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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Jillian Steinhauer

Jillian Steinhauer is a former senior editor of Hyperallergic. She writes largely about the intersection of art...

4 replies on “Should Museums Exhibit Bad Art?”

  1. Museums have shows of bad art all the time; they just don’t characterize them that way (Elizabeth Peyton, anyone?). Between upsetting investors or families of donors, I don’t see anyone taking up this idea anytime soon.

    1. I agree, and I think Gompertz agrees, too, that no one will do this anytime soon. But it’s nice to think about it, and dream, and start the conversation so that in 5 years, someone might realize it’s an interesting, good idea.

  2. The one space in which this can and occasionally has been done is in historic “snapshot” exhibitions – Paul Schimmel talked about using Under the Big Black Sun to show works or artists totally forgotten but that were important to the California scene at a given moment in response to their historic context. This really is a helpful corrective to historic accounts that smooth out the messy, ugly or bizarre responses to a moment and only present what has since become canonical.

  3. Interesting view.. On one hand I agree with this, I think discussions like this are very important.. on the other hand.. that is exactly what the Museum of Bad Art already does (I do love the Museum of Bad Art).. Isn’t that enough? Should there really be more exhibitions of bad art? I mean; there are so many starving artists (like myself) struggling for chances to exhibit their work. There are so many artists who make truly stunning, and amazing work, who never have the chance to show their work in a museum. Should those chances really be given to artists who lack their talent, just because their work is BAD enough? Can you imagine companies hiring the worst recruiters/scientists/teachers/technicians just to provoke discussion about what exactly doing a good job means? I know these things are more subjective in the liberal arts, and I definitely think discussion is important, but I’m not sure if this is the right way, and from my perspective as an artist it seems a bit unfair as well.

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