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A Defense of Bad Art: For the Love of Schlock

The ArtPrize Worst Tumblr crowdsources for the worst ArtPrize entries.

The ArtPrize Worst Tumblr crowdsources for the worst ArtPrize entries. /The ArtPrize Worst Tumblr pic

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"Puppy" sits outside of the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain.

"Puppy" sits outside of the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain. /Turkinator on Flickr (Creative Commons - NC, ND)

The B.O.B. (a.k.a. Schlock Central)

The B.O.B. (a.k.a. Schlock Central) /Richard Deming via The Rapidian Flickr pool

This is not an argument that comes easy for me, particularly given the current state of the top 25, but someone should make it.

I don’t particularly like bad art, but it deserves a place at the table. And because we live in a democratic society, particularly one struggling with this whole “sharing the table” thing, we should learn to deal with it.

In 1992 in Kassel, Germany, a curator organized Documenta, a prestigious show of about 150 invited artists. He made a point to publicly exclude Jeff Koons, the irreverent bad boy of the art world. Koons’ response to the snub was to mount “Puppy,” a 36-foot, schnauzer-like plush made of about 70,000 blooming annuals near the exclusive exhibition. "Puppy" has gone on to make numerous other appearances. The New Yorker reported that when it appeared at Rockefeller Center in 2000, a teenager declared it “dumb.” Exactly Koons’ point.

Now, like Koons, 1,700 some-odd ArtPrize artists get to flip the bird to the art establishment and cram our little city full of stuff. Art has, as John Berger has written, “existed within a certain preserve”—cathedrals, palaces, museums. Now, in Grand Rapids, it’s in the streets. The most democratic of spaces: conference rooms, offices, banks, bookstores, beauty salons, a tattoo parlor, clothing shops, churches, bridges, parking lots and a few actual exhibit spaces. In a two-week fit of horror vacui, they have all become chock full of the odd, the entertaining, the sentimental, the decorative, the bizarre and the beautiful. Bad art is a part of this democratic space; without it, it’s just another rarified art world affair preserved apart from the hoi polloi. And who needs that?

Yes, a lot of it is bad. But let there be a place for mosaic melodrama, the eerily sexualized toothpick mermaid, the steam punk pig, the wingnut who spray-painted himself and his rubber riding boots gold. Let there be a place, even, for the unwittingly creepy giant card with “Size Matters” painted on the hands of an otherwise perfectly innocent-looking young girl. And fine, let that place be a centrally located parking lot of a seven-in-one meat-market bar with bad music.

(I’m just curious: Do the curators at Schlock Central really like this stuff or do they know a good marketing gimmick when they see one? They deserve some credit: their pieces cohere better than, say, the collection at the Grand Rapids Art Museum. But what ties them together is a gee-whiz nostalgia for shag carpets, rec rooms, and that post-Nixonian casserole-era kitsch.)

Does this lower the bar? Of course it does. But we also get to say so. The best of the worst is captured in a Tumblr of hilarious crowd-sourced takes on the oddest pieces, which, in it’s own satirical way, elevates the discussion. What would ArtPrize be without the pooping fairy, the penny made out of pennies (get it?!), the crayola Sunday-school lesson? Quiet and unnoticed.

The political power of art has been demystified, stripped of any of its all-too-common pseudo-intellectual authority. Some might say eviscerated altogether, but we shouldn’t because that’s just too easy. What better way for a community to converse about what art is for, what makes it good, what makes it bad than to overwhelm us with a lot of it and then ask us to decide? These are not hallowed, hushed galleries. People are talking, children are squealing, artists are mingling. Yes, take it to the people, but let us all learn a thing or two about how to look.

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 It is curious that you would use Jeff Koons as an example of schlock art, as his work offers what so much of what ArtPrize does not, i.e. specific intent and specific context, and is also embraced by the intellectual art community. The work of Koons that you mention was made as a protest piece unlike much of the schlock that fills the streets of Grand Rapids during ArtPrize. Koons' work is completely full of the, "all-too-common pseudo-intellectual authority," that you refer too, save that the "psuedo" component which is attributed by those who are afraid of the "intellectual" part. You make reference that ArtPrize fills some sort of fissure between the uppity art world and the world of the commoner. There is no uppity art world in Grand Rapids, all of our artists are poor and our cultural institutions are barren. You ask, "what better way for a community to converse about what art is for..." but you have already determined that artists are not welcomed at the table for the discussion. Curiouser and curiouser....

Hi, Mark,

Thanks for your thoughtful comment. Koons is not an example of schlock art. He's an example of saying f-off to the remote exclusiveness of the art world writ large. Grand Rapids is a provincial place, but Art Prize is not a provincial event. But it's here, for better and worse, where the conversation is taking place. Saying this art is welcome at the table is not equivalent to saying it is good.

These conversations are important in helping to define what the role of art is in our community. How does art function in a small mid-western city? Does it even have a function in that context? Will ArtPrize enhance the role of art or diffuse it?

Thanks, Mara, for laying it out so well.  It'll be interesting to see what the democratic process reveals about our collective art consciousness.

 Who ever said art is democratic? It's no such thing. And why should we give bad art a place in the world?


Thanks, Richard, for giving me an opportunity to clarify. To answer your question, um, no one. Of course art is not, de facto, democratic. For the last couple of millennia or so, most of what we think of as art has been about as undemocratic as you can get (cloistered in the cathedrals, palaces, and underattended museums). In this contest, though, it is. Relatively speaking. Art Prize curators (professional and otherwise) play an important role in selecting and placing works; there is a filter, but it's a pretty loose one.

 Last Friday was free night at the Art Institute here in Chicago. The line ran down the block to get in. Last spring in NYC I had to leave MoMa because it was just to damn crowded so I'm not sure what you refer to when you say "underattended museums."

I would agree that the quality filter is pretty loose as far as the ArtPrize venues go but the Devos family pulls a lot of weight in GR. Rick Devos sits on the partnering board of ArtPrize the UICA. Devos's sit on the board of the GRAM and are connected to many of the venues participating in ArtPrize. I think you'd have a hard time finding a viable venue with an art work with a pro abortion theme or something that said AMYwAY SUcks on it. Having said that ArtPrize is what it is. The question is whether it's good.

Having a Chucky Cheese select some art and the GRAM select some art and having the public pick the winners still doesn't make art democratic.

Surely the most democratic part of ArPrize is the role of popular vote in selecting the winning pieces. Museums are not just places to display art, they are educational institutions whose role is to help inform our aesthetic taste. ArtPrize isn’t curated to educate; it’s curated to advertise and draw traffic—to the B.O.B., to the GRAM, to UICA, to businesses and organizations around town. They all benefit by pandering to the lowest common denominator, just as politicians in a democracy get more votes through pandering than through educating. 

 Actually, I'd like to think there is an educational component to this, but an indirect one. No one is standing over us telling us what is art and what isn't. The vast range of art works, though, is a catalyst for a more articulate conversation about aesthetics. Sure, the curators choose works that will bring people people to their venues, and bring them back. But the more we look and engage and discern, the better we will see.


I just don't think that happens. It's a myth we'd like to think happens. Like sucking up art via osmosis. It's like saying most people can learn French by going to a French Expo once a year. The problem is further compound by the fact that people who may not in fact know much about art think they don't have to know anything more than what they like. Isn't that the whole point of ArtPrize, to reinforce the notion that your opinion is the only thing needed to decide who gets $250,000?


Ah ha! That's exactly what I take up in my next piece. But not without inflicting a little Kant on the reader. Stay tuned.

 Mara, if there isn't any understanding of what art is by most participants and the primary criterion for awarding one of the largest prizes in the country is the elevation of personal taste over all else, I doubt the vast range of works in Artprize promises anything of conversational substance (except for wonderful blogs like yours that most don't engage in). In fact, the sheer number of strikingly pedestrian works intermingled with some competent or remarkable work, actually renders any substantive conversation impossible. When all points of view are equal, with more educated perspectives often found to be downright suspect, the end result is simply a confirmation of one's own opinion as the only relevant criteria. This elevates willful ignorance, not discernment. It doesn't produce an educational dialogue, only demagoguery. 

 the art/democracy thing is a contentious issue... but if you like you esthetic mingled with you politics then vote with your dollars.... if the a venue, for example the B.O.B., wants to promote art that you find distasteful, then people should have the opportunity to have their voices heard. Boycotting the B.O.B. for having bad art, and telling the world about it (via social media) may have an impact on what they host next year. Other venues may see this happening and make wiser decisions on what they host next year as well.




Let's not kid ourselves. There are no rules nor limits for that matter, to creativity. When the argument is made that the public is irrelevant because the public has not been educated in art, the person making the argument is only trying to preserve her or his place in the art world. When they speak of the need for education, they are actually referring to learning the rules about art as the art community has come to define them. That is what Richard Kooyman and Deb Rockman, for example, are actually speaking to: this is how you know you’re an artist; this is how you know good art. In doing this they are simply trying to protect their role as artist/art educator, etc by defining for the public the exclusivity of the art community. ArtPrize is taking it past that and the exclusives in the art world may feel threatened. It doesn't make them irrelevant by any means, but one does get the sense that on some deep level they are afraid that the jig may be up. It's not. ArtPrize doesn't detract it encourages, it exposes, it engages. More is more and I have been thrilled to see more and more people walking around Grand Rapids to look at and make judgments about so much art. Bravo ArtPrize! and as for the art community exclusives -- relax, it will all be fine.

 I never said the public is irrelevant. Your personal taste in what you think is good or bad is completely yours to  enjoy and voice.  You don't need to know a single thing about art to have a personal opinion about what you like or don't like. But does that give you the ability to decide who are the top ten best artists in the bunch?  Would you play the stock market or decide who the best doctor is based on personal opinion rather than knowledge?

No one is asking you to learn the "rules" of art. In todays age there are no rules to learn. I'm just suggesting it might be best to know a little something about art before you judge it.

I couldn't agree more, Dave.

Please view David Sprigg's "VISION" on display at the Grand Rapids Art Museum. It is a stunning piece in the TOP 10. This contemporary artist is the only international artist in the top 10 and he is quite brilliant. Besides his piece here in Grand Rapids, he is currently on exhibit in Montreal and in Macao. The exhibit in Macao ( a special administrative region of China, much like Hong Kong ) includes some of the most acclaimed artists in the world - including Damien Hirst. If David Sprigg's piece takes top honors in Artprize, Artprize will own the only institutional piece by this artist in the United States. I have no doubt his work will be on exhibit in the most prestigious venues in the U.S. within a few years. Imagine if Grand Rapids and Artprize were to recognize and acknowledge his work in 2010, years before he explodes on the art scene in this country. When anyone tries to dismiss Artprize as irrelevant, Grand Rapids can point to this awesome work and say "We have vision". "We know art". What I find very moving is that the artist created this piece FOR Grand Rapids, FOR Artprize 2010. It BELONGS at home in Grand Rapids. I only met this artist a couple weeks ago. I chatted with him via email for a few weeks before that. He is very impressed by Grand Rapids, it's people and the vibrancy of our community. To me, his taking top honors is like a match made in heaven. It's a win, win, win all around. I will be enthusiastically voting for David Sprigg's "VISION". Please consider joining me and vote for David Sprigg's "VISION". Thank you for reading this and your consideration.

Mark Rumsey is The Rapidian's resident curmudgeon: