My Grade 12 students showed up at my studio for their after school art class and announced they had to create a ‘bad piece of art’. Their art teacher had assigned this their first homework of the semester, and I have to say we all got pretty excited about it!
“So what makes a piece of art really bad?” I asked them. Very quickly, a long list of criteria emerged. We started with the obvious: bad technique. The painting might be bad because the artist didn’t have the technical ability to execute the work to a high enough standard. But, we decided, it would be narrow minded of us to reject a painting based solely on that criteria. After all, an image could be poorly executed but still convey such a profound meaning or provoke such a strong emotion that it becomes good art.
That led us to the next criteria: meaning. Does good art have to convey meaning in an effective way? Does it have to have meaning that is worth expressing? A lot of interior decorators would probably claim that good art doesn’t have to convey any meaning at all. It can just be a pretty picture. But who decides what relevant meaning is? Personally, I prefer art that tells a story, that expresses something more profound than just a pretty image. But ‘meaning’ is a very subjective term. In fact, after some thought, my students decided that, in the context of their homework, purposely creating artwork without meaning is deliberately inserting meaning!
And what about the perpetually misunderstood contemporary art world? At every turn of human history, artists have created work that was rejected, misunderstood or ignored by their contemporaries. Art, being exploratory in nature, should stretch the viewer’s understanding. A lot of people don’t appreciate the work shown in today’s contemporary galleries and would promptly judge it as bad art or, not art at all. I believe we should look at every piece of art with an open mind, and ask ourselves what the artist was trying to communicate, and did he/she succeed in conveying a new idea? Inevitably, I will either come to feel that I understand the artist’s meaning, or I won’t. But this is my own personal reaction to the work. The key words here are “personal” and “feel”, because all of us have our own personal idea about what is good art and what is bad art.
Our discussion went on for a while. We talked about ‘motel art’ and ‘thrift store art’, and that discussion steered us toward the idea of value. Is bad art simply artwork that has no value to anyone, be it emotional value or financial value? Motels and most hotels will spend as little as possible on the art they display and will try to appeal to the widest audience. Their intention is to make people feel comfortable in their rooms. As for the thrift stores, the art you will find there was deemed valueless by whomever dropped it off. However, you might be lucky enough to find a real gem that was tossed by someone who couldn’t recognize art if he was standing in the Louvre!
We had a great class talking about artistic value – emotional, financial or otherwise. And in the end, perceived lack of value, although not perfect, may be the closest we came to defining bad art.
Finally though, we all got down to work and one of my students decided to go for a poorly executed painting with an easy shock factor. Her painting depicts giant bugs crawling into an eye socket. She’s one of my most precise and detailed painters, so I was impressed with her self control as she deliberately failed to create excellent work. Another of the students presented with the same challenge spent a large portion of the class looking for an unpleasing colour combination. That was harder than you might think. Colours have a way of being interesting in their relationship with each other. She did succeed though, and we all agreed that the colours she settled upon during class are a very sad combination. Yet when she brought her sculptures to class the following week, all of us agreed that they were too interesting to be bad.
After two hours spent on the subject, we all agreed that intentionally creating bad art is not an easy task. We predicted that the high school class critique will conclude that most of the students didn’t succeed in their assignment. Most of them will have created something that is, in some way, and to someone, good art! Good enough, perhaps, to earn a spot at the MOBA (The Museumof Bad Art in Boston), that prides itself on collecting “art that is too bad to be ignored”. It’s an eclectic and delightful collection. Created in 1993, the MOAB was an instant success and its fame grows day by day. Roaming through their website, you can’t help but find the collection both fascinating and funny, although I’d have to say most of the work is very poorly executed.