Google ‘bad art’ and the results are delightful. You’ll find scores of well-intentioned but dreadfully poor paintings. Misshapen pets, family members with alarmingly detailed teeth, the unavoidable sonic fan art, and somewhat inexplicably, many, many Michael Jacksons. While often ugly, with discomforting proportions and ruinous rendering, there’s something compelling about terrible art. There’s often a strange energy, a vitality that overwhelms the artist’s lack of skill. Most people who are bad at painting just avoid putting brush to canvas, but the muses seem to bless the bad artist who paints anyway.
The draw towards bad art is real, with umpteen blogs, Facebook groups, and twitter accounts collecting, sharing and commenting on bad art. There’s even a museum in Somerville Massachusetts, whose collection of 700+ awful artworks are grouped into collections such as “poor traits” and “in the nood.” Bad art saw a fun little resurgence in 2013, when a leaked email revealed the retired U.S. President George W. Bush’s collection of his own sorrowful little paintings, a secret hobby-turned popular mockery (and now, in 2021, a seemingly thoughtful artistic practice? Go figure). But the fascination with bad art begs the question—if it’s so bad, why is it fun to look at?
Bad art might not be bad. It might be naive. Naive art as a label lacks a lot of nuance, and it’s also been called Art Brut, primitive art, or as Obelisk refers to it: Outsider art. Outsider art can describe artwork created outside the influence of a dominant aesthetic or academic tradition. Western interest in outsider art was really kicked off by Jean Dubuffet, a French painter and sculptor who became obsessed with the idea that formal academic training constrained personal expression. Dubuffet looked to children, psychiatric patients, and uneducated prisoners for a more “pure” form of art. It was a deeply problematic idea, to say the least, it did popularize incredible artists like Aloïse Corbaz and Adolf Wölfli, and establish a cultural fascination with art that didn't just break the rules, but didn't even seem to be aware of them.
Calling any work of art ‘bad’ without additional detail risks falling into snobbery, and has time and again landed critics on the dork’s end of history as culture evolves, and art deemed irrefutably crap turned out to be ahead of its time. Critic Felix Deriege called Edouard Manet’s modernization of the nude form, Olympia, a portrait of perfect ugliness: “Her face is stupid, her skin cadaverous.” That’s pretty mean, Felix. Critic John Ruskin claimed that James Whistler’s mysterious and evocative depiction of fireworks over the Cremorne Gardens in London, called Nocturne in Black and Gold, was so lazy as to be insulting, like “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.”
In recent years the pendulum seems to have swung away from aggressive criticism, influenced by the advent of postmodernism, ironic saturation, or the art-fair commodification of artwork as currency for the wealthy. In other words—don't be too critical, ‘bad’ art might be intentionally bad, and if it sells, who cares?
Remember the banana? Nowhere is the contemporary confusion around ‘bad art’ as perfectly encapsulated as in Maurizio Cattelan’s “Comedian.” Revealed at the epicenter of art-as-stock-market Art Basel Miami Beach, Cattelan leveled up his long-time status as art prankster by duct-taping a banana to a wall, naming it comedian and cashing in by selling multiple “editions” of the artwork for around $120,000 a pop. Instantly it was both reviled as the pinnacle of late-stage capitalist folly, and lauded as a brilliant critique of late-stage capitalist folly. Comedian became a litmus-test for the ever-shrinking art-aware public, with each camp judging the other. Call it a bullshit publicity stunt, and you're guilty of ignoring the subtleties of its commentary on a male-dominated field and failing to appreciate the staggering simplicity of its execution. Praise the work and you're a sycophantic simp brainwashed by a corrupt industry and duped by an obvious “how stupid are they” test. For art critics it was a lose-lose topic, and most approached the artwork with an agonizing level of caution. Makes you miss Ruskin, doesn't it?
Discussing her 2016 show “Bad Art” curator Anna Choutova defined bad art, saying “Bad Art is unchallenging, safe, and stale. Art that has nothing new to offer, nothing interesting to bring to the table. Background noise if you will, elevator music. I think that the worst art is art that has the least capacity to be disliked by the viewer.” This is an incredibly common approach to evaluating art today—that art is only as good as it is provocative, that quality is equivalent to the ability to catch attention, get under your skin, get you hot, get you pissed, get you wound up. The problem with this approach is how narrowly it frames the purpose of art. Sure, contemporary art often feels most salient as a counter-narrative, a barb, a raised middle finger. But that’s a hugely western-centric, post WWII framing. Historically, and in cultures around the world, art has many more purposes: to educate, to share stories, to memorialize loved ones, to pass on traditions, to manifest divine messages, or, in the case of the Thomas Kinkade that hung in my grandparents nursing home, to provide a simple comfort.
Yes. There totally is. Bad art is everywhere, and it’s pretty easy to identify. Even a lot of famous works by famous artists are bad. But bad art also might be good. Like the picture-perfect coworker you hate because they're so put-together, or the hot-mess friend who comes through when you're down, art can be many things at once. Appalling, stupid, ignorant and at the same time compelling. Beautiful artwork can be saccharin and trite and boring. And boring art might be medicine to someone whose life is sliding into chaos. To love art, to be critical of art, to really see and feel and engage with art is to hold many things in your hands at once. Hate an artwork and appreciate it, idolize it and mock it, know that it is bad and love it anyway.
Reed Enger, "Is there such a thing as Bad Art?, Yes, but it's complicated," in Obelisk Art History, Published November 02, 2020; last modified November 22, 2022, http://arthistoryproject.com/essays/is-there-such-a-thing-as-bad-art/.