The Four Branches of Bad Art

This is the first post of a blogchain with Jinjin Sun on the theme: “Why Bad Art”. We’ll be exploring the mysteries and pleasure of so-called “bad” art: why we like it, what it actually means, and perhaps how we can make bad art (that’s actually good) in meaningful ways. More to come!

This blogchain conversation is inspired by our mutual love and appreciation for bad art. That’s not to say we enjoy art that is total garbage. There’s a certain sort of mode, or set of modes, wherein bad art is actually good, and I want to dig in a bit and identify what that is, and how it works.

(Also, why we gravitate towards such good badness!)

When we speak of “bad art”, we can mean different things, so let’s start by focusing in on which meaning(s) are most interesting or relevant.

As a simple first-pass taxonomy I’d posit these branches of bad art:

  1. Art that tries and fails: unsuccessful art; art that wants to achieve certain goals, but can’t get there, whether for lack of talent, lack of understanding, or some sort of misguided approach.
  2. Art with inadequate ambition: lazy art; art that doesn’t try hard enough (related to but distinct from art with ambition that is modest but meets its goals, for example purely decorative art); art that could be so much better if only it reached further and really put in the work.
  3. Art with ignorable flaws: art that is pleasing despite itself; art with certain good aspects that outweigh the bad, if only you compartmentalize. A subtype of this is “so bad it’s good” art: guilty pleasure art, its enjoyable aspects entangled with its defects.
  4. Art that’s more than meets the eye: art that camouflages its own true aims; art that only seems bad because you’re not looking at it the right way; art where the bad is a veneer that obscures the good, but with a shift of perspective, inverts itself; ugly duckling art.

The first and second branches describe art that fails in different ways. The third is fun, on a limbic level, but not usually substantial.

The fourth branch of bad art is, I think, the interesting one. And we can break this down further: why can art seem bad, but actually be good if you look at it differently? Or, I also should say, think about it differently — for much of the bad art that’s fun to think about lies in the realm of the hypothetical!

I think a lot of the bad art we enjoy talking about or conceptualizing — often of a kind of absurdist bent, impossible or just plain weird — straddles branches three and four. It’s fun to talk about silly ideas just for the sheer goofy pleasure of it, but it can also be interesting when there’s some kind of deeper idea at play beneath the surface. This might include art that on first glance seems ugly but actually contains an interesting way of reframing definitions of beauty. Or art on a superficially boring topic, but that actually holds some sly critique.

This sort of bad art seems to operate similarly to other types of abstraction, and also to other types of humor, particularly that which is multi-layered or recursive in some way, like satire. In both, a sense of compression, and also perhaps a sort of obfuscation or protectiveness at work, where the bad or at least misleading outer appearance is intentionally masking what’s within. This can be intended either to make the audience work to reveal its inner workings, or to limit those secrets to a very specific sort of audience entirely.

I called this series “Why Bad Art” — intentionally meant as a vague prompt that might be asking the questions “why does bad art exist?” as well as “why do we like to think about bad art?” and also perhaps “why should we make bad art?”

So, what do you think, does this accurately describe the landscape of bad art, and perhaps start to get at why we like thinking about it? Any other thoughts on those questions? Maybe we can talk about some specific examples of bad art we like or think is interesting. What would a good “bad art practice” look like?