What does "precious" actually mean?
September 21, 2014 4:12 AM   Subscribe

I've seen the term "precious" used to describe artists' style. I'm not sure what it means.

I used to think precious meant a kind of inversion, of the sort some artists use where they imply the audience is morally flawed even though they're acting in an outrageous way.

When I looked up the word in the dictionary, however, it seemed to be saying that it describes behaviour that is excessively refined and polite. So what does that have to do with artists' provocations?

Please explain the meaning of the term "precious" in the context of artists' behaviour. Also, what does it have to do with inverted morality?

Thanks for any info.
posted by Musashi Daryl to Media & Arts (23 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I always think of it in the sense of 'effortful' but' ultimately shallow' when used in the context you're describing--in the context of work being precise and technically good but saying something utterly non-pressing and unoriginal.

I've never thought of 'precious' in the way you're describing -- what you're describing brings 'satire' to mind.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 4:19 AM on September 21, 2014 [6 favorites]

If someone used the word precious to describe a person to me, i would think that they meant the person was a bit of a "diva".
If someone described a piece of art as precious, I would think that meant it was pretty and/or very feminine, possibly a bit childish in a way. Maybe a bit kitsch?
posted by kinddieserzeit at 4:35 AM on September 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's a way to dismiss an artist's work as contemptible, not serious, and lacking depth. Generally this refers to subject matter rather than execution. It can also mean that the critic thinks the artist lacked the creative confidence to fully execute, resulting in stilted work.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:37 AM on September 21, 2014 [3 favorites]

If somebody is using the word "precious" pejoratively to describe art, I think of something cute and overly contrived. Self-conscious, maybe rather strenuously whimsical, possibly kind of pink and/or sparkly but certainly fussy. Frozen and the films of Wes Anderson wouldn't seem to have a lot in common, but I've heard both described as precious and somehow it kind of fits. It could mean something you think the artist has fussed over too much and is too proud of. I think Cirque du Soleil is rather precious, by almost any measure.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 4:47 AM on September 21, 2014 [29 favorites]

I would think "precious" primarily paints someone as being self-centred, self-regarding, concerned purely with how x stance or y speech reflects on their own self-constructed image, and directing x stance or y speech only at a small selected audience who have come together to be implicitly self-regarding together.

Whatever, I think the English usage comes from the French précieuses, as satirised by Molière and exemplified(?) by Roxane's circle in Cyrano de Bergerac

So in regard to artist's styles, it is saying something is probably excessively mannered/stylised, and certainly pretending to be something it's not (and everybody actually knows it's not) , e.g. provocative, outrageous.
posted by runincircles at 5:13 AM on September 21, 2014 [10 favorites]

Came to describe Wes Anderson's movies as precious; I see that Ursula beat me to it.

I find that precious has a lot of overlaps with twee.
posted by phunniemee at 5:14 AM on September 21, 2014 [8 favorites]

In this context definitely a diss. You know how some people say "bless your heart" in an attempt to make their insult sound polite? It's like that to me.
Other adjectives I'd associate with a piece of art that was described as precious: contrived, forced, phony and shallow.
posted by travelwithcats at 5:15 AM on September 21, 2014

When used pejoratively with respect to art, it generally has the connotation of "overly refined" and/or "deliberately cute"; "twee."
posted by slkinsey at 5:19 AM on September 21, 2014 [3 favorites]

Thomas Kinkade
posted by HuronBob at 5:26 AM on September 21, 2014 [3 favorites]

Overly concerned with portraying a certain image at the cost of true emotional depth or innovation.
posted by bearette at 5:49 AM on September 21, 2014 [8 favorites]

I've been seeing "precious" used as a pejorative (mostly online) towards the current iteration of hipsters, because of their excruciatingly contrived/calculated visual style and associated ultra-niche-y lifestyle interests. If used to critique someone's art, it could mean that their art is very witty or clever, but so calculated to fit a particular niche that it almost becomes kind of crass or mercenary...not honest or real. I'm thinking of Debord's Society of the Spectacle here with that idea of "the spectacle uses the image to convey what people need and must have." (link)

But yeah, the other option is that it is very twee or trite.
posted by cardinality at 7:53 AM on September 21, 2014

A piece of art that's undeservedly in love with its own importance and seriousness is precious.
posted by erlking at 8:02 AM on September 21, 2014 [8 favorites]

There is a product line of big eyed children called Precious Moments. People collect them. They also have a museum and a chapel where people sometimes get married. I have actually been there (shudders). I'm wondering if this is where the term originated. Someone up thread said twee, I agree.
posted by BoscosMom at 8:03 AM on September 21, 2014

This is a technique word, of sorts.

When I was struggling in the mandatory full-day figure drawing classes that were required for my degree, I had an excellent professor that had a strong career based in drawing.

I always performed well enough with the 30 second gesture drawings, but struggled with the multi-hour poses. The professor would peer over my shoulder, watching me struggle, tracing the same line over and over even thought that was probably wrong. "Don't get too precious" she would tell me at least once a week. She wanted me to re-think my original placement of that line and break free of my earlier conceptions of where the line should be.

Not being too precious was a direction to not consider my first conceptions as something that should stand even though they may not be in the best interest of the future of the drawing as it developed.
posted by littlewater at 8:14 AM on September 21, 2014 [4 favorites]

People say "bless your heart" out of compassion and sympathy far more often then as a warning. This is exactly why it has weight. People make art showing sad - eyed children for thoughtful, meaningful reasons.

People who piggyback on that style and are superficially in love with their own imagined importance are precious. (Cannot effing quote on phone. Sorry, erkling.)
posted by Lesser Shrew at 8:25 AM on September 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

To me, precious as a pejorative is being far more confident than the situation warrants. It's a statement of irony. It is something portrayed as "precious" without literally being precious.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:33 AM on September 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

I agree with a lot of the answers here. "Precious" implies art/an artist that's trying too hard or taking himself too seriously, but ultimately falling back on clichés. Art that's "precious" feels obvious, overwrought, affected. Either self-consciously shallow, or shallow and convinced it's profound. There's definitely some overlap between "precious" and "twee," "cutesy," "hipstery," but it's not an exact synonym for any of those.

Similar to littlewater, I heard it a lot in art classes. A straightforward painting of a still life might be precious due to an overly stylized composition or perspective, unrealistically saturated colors, unusual lines or brushstrokes, etc. "Precious" as a criticism generally meant "I can tell you thought this was a brilliant idea, and the execution is fine, but it's not working."
posted by Metroid Baby at 8:34 AM on September 21, 2014 [5 favorites]

To me it means, almost exclusively, self-consciously cute/precocious/wes anderson. A lot of the other meanings people are giving, I would say "pretentious" for those, not precious.
posted by neat graffitist at 10:36 AM on September 21, 2014

I like Watteau's work but I do think of it as precious, if that helps you as an example. Overworked, skillful to be sure, but ultimately shallow.
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 10:50 AM on September 21, 2014

(Wiki entry for Watteau, fyi.)
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 10:51 AM on September 21, 2014

It's a double-edged adjective. It implies that the technique is exact, but the critic doesn't care for it. But not always, sometimes it just implies an attention to detail.
posted by ovvl at 5:06 PM on September 21, 2014

It definitely means over-considered and lacking in depth. Pretentiousness can be an element of it. I like "affected" as a synonym.

It does not mean twee and has nothing to do with being sparkly or kitsch or ironic. And definitely not "cute". Wes Anderson's films are twee, not precious. I'd call Woody Allen's dramas precious.

It has nothing to do with low-culture schlock like Kinkade or the Precious Moments figurines.

Sometimes hipsters can produce work that is precious, and there's definitely a contrived/self-aware criterion in there somewhere, but precious doesn't really mean "hipsterish".
posted by Sara C. at 5:23 PM on September 21, 2014

When not talking specifically about art, "well, isn't that precious!" tends to mean that it's adorable, both in a saccharine way and in the genuine adored/loved kind of way.
When talking about art, the person may or may not have swerved away from the My Little Pony vibe (because not all comments will be made using art-critic-approved language), but assuming they have, then it starts meaning that the work is clearly very important to the artist (as opposed to something like Thomas Kinkade where the artist doesn't give a crap but it's carefully designed to push buttons and be important to a particular audience). The perjorative sense is that the artist is not sharing something of personal importance so much as the artist has become obsessed with perfection or with presenting a certain image; so the work doesn't have any freedom, it's tied down with supporting that image.
posted by aimedwander at 6:02 PM on September 21, 2014

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