What is Bad Art? and why is there a museum collecting it?

For 24 years a small team of art enthusiasts have been building a collection of art in Boston.

But the art these people isn't what you'd find in the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.

Their collection includes more than 600 pieces of art bought from thrift stores or rescued from garbage bins and alleyways...

or donated by the artists themselves.

The collection is displayed in three locations:

The Unified Arts Building in Brookline

The New England Wildlife Center (not pictured)

and the basement of the Somerville Theatre

The galleries are often rotated. There's usually a curatorial theme beyond "bad art." This month's theme is "The Zoo."

But what makes art bad? If it's bad why build a museum to house it?

"I loved seeing other people come into the museum. I loved seeing how much fun they were having. Laugher is something you don't hear much in a museum. There's a stigma that you have to be quiet that art isn't meant to entertain." said artist, writer and art critic Candice Bancheri

The Museum of Bad Art isn’t alone. It follows a somewhat ignominious path first carved out in the 1800s by poets Julia Moore and William McGonagall. Ironically dubbed the Sweet Singer of Michigan, Moore wrote many, poems about death and is rumored to have inspired Mark Twain’s poeteaster character Emmeline Grangerford. McGonagall wrote “The Famous Tay Whale,” a poem decried as the worst poem in the English language by contemporary critics. Both poets attracted a cult following. McGonagall was known to read his poems at a circus to raucous crowds

Each art form has produced a cult icon. The tone-deaf diva, Florence Foster Jenkins performed at Carnagie Hall to delighted crowds.

Andrew Lloyd Webber's Starlight Express, a musical roller-skate disco romance about anthropomorphized trains is one of many "So bad it's good" musicals. It was so beloved by the Germans that they built a dedicated theater to show it year-round.

Film boasts an entire subgenre of the so-bad-its-good. Dedicated cult film buffs trawl discarded VHS and DVD bins for discarded, strange ephemera. The genre is big enough to have its own auteurs like Tommy Wiseau, Neil Breen and James Nguyen.

On the surface the appreciation and consumption of bad art might seem cruel. It’s easy to see schadenfreude in the laughs of MOBA-goers. The audience call-outs at midnight screenings of the infamously bad Showgirls might seem cruel.

Bad art-lovers of all strokes don’t see it this way.

In Appreciating Bad Art, philosophers John Dyck and Matt Johnson argue that it is not simply earnestness, or massive creative failures that provoke our fascination. If it were simply enough for a creative work to be bad, they argue, than any bad movie would meet the standard. We’d classify things like The Emogi Movie along with cult classics like Birdemic: Shock and Terror.

But that’s not the case.

(Warning: this video has charmingly obnoxious sound)

Dyck and Johnson claim that the “so-bad-its-goodness” of some art comes from the way in which they are bad. Artistic failure in these works lends them an uncanny, or bizarre quality stemming from the clash between the artist’s intent and the actual effect. “That underlying order falls out from beneath you,” they write, “ since the bizarreness is not intended.

“Seeing bad art may be like seeing an architectural ruin.” they write.

At the MOBA the walls are lined with bizarre artifacts of creativity, gently mocked with captions.

“It’s playing on the idea that the captions at a museum are always telling what to think about the piece,” said Bancheri, “Do you have to know exactly what the artist meant by the work to appreciate something? Or can you just appreciate it for what it is?”

“These are funny on their own. They’re just great,” She said.


Photos by: Vincent Gabrielle

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