit (as opposed to judging it against all other examples) I would say that this isn’t really judging it, rather it is simply enjoying it. I do not fault my oldest daughter for enjoying the cartoon version of The Cat in the Hat, but I do think that as she experiences more cartoons, she will learn to be objective about cartoons and will develop preferences and tastes as a result.

  2. Too many things to list here, Josh. Some notable recent “rewatches” that ended up disappointing… The Money Pit (Shelly Long is TERRIBLE), Flight of the Navigator (ughhh…), Long Kiss Goodnight (the ultimate ’90s movie), and even American Beauty (everything that Annette Benning and Kevin Spacey did was awesome, but everything else sagged for me).

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