Angry Robot

Of Self-Indulgence

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

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.

10 comments on "Of Self-Indulgence"

  1. TheDiscourse says:

    Actually, Destroyer is (overly?) self-indulgent and yes he ought to indulge other people otherwise he should just fuck off and lock himself away in a basement somewhere to snigger to himself and his four-track.

  2. TheDiscourse says:

    Okay I sort of call bullshit on myself. But… There is a pending TheDiscursive response to this very timely and poignant post from D-dogg here. It involves how Protestant Shame trumping Catholic guilt mirrors Postmodernism trumping Modernism and how the current adulation for virtuosity in music and literature and film is representative of a generation of young-ish white men who spent too much time talking about themselves to their mummies when they were little. Also, accountability is important in art as in life. Accountability is acutely absent in both art and life at the moment, having been overtaken by confession-as-surrogate-accountability. Confessional art, both direct and indirect, is boiling cyst on the cultural body.

  3. D says:

    Accountability to whom?

    I just used ‘self-indulgent’ again last night, in violation of whatever it was I spelt out above, and I’m inclined to believe it is in fact useful shorthand. But still…

    Write the post Disco! (Can I call you Disco?)

  4. lucielle says:

    more pictures of Cuba please.xo

  5. YourDiscourseNeedsYou says:

    Shit guy, my “accountability” trip is going to be a slippery slope… arguments for social responsibility in art have historically been dicey at best. I’m working at it… Basically I worry a lot about carte blanche navel-gazing and question the validity of art that seeks only to document an artist’s interior states, as it were. It’s selfish and lazy and disdainful. It’s boring. It’s why just about every piece of art (I challenge you to prove me wrong) done by somebody under the age of twenty is entirely forgettable and regretttable.

  6. D says:

    Well, in many ways I share your distaste for uncontrolled introspection, but a whole other genre of material produced for one’s self falls outside of that: experimentation. I like to view artistic practices as experiments (if only to overcome fear of failure). However, just because I have no ‘target market’ in mind other than myself doesn’t mean that these experiments are 100-page poems about myself. Mostly, they are fresco triptychs about mayonnaise.

    Practically speaking, I’m not sure you can come up with a non-self higher power to which one should be accountable artistically. George Bush? Voltron? Pepsi? Any given culture/society, present or past?

    Finally, with reference to youth art, I’d bring up my homie Mozart, except that I have no idea if his mass of teen composition is any good or not. I’d tend to agree that teens produce shit art, only because of their lack of experience – but then again, some people have been through more by age 19 than others go through in a lifetime. I’m just thinking now that Nas’ only good album was released when he was 21, and his singles were out when he was like 18?

    Luce, you wanna get deleted or what…?

  7. beatoswald says:

    Samirah Makhmalbaf’s first two films, made before she was twenty, are niether forgettable or regrettable. Tho i suspect films rarely get much less ‘indulgent’ than the current Iranian crop.

  8. D says:

    I think her dad was doing her homework.

  9. juice says:

    Point taken Dspot. I just read the rules & regulations by the * at bottom of post box. I promise from this day forward to stop posting random bratty requests aka off-topic comments. Perhaps you could jig something up for all the treats with rainman like qualities who ache to post on your site yet have nothing to offer but sauce.x

  10. D says:

    You know what I’ll do? I’ll set up a special place for random messages and chatter, a la dong.

    …but after the sporting match!

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