We can all think of self-indulgent things: eating your entire birthday cake, John Woo’s penchant for doves in slow motion, Kill Bill.
I was thinking about this criticism, knowing I myself have called stuff self-indulgent on many occassions, but I tend to have a lingering doubt about what it really means. Only way to solve that is to crack out the dictionary.com:
self-indulgent: Excessive indulgence of one’s own appetites and desires
or Indulging one’s appetites, desires, etc., freely
There’s something puritan about these definitions, with their indirect equation of freedom with excess, and their distaste for both. But moreover, from Destroyer’s Dan Bejar who was at the receiving end of the pejorative because of his album This Night (and many more): “This whole notion of self-indulgence baffles me, as if I’m supposed to be indulging someone else.”* Point well taken; in most uses (especially as a description of art), the self- part is redundant, and we should be concerned with the definition of indulge:
To yield to the desires and whims of, especially to an excessive degree
Yet more excess! Even if we are indulging someone else, it seems to be a bad thing. Latin roots, from indulgere “to be kind or tender to one”. From the other definitions we get a strong sense of parenting, of indulgent parents letting their kids run free, unable or unwilling to crack the whip where warranted. In other words, a lack of sternness, and in the context of artistic work one is letting one’s inner child run free; like Fellini and his admitted obsession with enormous whores. It’s all too easy to couch it in psychoanalytical language, so I will: id, meet superego.
There’s an interesting undercurrent to the concept of indulgence that crops up in this definition: “to engage or take part, especially freely or avidly.” There’s another term that has always fascinated me, and that’s “entertainment”, and about the only meaningful thing one can squeeze out of that concept is “that which engages”. We all like entertainment, right? So we like being engaged. But wait, to engage too freely is a bad thing?
If we return to the idea of artistic self-indulgence, the criticism basically means that the artist is engaging himself as opposed to the audience (especially the critic). The critic says, I wanted your album/film/book to engage me, but with your nonstop slow-motion shots of doves in churches, you engaged yourself. You really let yourself go. Possibly that’s what it is. But anyone who creates knows that it’s difficult to ascertain what the audience and/or critics actually will want, even if one wants to give them what they want. Moreover if you cater exclusively to the audience at the expense of your own artistic desires, then you are pandering, which of course is almost the original definition of indulgence: to “minister to the evil designs and passions of another,” which makes you a panderer – that is, a pimp. When you do battle with the English language’s monstrous biblical heritage, you just can’t win!
But surely it’s less sinful to self-pimp? If you follow late-period Freud and/or any-period Brett Easton Ellis, then you believe you will never meaningfully engage with another, that communication is simply projection, that the only person you can know is yourself. Even if you believe in a less cynical world, in which it is possible to engage other humans via artistic media, you must indulge yourself in some way – you can’t remove your needs and desires from the engagement altogether.
I could nudge this burgeoning theory toward my understanding of art as war, as an engagement between two opposed forces, the creator and the receiver, but that’s not the point. The point is to point out that “self-indulgent” is a pointless criticism, yet another way to blame the artist when you don’t like what they did. John Woo’s doves are heavy-handed, This Night is inaccessible, and Kill Bill is too long, but none of them are self-indulgent.