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Can art be so bad that it’s good? It would stand to reason that we would appreciate art that is well-thought-out and skilfully made and sneer at what is poorly made. And yet across different artistic media there are examples of art that becomes popular precisely because it is so bad. In fact, there’s a whole museum devoted to bad art – the MoBA in Massachusetts. 

A notable example is the 2003 film The Room, written, produced, directed by, and starring Tommy Wiseau. If you haven’t seen The Room, words cannot convey quite how undeniably awful it is. The plot makes no sense, the acting is appalling, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg; and yet it has achieved cult status, with fans throwing plastic spoons during screenings (spoons mysteriously feature heavily in the film) and shouting out famous lines such as “you’re tearing me apart, Lisa!”

Crucially, good-bad art has to be sincere. Part of what’s so attractive about The Room is Tommy Wiseau himself; a shadowy figure with a fake name and unknown origins who, unlike everyone around him including his co-stars, seems totally unaware that his film is considered the worst film ever made. Deliberately and ironically making something terrible does not produce the good-bad art effect—it’s tainted by artistic self-consciousness, we don’t buy into it.

As John Dyck from the City University of New York explains, there are several possible explanations as to why we appreciate bad art. An obvious one is simply that it’s an example of Schadenfreude—we take a perverse delight in seeing others fail. Watching The Room would, according to this theory, be the cinematic equivalent of watching the lift doors close in someone’s face. However James Franco, creator of The Disaster Artist, a film about the making of The Room, argues that our enjoyment of Wiseau’s train wreck of a film is not a question of delighting in the failure of others. Rather through its failings the film manages to produce something captivating and beautiful that inspires genuine joy rather than smug mockery. Indeed, as Dyck points out, if the Schadenfreude theory were correct, one would assume that we could delight in any artistic failure. But this is not the case—some bad art is pretentious, embarrassing, or just plain boring.

Another well-loved example of good-bad art is the Ecce Homo portrait of Jesus from the Sanctuary of Mercy church in Borja, Spain, which became famous when an untrained amateur Cecilia Giménez tried in all good faith to restore the painting, resulting in what some now call Ecce Mono (Behold the Monkey) or simply ‘Potato Jesus’. Cecelia’s sincerity of intention combined with the tragic hilarity of what she produced made Potato Jesus an instant hit; the artistic group Wallpeople even made it into an exhibition in Barcelona, commenting that “Cecilia has created a pop icon”.

Applicants for Fine Art and History of Art might link to think about the concept of good-bad art. Do you believe that there is such a thing? What are the criteria that separate good-bad art from simply bad art? Can such works really be thought to have any artistic merit?

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