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A Love Letter to Bad Art (from a Humanities Major)

Bad Art

By Lina H. R. Cho, Contributing Opinion Writer
Lina H. R. Cho ’23 is a Comparative Literature concentrator in Dunster House. Her column “Bad Art” typically appears on alternate Mondays.

I’ve been in a really good place with my reading lately.

By a “really good place,” I mean that I’ve actually been picking up books and voluntarily reading them. Many college students — especially those majoring in the humanities like I am — will know what I’m talking about. When you spend the whole day reading verbose academic articles and heavy literature, it can be hard to find the motivation to pick up yet another book at the end of the day. It’s tempting to just scroll through TikTok for an hour instead or to rewatch that comfort sitcom for the 40th time.

But this semester, I’ve been reading — genuinely, truly, reading — in my spare time.

Before you get the wrong idea, let me be perfectly clear. I’m not reading books that you’d write an essay on. Rather, I’ve been reading books with titles like “Classified as Murder” and “The Quiche of Death.”

Yes, I’ve been reading “lowbrow” novels, specifically those of the “cozy mystery” variety. At this point, you might be thinking: So what? But for me, this is a significant change. It’s not just the fact that I’m reading these kinds of books; it’s also that I’m talking about reading these kinds of books. Instead of snatching quick, guilty chapters here and there, or rambling for ages trying to justify my choice of reading material to my confused friends, I’ve been more confident — and defiant — about how I choose to spend my time. It’s all part of my recent efforts to wholeheartedly embrace the so-called “bad art” in the world, and to unlearn the biases that have been drilled into me from time immemorial.

I started this column because sometimes, being a literature concentrator is bewildering. We occupy a weird space wherein our chosen area of study — art — is both the most and least accessible discipline. On the one hand, everyone consumes art every single day. Everyone reads; everyone watches films and TV, and everyone has an opinion on what they see and consume. There is no barrier to entry for art (or at least, there shouldn’t be).

At the same time, the way art is studied at a higher level is nowhere near what you would call easily approachable. It’s not just a matter of sitting down and writing what you think about books; at least, not at first. Like any other formal discipline, in the beginning, there are endless layers of high-level theory, specialized language, and dense, challenging concepts to learn. All this means that an interesting phenomenon occurs: your taste as a human (what do I like to read and watch?) is developed at the same time as your taste as a scholar (what do I like to critically read and watch?)

This is fine, for the most part — there’s bound to be a natural overlap between the two. But they can never be perfectly harmonious, and because the scholar’s tastes will often shame the human’s tastes, it becomes very hard to have a healthy relationship with art, especially “bad” art. When all of our class time is spent with a rigid definition of what constitutes “good” art that is worthy of study, the pressure to have good taste tends to leak beyond the academic setting. When English professors make small talk and ask you what you’ve been reading lately, for example, they expect to hear a title that’s been reviewed by The New York Times, not something with a “BookTok Approved!” sticker on the front page. Similarly, when you tell people you’ve been trying your hand at writing, everyone expects you to be working on Serious Fiction, not a story about sword fights or space pirates. In short, for us humanities majors, a constant battle between the scholar and human occurs, wherein there’s an overwhelming amount of pressure for the scholar to swallow up the human completely.

But the problem is, no one can be a scholar all the time.

The thing that my literature concentration made me forget is that art is not just my academic bread and butter, but my source of healing and entertainment. As I get older, and think more critically about what and how I consume, it’s become more important than ever to remember to keep the two categories equal. To be okay with loving tales of quiche-themed murders or secret magical investigations in London as much as I love deeply complex, “thinky” reflections on the human spirit.

It hasn't been a straightforward path to get here. I’ve abandoned my principles and regressed to snooty gatekeeping and pooh-poohing of “lowbrow” art on many occasions. Interestingly, these were also the times when I was reading the least; when I was the least relaxed; and when I was the most miserable.

So, to end, a note to all my fellow arts concentrators: Take a step back. Don’t trick and guilt yourself out of honest enjoyment and fun. Pick up that military space opera novel, that murder mystery set in a cat cafe, or that romance graphic novel about two polite British teenagers.

And the next time someone asks you what you’ve been reading lately, don't scramble for the last Booker-nominated title that the scholar in you hobbled through. Instead, let the human in you answer — and don’t forget to hold your head up high as you do.

Lina H. R. Cho ’23 is a Comparative Literature concentrator in Dunster House. Her column “Bad Art” typically appears on alternate Mondays.

Lina H. R. Cho ’23
Lina H. R. Cho ’23

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