The Death of Shock, for its Own Sake

In “An Extended Interview with David Foster Wallace,” Larry McCafferty converses with Wallace about Wallace’s past, his style of writing, and the state of his generation of artists. Wallace, ever the introvert, steers the main bulk of this interview away from himself and out into a critical discussion of the motivations and inspirations of his peers. Wallace did not have many nice things to say, and he referred to his generation as “orphans” at the climax of the interview. Wallace doesn’t make that claim out of the blue, however. He brings up various points along the way to verify his view that some of the artists of his time are lacking in inspiration. First, he claims that artists of today are simply “crank-turners.” He then goes on to say that some artists are rebelling without a cause. Finally, Wallace describes those artists with a brilliant analogy of unsupervised minors.

Wallace claims that a lot of modern artists are simply “crank-turners.” This means that they basically rehash the same brilliant things that the pioneers before them fought for. While the geniuses that came before them had to put blood, sweat, and tears into a masterpiece “machine,” or style, anyone can now simply walk up to the machine and “turn the crank,” producing little pellets of “art” that can barely be called art. Wallace sees this as a bad thing, because the real art was the struggle to make the machine in the first place, and today’s hacks can create these meaningless pellets whenever they want for the popularity. Since artists can do this freely, without repercussion, what we have is “death by acceptance.” Audiences will accept just about anything these days, which makes the most important things seem less revolutionary. In the past, there was “death-by-neglect,” and Wallace sees this inversion as grotesque. Wallace recognizes that artists today can act freely, and can basically do whatever they wish in terms of creativity. This has led artists to rebel against anything that they wish, without any consequences. However, he feels that this could possibly be a bad thing, since artists now have no cause to rebel against, and rebelling is the end, instead of the means. Wallace claims that now, artists tend to “shock” for its own sake, with no bigger picture in mind. He sites the old artist Duchamp’s display of a urinal at an art gallery. While, back in the day, this was very shocking, Duchamp wanted to make art critics really think about what true art really was. He displayed something that we usually never see outside of a bathroom, but it was because he had a bigger goal in mind. Wallace claims that today, without any cause, an artist would display something like a urinal simply to be funny, and Wallace doesn’t believe that this would be “serious” art.

Wallace sums up his viewpoint with a brilliant analogy. He claims that today’s artists are like the children of the great pioneers before them, who have left the house vacant for the night. Naturally, the kids go wild and throw a party. But when the house starts getting destroyed, and the fun has worn off, the kids just wish that their parents would return home. This seems like a childish analogy, since it involves underage drinking, but it is really quite brilliant. The kids are in the home that their parents built, and so they are able to do whatever they want. However, they don’t know how to do anything but go crazy and cause destruction. This reflects how artists of today simply “shock” for its own sake, with no real goal. Wallace ultimately calls for an end of shock and a return to sentimentality, but even he finds his own call too “sappy,” and doesn’t know how this will come to fruition.

I have to agree with Wallace in his interpretation. In my own experience with today’s artists, they seem to be testing the boundaries of shock, and finding that there are none. This can be seen anywhere form music to television. Wallace himself sites MTV, but Comedy central is also a suspect. Artists like Tyler, the Creator and Miley Cyrus are also trying to find the boundary of shock value, and may have fallen down the endless tunnel where it leads.

If you watch TV on Wednesday night, you can tune in to see Workaholics, a show about three friends who work a low-demand job as telemarketers. The show’s basis is basically how much they can smoke, drink, and party, and there really isn’t much of a deeper message. Each episode tries to “one-up” itself in terms of shock, and while this leads to some interesting scenarios, there isn’t a good moral to be found. Many other shows seem to follow suit, like Broad City, which not coincidentally runs right after Workaholics. The two shows are basically the same, except the latter one features women. Shock value is the main draw, and, once again, there really isn’t a deeper message to ever be found. Musicians are doing the same thing. The most famous culprit is Miley Cyrus, might be the embodiment of what Wallace is talking about. Miley went from being the sentimental child star to the shock value queen that has sex with foam fingers on TV in front of the entire nation. The popularity of this type of music is apparent on radios and at any party that you may find yourself. The lyrics usually don’t go deeper than “drink as much as you can” and “party every weekend.” There must be something wrong when young children today are singing the words to Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda,” which is all about sex.

I agree with Wallace that there needs to be a return to sentimentality and wholesomeness. Shock for it’s own sake can be entertaining for a while, but eventually people will get bored of it. However, the transition from “adult” shock back to “childish” and “sappy” entertainment should prove to be difficult. Who, after watching their first R-rated film, returns to watching Winnie the Poo? However, artists and audiences alike should eventually come to realize that shock for it’s own sake has gotten stale. Like Wallace, I believe that the return to sentimentality is inevitable. Whether this will come from a new type of revolution to give artists a cause, or whether they will simply get bored of shock and try to sink their creative teeth into something more serious, a more meaningful and satiating type of entertainment is due for a return.

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1 Response to The Death of Shock, for its Own Sake

  1. You’re drawing our attention to some interesting things in a very, very important interview, but I wish you had gone a bit more into the specifics of what Wallace is talking about (i.e., postmodern metafiction). Working with a few specific places, or quoting DFW’s interesting insights, would have allowed you to unpack this interview even further.


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