Should Museums Exhibit Bad Art?

K. Koch, "Spewing Rubik's Cubes," from the collection of the Museum of Bad Art
Real bad art: K. Koch, “Spewing Rubik’s Cubes,” from the collection of the Museum of Bad Art (image via Museum of Bad Art)

BBC Arts Editor and former Tate director Will Gompertz has a piece in the Wall Street Journal this week advocating a curious proposal: museums, he says, should mount shows of bad art. Not that they should go out and solicit as much terrible art as they can find — that is and should probably stay exclusively the provenance of the Museum of Bad Art, but they should invite their curators to rummage through collections kept in storage and pull out some of the least successful (that’s a good euphemism; I’ll offer that to museums to use in an attendant press release) contemporary artworks.

The reason? To create conditions for some honest, openly critical discussion about taste and what constitutes good and bad contemporary art. Gompertz writes:

And lo, we would have some grounds for proper debate: for an informed, contextualized, heated, passionate discussion about the art selected and contemporary art in general. It would highlight how tastes change and how some art works can lose their power remarkably quickly.

If anyone doubts that there is plenty of bad art to be had in museums, let me assure you, as a former museum employee, that it’s true: I’ve seen it hiding in storage and languishing on board-room tables. And Gompertz’s idea, though obviously a rhetorical exercise and a healthy dose of wishful thinking, is clever and refreshing.

In our tendency to see museums as holy temples of culture, we often forget that museum acquisitions are, like everything else, a product of human judgment and taste, as well as of current trends, which quickly come and go. They’re often shaped by the conditions attached to money given by donors. What’s more, museums are increasingly caught up in the art-market-industrial complex; their relationships with collectors, dealers, and artists invested in the commercial outcome of their work have turned increasingly muddy and gray. And so they avoid honest discussion about the works in their collections, preferring to either quietly deaccession or “instead to extol the virtues of everything they present as ‘extraordinary,’ ‘remarkable’ or ‘seminal.’”

Think about it: how many museum collection shows have you been really excited by lately? My eyes tend to glaze over when I even see those words in a press release. Most of the interesting collection shows I’ve ever seen or read about were actually organized by artists or other museums outsiders who are able to see the art with fresh eyes and to question the institution in ways in-house curators couldn’t. What does that say about the current state of our museums? Maybe Gompertz’s proposal could be one small step towards fixing them.

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