Appreciating Bad Art

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  1. 1.

    Stephen Leacock, Humor and Humanity: An Introduction to the Study of Humor (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1938), p. 180.

  2. 2.

    Quoted in Thomas J. Riedlinger, Introduction to Mortal Refrains: The Complete Collected Poetry, Prose, and Songs of Julia A. Moore, The Sweet Singer of Michigan (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1998), p. 1.

  3. 3.

    Interview with Neil Gaiman in the New York Times Sunday Book Review (p. BR8). May 6, 2012.

  4. 4.

    For some examples, see Carroll, “Art, Intention, and Conversation,” in Intention and Interpretation, ed. Gary Iseminger (Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1992), pp. 97–131; Denis Dutton, “Why Intentionalism Won’t Go Away,” pp. 194–209 in A.J. Cascardi (ed.), Literature and the Question of Philosophy (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987); Kendall Walton, “Postscript”, in Marvelous Images: On Values and the Arts (Oxford UP, 2008), pp. 21–22. The phenomenon, as pertains to movies, is known in film studies as ‘paracinema’, where discussion of those works pertains to their socio-political aspects. The treatment of paracinema began with Jeffrey Sconce’s influential article, “‘Trashing’ the Academy: taste, politics, and an emerging politics of cinematic style,” Screen 36 (1995): 371–393. See also Sleaze Artists: Cinema at the Margins of Taste, Style, and Politics, ed. Jeffrey Sconce (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007).

  5. 5.

    This thought may suggest a meta-response analysis of good-bad art, for example Feagin’s account of tragedy. See Susan Feagin, “The Pleasures of Tragedy,” American Philosophical Quarterly 20 (1983): 95–104. While there are interesting and important similarities to be gleaned here, we believe that Feagin’s account has to do with a psychological structure of our response, rather than about the structure of its value. We are here concerned with the latter question rather than the former. Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for this.

  6. 6.

    See Daniel Jacobson, “In Praise of Immoral Art,” Philosophical Topics 25 (1997): 155–199; Matthew Kieran, “Forbidden Knowledge: The Challenge of Immoralism,” pp. 56–73 in Bermudez and Gardner (eds), Art and Morality (London: Routledge, 2003); Anne Eaton, “Robust Immoralism,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 70 (2012): 281–292.

  7. 7.

    James Grant, for example, implicitly takes appreciation to require warrant. On Grant’s view, “Grant says that in many cases, “appreciation does not simply involve responding appropriately. It involves responding appropriately for appropriate reasons.” James Grant, The Critical Imagination (Oxford UP: New York, 2013), p. 35. The appropriate means constraint is equivalent, for our purposes, to warrant. Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for bringing this account to our attention.

  8. 8.

    A reviewer for this paper has insightfully asked whether there may be instances of things which are the opposite: bad because good. The reviewer notes that, following Williams and Gibbard, it may seem that some actions are ethically bad because they are too morally “good”, or too prudish. Likewise, some art may be bad because it is too perfect. We are hesitant to say whether this phenomenon exists; there seem to be plausible ways of redescribing the cases so that they are cases of ordinary badness.

  9. 9.

    See Christy Mag Uidhir, “Failed-Art and Failed Art-Theory,” Australasian Journal of Philosophy 88(2010): 381–400.

  10. 10.

    See also David Davies, “On the Very Idea of ‘Outsider Art’,” British Journal of Aesthetics 49 (2009): 25–41, p. 39.

  11. 11.

    Thanks to John Hacker-Wright, the editor of this journal, for suggesting this alternate response.

  12. 12.

    Note that, on this definition, it needn’t be that intentions are just poorly executed. They may be executed perfectly, but poorly conceived to begin with. Thanks to a referee for another journal for this point.

  13. 13.

    Of course there are other ways of producing bad art; failed intentions are the particularly salient cause of artistic failure in good-bad art. We are not committed to the stronger claim that failed intentions are always sufficient for artistic badness, or that failed intentions are necessary for artistic badness.

  14. 14.

    Carroll, “Art, Intention, and Conversation,” p. 119ff. See also Carroll, On Criticism (Routledge, 2008), p. 61.

  15. 15.

    Michael Frank and Louise Reilly Sacco, The Museum of Bad Art: Masterworks (Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2008), p. x. Consider Tommy Wiseau’s attempts to disavow his sincerity (casting the film as ‘dark comedy’), after the movie became popular as good bad art. Wiseau’s lying about his intentions (and audiences’ curiosity about the authenticity of these intentions) shows that intentions actually matter to our appreciation of the work.

  16. 16.

    Carroll, “Recent Approaches to Aesthetic Experience,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 70 (2012): 165–177, p. 167.

  17. 17.

    Additionally, this doesn’t seem to capture why most people appreciate these works.

  18. 18.

    Aaron Meskin, Mark Phelan, Margaret Moore, and Matthew Kieran, “Mere Exposure to Bad Art,” British Journal of Aesthetics (2013): 139–164.

  19. 19.

    See <>, accessed 17 July 2013. .

  20. 20.

    Kendall Walton, Marvelous Images: On Values and the Arts (Oxford UP, 2008), p. 21.

  21. 21.

    Charles Timmer, “The Bizarre Element in Cechov’s Art,” in Anton Cechov 1860-1960: Some Essays, ed. T. Eekman (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1960), 277–292, at p. 277.

  22. 22.

    See George Sefler, “The Existential vs. the Absurd: The Aesthetics of Nietzsche and Camus,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 32 (1974): 415–421. Timmer makes a similar argument; see Timmer, “Bizzare Element in Cechov’s Art,” p. 278.

  23. 23.

    Arch-surrealist Breton: “Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought.” André Breton, “Manifesto of Surrealism (1924)”, in Breton, Manifestoes of Surrealism, Seaver and Lane, trans. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1969), p. 26. Consider for example the classic surrealist film Un Chien Andalou (Beñuel and Dalí, 1929), which highlights the sexualized and incoherent aspects of dreams.

  24. 24.

    Thanks to Susan Feagin for suggesting these examples.

  25. 25.

    Note that bizarreness ought not to be associated with beauty. We are assuming here that not all aesthetic virtues derive from beauty. In line with our point, see Matthew Kieran, “Aesthetic Value: Beauty, Ugliness, and Incoherence,” Philosophy 72 (1997): 383–399.

  26. 26.

    One may introduce here the question of whether an artist could necessarily intend to produce an artistic failure. While this is an interesting question, we think that the answer is no. See Christy Mag Uidhir, “Failed-Art and Failed Art-Theory”.

  27. 27.

    Take two bizarre works, W 1 and W 2 . W 1 is intentionally bizarre; W 2 is unintentionally bizarre. Suppose the intention for bizarreness, or lack thereof, are (as they normally are) apparent to the audience. In the case of W 1 , there is at least the underlying order of the intention for bizarreness. But in the case of W 2 , no such intention exists. So, it lacks the order for intention, creating an underlying randomness, dissonance, or lack of cohesion. And that makes W 2 bizarre in a more complete way. To make the point more concrete, compare an intentionally bizarre movie, David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, with a work of good-bad art, Troll 2. The bizarreness in Blue Velvet is underwritten by David Lynch’s intention for bizarreness. But there is no intention for bizarreness in Troll 2. The fact that there is no such intention for bizarreness (and yet that there is still bizarreness) makes Troll 2 that much more bizarre.

  28. 28.

    Thanks to an anonymous referee for this journal for pointing this out.

  29. 29.

    See for example Dettmar and Richey.

  30. 30.

    We say ‘ordinarily’ because one can easily come up with counterexamples. You could intend to construct a poorly-constructed work—say, by intentionally getting very drunk and making an artwork while drunk.

  31. 31.

    Robert Solomon, “On Kitsch and Sentimentality,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 49 (1991): 1–14. See also Tomas Kulka, “Kitsch,” British Journal of Aesthetics 28 (1988): 18–27; Philip Crick, “Kitsch,” British Journal of Aesthetics 23 (1983): 48–52. Less plausibly, some authors see kitsch as the reduction of aesthetic objects into easily marketable forms. See, e.g., Jean Baudrillard, The Consumer Society: Myths and Structures (London: Sage Publications, 1997), p. 110. Good-bad art is also distinct from camp on this less plausible account, since good-bad art is not easily marketable.

  32. 32.

    Joan Crystal Pearlman, “Outsider Art,” entry in Michael Kelly, ed., Encyclopedia of Aesthetics (Oxford Art Online, Accessed 22 March 2013). As Pearlman discusses, there is some discussion as to how exactly to define outsider art, but this is a minimal condition. See also David Davies, “On the Very Idea of ‘Outsider Art’.”

  33. 33.

    Allen Carlson, “Appreciation and the Natural Environment,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 37 (1979): 267–275, Sherri Irvin, “Scratching an Itch,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 66 (2008): 25–35.

  34. 34.

    We have been helped enormously both by Jennifer Judkins’ paper, “On Things that Aren’t There Anymore”, and by comments on that paper by Elizabeth Scarborough, presented at the 2013 Pacific American Society for Aesthetics meeting. Thanks also to Thi Nguyen for discussion on this point.

  35. 35.

    Thanks to the editor of this journal for raising this objection.

  36. 36.

    Dominic McIver Lopes, “The Myth of (Non-Aesthetic) Artistic Value,” Philosophical Quarterly 61 (2011): 518–536.

  37. 37.

    Louise Hanson, “The Reality of (Non-Aesthetic) Artistic Value,” Philosophical Quarterly 63 (2013): 492–508, p. 502.

  38. 38.

    Stephen Leacock, Humor and Humanity, pp. 180–181. Leacock adds, “The super-comic poet deals by preference with topics of a major class—death, accidents of all kind, steam preferred, bereavement, and great national celebrations.” The final example probably alludes to a famously bad poem by Julia Morgan.

  39. 39.

    Thanks to the editor of this journal, John Hacker-Wright, for helping us to articulate this point more carefully.

  40. 40.

    It should be obvious that this criticism is distinct from the question of moralism. The worry here is about morally good and bad ways of appreciating a work. One could coherently raise this worry whether one takes moral value of a work to bear on the work’s artistic value (moralism) or not (autonomism).

  41. 41.

    We suspect that some people value works of good-bad art just for a feeling of schadenfreude they get. Our goal is not to argue that the enjoyment of such works is never defective. But we do wish to accommodate the putative fact that there is a non-defective way to enjoy these works.

  42. 42.

    Thanks to the editor of this journal for raising this concern.

  43. 43.

    See Schindler et al, “Causes and Consequences of Sympathy and Schadenfreude: A Developmental Analysis”, PLoS ONE 10(2015): e0137669. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0137669.

  44. 44.

    The editor has noted that bad-bad works may not have a higher intention behind them. For example, they may be blockbusters designed simply to make money based on visual effects. In response, we are willing to allow that some works with modest goals may be good if they meet those goals. We have in mind here movies that fail to even entertain their audiences.

  45. 45.

    Dettmar and Richey, “Musical Cheese”, in Reading Rock and Roll: Authenticity, Appropriation, Aesthetics, eds. Dettmar and Richey (Columbia University Press, 1999), 311–326, p. 312.

  46. 46.

    Dettmar and Richey report that Tarantino expresses fondness for such works. Sometimes this is expressed as a fondness for the artistic failure, and sometimes as a fondness for the artistic achievement.

  47. 47.

    One may put the objection as an epistemic problem: We don’t know whether or not works are of kind (a) or kind (b). Consider the case of a work in MOBA, known as Lucy in the Field with Flowers. We don’t know the origin of the work; it could be that it was created by a highly-skilled artist who intentionally made it look bad. But our enjoyment of the work seems to be the same (i.e. it counts as good-bad art) whether or not we know that the work was intentionally made to look bad. But our account seems to imply that our enjoyment is drastically different depending on whether the work looks bad intentionally or not. So we are wrong to say that failed intentions are a necessary condition for the phenomenon. While full evaluation of the claim is beyond the scope of that paper, we can at least rely upon an opaqueness thesis about intentions. See Carroll, On Criticism.

  48. 48.

    Partially in response to the objection, note that dressing up isn’t really a very unique identifying mark, since fans of many mass-marketed movies, especially science fiction movies, dress up to see those movies as well.

  49. 49.

    Consider Best Worst Movie (Michael Stephenson, 2009), a documentary about Troll 2 (a well-known good-bad artwork). The film focuses especially on what the intentions of the director actually were.

  50. 50.

    For helpful and thorough comments and discussion, the first author thanks Susan Feagin. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the American Society for Aesthetics Pacific conference in 2013. We thank Madeleine Ransom for terrific comments and conversation, Ted Gracyk and Elizabeth Scarborough for their helpful questions, and Thi Nguyen for his total enthusiasm and insightful conversation.

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Correspondence to John Dyck.

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Dyck, J., Johnson, M. Appreciating Bad Art. J Value Inquiry 51, 279–292 (2017).

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  • Aesthetic Appreciation
  • Artistic Success
  • Artistic Failure
  • Artistic Appreciation
  • Epistemic Humility