In Defense of Bad Art

Worst-In-Show

“Today, I would submit that we are culturally pressured to uphold a notion that artists are just meant to slog through the badness for a really long time to make a little bit of ‘good art.’ Whatever that is.”

Warning: Today’s post is me, unfiltered and uncensored. Consume at your discretion.

I really, really love bad art.

This being November, many of us (me included) are writing our brains out for National Novel Writing Month. It seemed like a good time to surface this topic of “bad art.” Especially because for most of us, the drafts we finish on 11/30 will feel like just that. We may even say that they are.

Happily, I’m here to say otherwise.

Any draft that sets me down a road of preparation and production, in order to “ship” (or release) the product is a wild success in my eyes. I wrote The League of Marvelosities for NaNoWriMo two years ago. In exactly two weeks, the first episode goes live. I’d call that a win-win-win scenario, no matter how haphazardly those first words were put together.

Of course, this all depends on the definition of bad art. I’ll grant you, the notion of “bad art” is really hard to define, because it tends to give us whiplash. Tastes vary from human to human, culture to culture, even decade to decade. Critics and consumer very rarely agree on a particular work’s merits. 

But even if the definition is subjective, in at least one area everyone seems to agree:

We’re all afraid of making bad art.

In fact, I’d submit that we’ve become so afraid of making bad art that we don’t make much at all, or anywhere near as much as we could if we just gave ourselves a break.

Even if we do make a lot of art, we hedge it with so many qualifiers that any enjoyment the audience might naturally have gained from it is lost before it even begins.

That’s what makes art bad to me personally—more than any stylistic or technical “faults.”

But for the sake of today’s post, let’s say bad art is art you don’t enjoy or find meaningful. It’s the kind of art you normally would like, but due to technical or stylistic details, just somehow the piece just isn’t working for you. It is not “good” in your estimation; therefore, by personal definition, it is “bad.”

We all love to snicker behind our hands when we see work like this from someone else. But what about when it’s our own work?

Bad art doesn’t just strike us in the world. It strikes us within our own creations. 

We look at what we make and hate it, and project that hatred on everyone else who approaches it.

Yet no one is going to love our work, ever, if we don’t truly love it first.

Which is why I really, really love bad art.

You see, in the pursuit of good art—particularly since the advent of the internet—we gained many forums to air our thoughts about the work of others, or gripe about what’s not “coming together” in our own. So many, in fact, that we’ve developed acceptable “patterns” for talking about our own work. The aether net reinforces the notion that he who flies too high has the furthest to fall. Online critics can be harsh, indeed—especially in their indictment of art now available thanks to the internet’s single most redeeming quality: it is a completely open forum.

In fact, I’d submit that we are now so afraid of being criticized online that when we do take something out into the world, we hedge it with statements like, “Well, it’s not done yet, but . . .” or “I’m no [insert famous author name here], but I . . .” or even the ubiquitous, “Someday I’ll write something really good, but for now I . . .”

Wait. What?

Would you say that to your boss about your latest presentation that you killed yourself over? Would you say it to your client about your very best work done for them? Your husband or wife, boyfriend or girlfriend, about the holiday gift you got them?

Then why are you saying it about your art?

Even great writers have succumbed to the practice of art-bashing their own work. It grieves me every time I read about a great artist who constantly belittled his/her own efforts. Granted, perhaps this urge was part of what drove him/her to greatness, but at what personal and psychological cost?

Sometimes art-hate isn’t that cut and dried, though. Sometimes it’s just a rush to reinforce culturally accepted parameters about whether or not we’re “allowed” to make good art yet.

Let me explain.

On social media, I often make statements that to me personally are meant to be encouraging and liberating—about sharing our work as we go, considering it valid and worthwhile even if the “establishment” never vets it, or learning to recognize the good in our work we might not have seen before.

I’ll get positive comments from others who are also encouraged by these ideas. But invariably, after agreeing, there will be a hasty tack-on, “Of course much of what we make just sucks, and we have to accept that.”

Excuse me? Is this copied and pasted from Writer Political Correctness 101, version 16.5.2?

Guess I didn’t get that update.

Today, I would submit that we are culturally obligated to uphold a notion that artists are just meant to slog through the badness for a really long time to get to “good art.” Whatever that is.

Which brings me back to why it’s perfectly ridiculous to self-censor with constant apologies for your bad art.

Because no one really knows what bad art is.

Maybe if you quit apologizing for your art, and worrying about whether everyone likes it, you would actually make more and better art. Or you’d give yourself a mental break and relax more during your next writing session.  

Better still, people might take your art at is own word, instead of yours.

Ultimately, apologizing for our art means we’ve adopted some external (or internal) standard of goodness we don’t think we meet. Let’s be honest with ourselves: the apology isn’t for our audience. It’s for us.

We apologize to save ourselves the pain of hearing you tell us you don’t like it. We “hedge our bets” to ensure you don’t criticize us too harshly. We tell ourselves the work is “still horrible” as an excuse to keep it locked up on a drawer for years on end until someone in an arbitrary place of power arbitrarily tells us that we are arbitrarily now allowed to shared it with the masses.

That affirmation isn’t going to undo years of self-flagellation and denigration of worth. All it does is breed an endless cycle of dependence on outside praise in order to convince ourselves our work has value.

If someone else notices your work, praises it or shares it with a larger group, great.

And if not, well, make art anyway. 

Stop apologizing for your art, however “bad” your mind may tell you it is. Stop giving into “art bashing” for the sake of appeasing your listeners. Stop hating on your own work for the sheer joy of self-flagellation that is apparently part of the artistic job description.

Just . . . plain . . . stop.

Apologizing for what you made doesn’t make your work better. All it does is reinforce the cultural notion that we must bow in submission to the “badness” of what we create. That, and sigh endlessly about the day when we actually make something good.

Granted, perhaps apologizing for one’s work comes most easily to perfectionists, who are hard on themselves and project that critical spirit onto everyone they meet. For years I struggled with that perfectionist, and I still do on at lest a weekly basis. But when I started putting my work out into the world as a way of combatting perfectionism, I noticed something odd.

Most readers weren’t judging me as harshly as I judged myself.

Did this mean I was ready to win contests or get a six figure book deal? No, of course not. To be honest, I’m not sure I could go that route now without awakening my inner perfectionist. If she were to come back into my life in a big way, she might succeed in killing my creativity altogether.

But the average person who read my work enjoyed it, even if I thought the work was “bad” according to my perfectionistic standards. Amazingly, despite how “terrible” the work was, I still got to have a conversation with real readers about the characters, or the story, or my process. I got feedback I could use to make the next story better. Some readers have even told me my work has impacted their lives in real, tangible ways.

That feels good, and human, and connected.  And it is a heck of a lot better than apologizing or pushing the manuscript into a drawer.

Been there. Done that. Time to take my power back . . . while I’m slinging words with the best of them at NaNoWriMo.

So I’ll say it again, and shout it if I have to:

I really, really, really love bad art.

I hope you do, too.

What do you think?

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