What is good art? or, "What to do if you are a "Bad Art Addict""
By Lily Barnes
Obviously, all the art we study in lectures and tutorials is good art. Isn’t it? Usually it's great art. Our teachers think it, our textbooks say it, the documentaries on BoB and iPlayer stand further witness. What does it mean, then, when the art that you like isn’t in lectures? What if it is, and your teacher/tutorial make cutting, inexplicable comments about it? What if you proudly proclaim you love for x, y or z only to receive a raised eyebrow, a smirk and a ‘do you really?’? Commiserations, comrade. Welcome to Bad Art Anonymous – you have terrible taste.
I’d like to make perfectly clear, first of all, that this is a place of safety. No one is here to judge you (actually, everyone is, but you just have to get past that). Most of all, bad taste is not your fault. You may even have thought you had good taste until you were educated, and that too is an easy mistake. A lot of art that is popular is nor critically thought of as ‘good’. In fact, art that is ‘populist’ is some of the easiest to criticise. Perish the thought that this is because the art world is riddled with snobberites. Unthinkable! I’m sure, rather, that there’s some wrinkle in the fabric of space and time which causes this rupture. But still, it’s not your fault. And you can be saved.
Now you’ve acknowledged your terrible taste, you can begin to over-come it. In this blog post, I’ll be addressing a simple question – what do you do when you like sh*t art? (I think I swear again in this post, but I can’t always be bothered to put the stars. You’re all grown-ups. You can handle it. This is a serious matter of kicking addiction, so help me god. Get some perspective). Fortunately for you, generation of BAAs have come before you, and carved out numerous strategies to cope with your terrible affliction.
One defence you could pull up against those who criticise your love for the ghostly children of Walter (or Margaret, I haven’t watched the Tim Burton film yet) Keane is that your love is strictly ironic. The Hipster Defence is particularly potent among the self-aware, semi-virtual social circles of modern twenty year olds, and as such shouldn’t take too much explaining on your part, due to its obvious social currency. You don’t genuinely like it, you like it because it’s shit. In the same way as you might re-watch Buffy or old episodes of Dr Who. You’re appreciate the silliness, the over-the-top fight scenes, the weird overly verbose monologues of apparently shallow and vapid characters, the way the sets wobble. Your taste is a s good as anyone else’s, you just happen to be a connoisseur of the bad. I got this defence out of Grayson Perry’s book. I’m not sure whether or not he is actually good art either though, so maybe you shouldn’t mention that. The strength of this defence is that it can’t really be questioned because it’s so circular – anyone criticising that thing you like is actually just helping you to provide reasons why you like it. They create the veneer of love-to-hate for you to shroud your genuine love in. They build and service your ironicycle until you’re ready to ride away. You are so cool, aren’t you? And untouchable too.
“You don’t genuinely like it, you like it because it’s shit. In the same way as you might re-watch Buffy or old episodes of Dr Who. ”
However, the Hipster Defence’s failure is also in its simplicity. What if the good taste people decide that you just don’t really know what you’re talking about? You’re focussing on the wrong things because you don’t really understand art at all. From there it’s just one small step to being outed as the closeted tasteless monster you really are. You need something that’ll act as a smokescreen, but make you look clever and well-educated, not just cool.
And now for the Well, Actually… method. And this one takes a bit of work. To really pull this one off, you’re going to have to get even more familiar with you forbidden fruit. That’s right, fellow art historians. This one means reading. For this approach, you have to know the object of your love and everyone else’s disdain inside out. When somebody criticises, say, your love of bendy bodies Mannerist figures, you need to have a solid gold citation ready to throw back at them. “Well, actually it’s a product of its time, style was evolving and …”; “Well, actually, Bronzino’s allegory remains one of the most enigmatic paintings in Western art history. No one really knows what it means, but it’s even more confusing to the untrained eye…”; “Well, actually, the long neck can be read as symptomatic of the sixteenth century feminine ideal…”. You get the idea. Back up the love with knowledge. Make it seem like a professional interest rather than your life’s great passion. Note: if you don’t have much space in your calendar for reading (you do, it’s the summer soon, don’t be lazy), saying in a blasé way that the piece is massively ahead of its time is usually enough.
Closely related to the above but a little bit easier is the Master of Form persona. It again involves an intimate knowledge of your chosen piece, but perhaps in a more simplistic way. When someone at a wine and cheese mixer deplores your penchant for the rococo, wax lyrical on the visual qualities of the style. Say you love the juxtaposition of peaceful, frivolous pale blues and pinks with throbbingly sexual subject matter; say you love the aesthetic of excess; say the lacy, frothy sensuality epitomises the thoughtless decadence of the ancient regime. Yeah, this is pretty much the same as the one above, I know. But I feel the need to stress that – if you stick to colours, shapes, dynamism, light and general snippets of the actual work that you like – it’s fairly easy to make anything sound commendable. Bonus points from long words, double points for foreign words in correct accent.
However, all of these solutions so far have required an acknowledgement of love, like or at least familiarity. Perhaps you’ve got an important internship/business deal/strategic marriage lined up and don’t want the stain on your reputation. Don’t worry, no one need know the depths of your tastelessness – there is always a way.
Now for Even If They Ask, Don’t Tell. Suppress the feelings. Never mention or talk about it again. Scan an indifferent eye over Jeff Koon’sMichael and Bubbles, and move on. Never profess your love. Never spend more than a few seconds contemplating. Buy gift-shop postcards only when certain that your espionage skills have been honed to absolute perfection. If you get caught, say you’re purchasing an image of that tacky, post-modern monstrosity to graffiti it Marcel Duchamp style. Ha. You’re so irreverent. Your taste is unquestionable. Later at home you can display said postcard in utmost secrecy. Remember: if caught, you are ruined, and must retire from anything even vaguely connected to the world of art appreciation. However, this strategy has a great track record, and is employed successfully by every single person you think has mastered that elusive ‘good taste’.
But what if you don’t want to pretend at all? You don’t want to keep it a secret, but you also don’t want to give any of the above reasons for liking something. They all contribute, in a way, to your guilty pleasure, but they are not the be all and end all. Sometimes you just can’t explain why you like something. And how is the art world ever going to accept that.
To use an almost-pun, it’s time for The Ticking Appreciation Bomb. One of the more hard-core strategies. Endurance-based. For this method, you must stick to your guns. Never defend what you like on any grounds. Just say that you do. In a few decades time, it will fall back to grace. So it was with Art Nouveau, so it will be again for just about anything imaginable. When this finally happens, years of naysayers will flock to you to borrow books, advice, your general expertise. You hold the power now. You were ahead of your time. You have good taste. Warning: the popularity of your erstwhile outcast, by definition, will not last. Be prepared to sink back down into obscurity when the time comes.
The time bomb is surpassed in difficulty only by the final strategy: the not for the faint hearted, loud and proud Possessor of Bad Taste. Key to this is remembering, as the bomb approach suggested, that the concepts of good taste, bad taste, good art and bad art and utterly non-existent. There is literally no such thing as any of these. Each can be defined in a given moment by a given person, but will be different the next day or the next individual. Even art itself cannot be defined from one day to the next. With art as with everything, what you like is not going to be what everyone else likes, obviously. I don’t want to get all positive and let’s all sing kumbaya about this – but liking ‘bad art’ is just as valid as liking good art. You don’t have to justify it, but you can if you want to. But you should tell everyone who asks. Tell them you don’t like Rothko. Tell them you love that painting of the girl who can’t look after her pets. Whether you write books on it or never waste a drop of ink in its name, your guilty pleasures simply should never make you that: guilty. Above all, what can be agreed about art is that it is intensely personal. So don’t listen to anyone else. You have bad taste, and so does everyone else. The only difference is whether or not you’re brave enough to accept it.
For those of you who are interested, my guilt pleasure is Pre-Raphaelite Art. Always has been. Have been shot down for it five or six times in university, so I am well-versed in all of the above defences. Since then, I’ve realised I wasn’t too keen on the taste of the people who criticised me, and so I hover in a liminal zone between the last two options (our time will come, but who cares if it doesn’t?). Still, defending ‘bad art’ is a great challenge for the budding art historian…are you ready to share your secret shame?