The Goldfinch: A Conversation About Bad Art

Hannah Wehrung
Social Media Editor

Sooner or later, every person producing art is forced to develop a relationship with the reject pile: the “bad” pieces and “bad” performances that live on in the heart and mind in a different way. When generating art on an academic schedule, that confrontation doesn’t dawdle, and whichever way we come to assess and appreciate our work colors daily life with the thorough influence of, well, school. With this in mind, it’s worthwhile to examine how we look at bad art—ditching those skeptical quotation marks for now—and how that changes with time.

Picture me in freshman year, writing my very first fiction piece for my very first workshop for—get this—my very first fiction portfolio: imagine my picture from the staff page but with frizzier hair and thin, purple glasses, me bent irregularly over a kitchen table, cornered by a small militia of mugs for black coffee and a laptop proclaiming one AM, three AM, five AM above foot-tapping cursor.

This was all for a first draft. I can call it bad in hindsight without losing any affection for the piece, but at the time, I was willing to ditch my need for rest and even distaste for black coffee just to avoid that draft being débuted “bad”.

For scale, this year (my junior year) I wrote the full first draft for a one-act in one night. I clicked “save” before the clock struck 12. I knew very well that the piece wasn’t any good yet, and went to bed with both the knowledge that it would be read aloud the next morning’s class and the measured peace that comes with intentional incompletion. I had one goal for that first draft: that it should have convincing dialogue, and that was enough for one day.

That night was also the night that this article was born, a thought floating between my belief that my one-act was bad and my awareness that, not far away, a friend was watching a film that she expected would be bad art, but with every intention of enjoying its badness. The friend’s name is Blake, who’s a junior creative writer.

The film’s name is The Goldfinch.

Across the summer, Blake had read the book of the same name, which easily it made it to her top five favorite novels. I met up with her to talk about what those experiences—the good, the bad, and loving both—were like.

“It ended up being like a whole summer project that I was reading it and I felt like that gave me the opportunity to place myself in it more and get to fully enjoy it,” she said, “because it is a very long, very winding novel.”

Then there was the film.

“There was just this full, like, two months of suspense and excitement for that movie.

And the reviews were coming in and, god— it was just god-awful. Everyone said it, and I don’t think there was one good review from that film festival. And to tell the truth, it didn’t make me disappointed at all,” she said. “It felt very exciting to see it in any capacity because I felt that I kind of already knew it. It was already mine. And it didn’t matter if somebody else decided it was theirs in a different capacity.”

Blake’s group was the only one in the theater on the night that they went to see it, and the teller informed them that they were the only people to see it all day.

“Which was an ascendant way of viewing that film, because I could laugh as much as I wanted,” Blake said. “There’s this weird contrast in ‘Oh, this film sucks. I’m so excited to see it. This film sucks. I loved it so much’. You’re kind of coming into that dilemma of where structurally perfect and emotionally perfect conflict and, um— I’m not very eloquent.” She stopped to laugh. “Um— but I also feel like that’s kind of proving my point.”

The verdict? The film was bad art, to be sure. But bad art has merit beyond its technical skill, and independent of its competence in communicating exactly what it wishes it communicated.

“A lot of times when you’re looking at the things that make it bad, those are what help you remember: there is another person on the other end of this who is really trying to make this good, who is loving this so much. And that kind of makes you fall in love with it a little bit.”

“And John Crowley, Roger Deakins, these amazing filmmakers…. seeing them fail so astoundingly is just like, ‘this happens sometimes. It is going to happen for me,’” she said. “And I think that’s so valuable for young artists who are still developing to see: even when I’m an adult and even when I’ve grown into making good things, there will be times when I disconnect no matter how hard I’m trying.”

At this point in conversation, my elbow is rustling a poem at my side, and I’m reminded of drafting and editing that piece while sitting and typing away beside her. In tandem, I’m noticing how much of my writing is written in the daylight hours, now, with two years of seriously intentioned, semi-failed and semi-successful pieces in my repertoire.

Here’s the update: I like black coffee a lot better than I used to, but I drink mine with cream, now. My work is riskier and more vulnerable than it ever used to be, but I’m usually okay with showing them to Blake even before the first draft’s finished.

I asked what writing for school is like for her, and how that relationship has evolved with time.

“It is different,” Blake said. She took a long breath. “Art that you’ve created for a grade requires some level of commitment. You can’t really stop and be like, ‘okay, I’m not connecting to this piece. I’m either going to stop doing it or I am going to take a minute and reconnect to it,” she said. “Really, the greater product that we’re looking for is improvement of our own skills rather than that this piece of writing, right now, is going to be the best play ever. We don’t have the privilege to stop and think, ‘is this good? Is this not?’ We’re exercising [our creative muscles], we’re moving on and we’re writing something better.”

Blake smiled, chin atop fist. “And I think especially for me, sometimes that’s a lot more valuable.”

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