Good Things that Bad Art Makes Us Do
The inspirational power of poorly made artworks.
CHARLIE AND SHEBA- Anonymous, Oil on canvas, 18” x 14” . Purchased at a thrift store in Boston, MA. Collection of MOBA (with permission). Label text: “No longer able to tolerate the incessant barking, Charlie the Chipmunk uses a Band-Aid to tape Sheba the Sheepdog’s mouth shut before posing with her on the picnic table.”
Over the course of my career as educator, whenever I have led a class discussion about best practices in art or other matters, I have often encountered an interesting phenomenon: when discussing art projects or ideas that are generally (collectively, critically, historically) deemed as great achievements, it is sometimes difficult to elicit a conversation among my students about what it is exactly that makes them so. If, in contrast, I turn the group’s attention onto art that has been badly made, projects that have been poorly conceived or events or actions that are ineptly planned and are clearly deemed as failures, the group’s eyes generally lit up, smiles appear, and they are more than happy to engage and contribute to a reflection about shortcomings and defects.
The reason behind these reactions might be very simple: great art and ideas are difficult to appreciate in all their complexity, and the task can feel daunting particularly for those of us who don’t feel capable to produce something at that level; the conceptual and production issues this endeavor undertakes are hard to even imagine or play out in our mind since we have never been able to work with that degree of nuance and depth. We admire a great work, and we might find it inspiring, but it is hard to explain why, and it can be at times intimidating, challenging our own ability to fully embrace the work intellectually. In contrast, bad art, when it is so bad to the point that it makes us laugh, empowers us in a surprising way: it allows us to recognize amongst ourselves that there are some basic conceptual and technical rules that need to be followed that the author of the work is clearly unable to follow or meet. Art history is overpopulated with anecdotes about those who become artists after looking at the work of other artists (most famously Correggio, who in what is today considered an apocryphal anecdote, supposedly exclaimed “Anch'io sono pittore!” after looking at the work of Raphael). However, more hidden— and this is something that I find interesting that it is not discussed more— is the fact that while good art is inspiring, bad art can be just as inspiring, if not more.
I write this not just from observation with others but from direct experience. Back in 2005, I was attending an elegant museum benefit, being one of many artists who had contributed a work toward the museum’s blind auction. At the event, I saw a collage work submitted by an artist friend who also was participating in the auction. The work was rather underwhelming, and it immediately made me think that the bar being so low, I would be capable to make a better work.
Only now, 17 years later, I realize that this rather random encounter had something to do with the fact that I soon after started making collages, and that the practice resulted in a kind of nightly ritual and obsession, all rolled into one, resulting in many thousands of works up to date.
As it is the case with most art projects, it is hard for an artist to fully explain why they choose to work the way they do. However, seen in perspective, I believe that my interest in this practice stems partially from my encounter with that poor collage in that auction, and the comfort and stimulation that I feel by making an unpretentious work with simple materials that does not have to bear the scrutiny typically given to a major artwork. The humility of the work and the materials become liberating. But the primary impulse, I suspect, will always correct something that I once saw, or didn’t see, in that bad artwork in 2005.
When you are scrolling down on your phone’s social media you are likely to see a range of app game ads that dare you to solve a puzzle that appears unsolvable to a character on the screen: “ 99% people fail at this!” “Word challenge!” Before you know it, you are trying to prove to yourself that you can easily figure it out.
This advertising strategy is based on the psychological principle that we are wired to like watching how others fail at something we are confident we can do, and this motivates us to try it ourselves. According to various studies, people like watching fails, which generally serves as the hook for these ads.
Perhaps I am alone in this, but I see a connection between game app fails that inspire us to try our hand at solving a problem and bad art that inspire us to try our hand at art making. Cognitively, we perceive a situation that requires adjustment and organization —like seeing a crooked picture on the wall— and our natural impulse is to act to correct that misalignment (when the practice is compulsive, it is often diagnosed as a OCD subtype known as Just Right Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, or something similar to what the character Monk—the detective played by Tony Shalhoub— exhibited).
To prove my point about the creative —and I would argue, artistic— responses that bad art provokes, I want to turn to one of my favorite case studies in underwhelming aesthetics: The Museum of Bad Art (MOBA).
This museum was founded in 1993 by antiques dealer Scott Wilson, who once found a painting on the side of the road in Boston and shared it with some friends. The piece, later titled “Lucy in the Field with Flowers” became the foundational work of the collection. Wilson continued to build his collection in Dedham, Massachusetts, with works that possessed similar traits and met the eventual mission statement of sorts of the museum, which is to collect “art that is too bad to be ignored.” Co-founder Jerry Reilly further elaborated the museum’s purpose in 1995: "While every city in the world has at least one museum dedicated to the best of art, MOBA is the only museum dedicated to collecting and exhibiting the worst.” The museum has existed in various locations, first in the basement of the Dedham Community Theatre, then a brief presence in Brookline (according to their website, “we were suddenly and unexpectedly evicted from the walls of the Brookline access television station”), South Weymouth and currently in the basement of the Somerville Theatre (going back to its theater basement roots).
Anonymous, Lucy in the Field with Flowers. Acquired from trash in Boston. MOBA collection (with permission)
I spoke with MOBA’s chief curator, Michael Frank, regarding their museum. He shared a few rules that they follow in assembling their collection. A key guiding curatorial principle is that the work needs to show evidence of serious intent and display serious defects in its making; they do not accept works by artists who deliberately make kitsch. If, on the contrary, “the poor technique results in a compelling image, that is interesting to me.”
Frank also clarified a few important aspects about the collection to me. I had mistakenly thought, for example, that most of the works in the collection are anonymous, but that is not really the case, according to Frank: “About a third of the collection are works donated by the actual artists themselves.” Surprisingly, many of the artists are very happy to be in the collection—such as the author of a work consisting in a mouth spewing Rubik’s cubes, a piece that Frank described as “Rubik Cubism.”
SPEWING RUBIK'S CUBES, K. Koch. Oil on canvas, 24" x 18”; Purchased at a thrift store in Boston, MA, May 2007. Label text: “This image of the classic 1980s toys emanating from a jester gargoyle's mouth can only be described as puzzling. This is a fine example of Rubik’s Cubism.”
There are of course exceptions— such as a professional illustrator for Marvel comics who felt insulted that his work was included, after which the museum returned the work to him. “I don’t want anybody to feel bad,” says Frank. He emphasized to me several times that their critical focus was always on the work and they have no intention of making fun of the artists (although I confess that I am more perplexed by those artists who don’t take the inclusion into a bad art collection personally).
I asked Frank whether they have considered collecting bad conceptual art. “I find it difficult to be ironic about conceptual art and non-representational art”, he says. He talked about the contemporary art institutions in the Boston area which he sometimes visits, like the ICA. “I’ll go there and scratch my head, not really understand why it is important.” He feels his museum offers a respite to viewers who don’t feel informed enough about contemporary art. “When people look at our collection, they don’t have to worry about that.”
The formal presentation of the works, in his view, is a way to do a bit of a parody about the self-importance of art museums. And part of that presentation is the label text. In Frank’s words, he “interpretates” every work (in his view, the works are so vexing that merely “interpreting” them would be insufficient). “I put a lot of work into those”, he said. “The interpretations are important to explain what MOBA is all about.”
Frank’s interpretations are indeed the soul of MOBA: each work almost invariably has one. In one work, the accompanying interpretive text reads: “This is a delightful example of labor-intensive pointlessism.” A category of the collection titled “Dopplehangers” bears the subtitle: “Poor Traits that, intentionally or not, resemble famous people.” Meanwhile, the section “ In the Nood (caution: contains noodity)” includes a piece with the description: “MOBA curators believe this painting, as well as others in the collection, may have been affected by the artist never actually having seen a naked woman.” And sometimes the interpretation is directly taken from the inscription left by the actual artist on the piece: “[this is my] partner Lyn, losing the battle with the middle objective of her research grant proposal (something to do with crosstalk between insulin-like growth factor binding proteins and retinoid-X receptor heterodimerization, since you ask.)”
MOBA, while not intentionally so, may be a conceptual work in it of itself: a rare form of conceptual outsider art (or a unique form of outsider institutional critique) where, in a Duchampian way, the interpretive texts serve the role of completing the work. But more importantly, this project illustrates the infinite capacity of bad art to inspire us. Art history might one day have to consider, beyond the extensive study and cataloguing of masterpieces and aesthetic geniuses, to delve into the yet unexplored but deep and powerful impact of those who placed the bar so low that they inspired others to propel upwards.