Bad Art

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.

Bad Art created by one of my students. Showcasing bad technic and unnecessary emotional shock value.

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.

Sculpture 1 created by one of my students inspired by an unfortunate colour combination.

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.

Sculpture 2 inspired by an unfortunate colour combination.

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.


Teaching Art…. a journey of unexpected rewards

Years ago, when I was just starting my artist journey, a neighbour asked if I would teach her son how to paint. I had never considered becoming an art instructor; I wanted to be an artist, not a teacher. But life has a way of putting things on your path that bring unexpected rewards.

I said yes to this neighbour’s request thinking, I should at least try it. That decision opened a beautiful and fulfilling side of my career as an artist. It rapidly took proportions I didn’t expect. And, go figure, I turned out to be a really good instructor, largely because I love teaching art and I love my students. Today I teach four after school classes a week, one or two adult classes and the occasional community workshop. I limit the numbers of hours I teach to 10 or 12 a week so I can preserve my creative studio time and, so I can always be excited to welcome my students.

Many of the kids I have taught over the years started with me at the age of nine and left when they moved out of town to attend university. And, I feel proud to share that as I am writing this, seven of my former students are studying art in post-secondary school. I believe that my students stay with me for a few reasons other than what I teach them: they know how much I appreciate them, they feel at ease in my studio and they get to work on projects they choose. Most studios or art instructors assign projects to their students. In addition to the insane amount of preparation this requires from the instructor, that way of teaching art doesn’t promote continuous learning.

The only way to become a good painter or drawer or sculptor is to keep doing it. Students rapidly tire of assigned projects and just stop going to class. By allowing them to choose the focus of their creative work, be it the subject or the form, I ensure that they will continue to feel the motivation to come back every week, year after year. That’s how many of them develop strong skills. This way of teaching demands flexibility and availability on the instructor’s part. I never know what my students will want to work on, so I need to be ready for anything. I hate to say no to a project and always want to find a way to make it come together. So I only take six students at a time. That way, I can easily afford to personalize my teaching for each student’s skill level and chosen project.

One of the things I knew an artist should do in order to maintain a life-long career is to build a community of people who appreciate and recognize their work. What I didn’t realize when I took that first teaching contract was that my students and their families would constitute a large part of that community. Because of them, I’ve never felt isolated or ignored. And more importantly, I always feel like I am contributing to the world by making other lives better and more fulfilled. Over the years I’ve received many beautiful testimonials from my students and from their parents that speak of the difference I have made in their lives. They say that I’ve been a positive and enriching presence and contributed to their personal and artistic development.

Two weeks ago I was presented with the Linda Knight Award for my contribution to the Elbow Valley community through art. I am proud of that award and thrilled that my personal passion for art has had so much positive impact on the people around me.

But, as they say, ‘there’s no such thing as a completely selfless act’. Teaching brings me a lot of satisfaction and allows me to keep up to date with the world. My teen students are my social media and technology tutors.  The kids keep me young and they help me see the world as they do, full of possibilities and wonders.