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The Museum of Bad Art

By Laura James · April 4th, 2007 · The Big Picture
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  Thoughtful, beautiful and strong: Anita Douthat's
Anita Douthat

Thoughtful, beautiful and strong: Anita Douthat's "Bridal Suite"



Just south of Boston exists a place to which every aspiring artist should pilgrimage: THE MUSEUM OF BAD ART. This institution chooses its collection -- mostly paintings -- with the same careful consideration as any major museum.

Louise Sacco, Permanent Acting Interim Executive Director of MOBA (yes, that's her title), says, "We have the same basic criteria as any fine arts museum: It has to be art. It has to be original. It has to communicate. It has to elicit a response."

They curate with a blithe flare, but they're as picky as any other institution. MOBA divides its collection into three categories: Portraiture (obvious), Landscape (just as obvious) and Unseen Forces ("the full scope of the human psyche and its feeble yet caring yet terrified use of artists' materials and symbols such as the word 'Love' "). Two-dimensional and three-dimensional work, it's all fair game.

Or maybe not. Conspicuously missing from the MOBA collection is the whole genre of photography.

It's easy to be a bad painter. Trust me, I did it. There comes a point in every bad painter's career -- or there should be -- when he or she steps back from a canvas and thinks, "Man, I'm a really bad artist." What happens then? The idea that the painter is a good painter (propagated, perhaps, by high school art teachers and doting parents) is quite rudely splattered; dreams of living the fame and notoriety of Frida Kahlo fly away, and the bad painter is left in a curious position: What do I do now?

Brilliance strikes. Pick up a camera. Take pictures. Become a photographer. Become Henri Cartier-Bresson. Man Ray. Sandy Skoglund. It is much easier to trick oneself into imagining that photographs are museum-quality than it is paintings.

Just ask Sacco. "It's one of the dilemmas we have," she says from her office in Dedham, Mass. "With the power of the digital image, we don't have the expertise to decide what (photography is) bad enough for the museum."

Oh, how quickly one realizes that she's not the first to imagine being a photostar. Pictures of the mundane, street signs, sidewalks and ladies and gentlemen in unflattering outfits -- all cliché since the 1970s. Self-portraits, even mock self-portraits, even with everything as fake as it can be; Cindy Sherman's got you there. What about making it depressing? Take the camera to the country. To the highways. Too late: Larry Clark got all those drug-addicted, bored, sexualized kids. Diane Arbus capitalized on the suburbs, as well as the deformed, the transvestites, the nudists, the hookers and the completely average person. Celebrities? David LaChapelle.

Still, it seems that the bad artist isn't giving up on photography. There are scads of it in so many galleries all over town. But, if you believe Sacco and her mission, you'll understand there is power in bad art.

"People do love bad art!" she says.

And she's right. We love bad art the way we love bad smells. Imagine your buddy opening a carton of something old and spoiled and saying, "Gross! Smell this!" Bad art carries as much communication as good art.

So, good or bad, it's not that important. It's the in-between, gloppy mess that crashes the communiqué. As far as I can see, that mess usually comes in the form of photography.

Photography is the most difficult visual art form to write off as bad, boring or benign. And, with all the fancy new technology, it's the easiest to create, disperse and duplicate ad infinitum. What all this means is not that there's a glut of bad photography but a glut of mediocre photography. Not good, not bad, just quick and bland. Like Chinese take-out. And very few people know the difference.

Some Cincinnati-based photographers do, in fact, make thoughtful, beautiful, strong works: ANITA DOUTHAT, who currently has an exhibition at the Indianapolis Art Center; JON M. YAMASHIRO and DIANA DUNCAN HOLEMS, among others. Cincinnati galleries and museums, as well, have been progressive in their search for good photography: TRINIDAD MAC-AULFFE at Designsmith Gallery, JOHN PILSON at the Contemporary Arts Center, NANCY BURSON's lecture and work at the Cincinnati Art Museum.

Looking at photography should be much easier. Ask yourself if the work appeals to anything in you. Does it have any flavor, or would you rather chew on an old piece of gum?



CONTACT LAURA JAMES: ljames(at)
  Thoughtful, beautiful and strong: Anita Douthat's
Anita Douthat

Thoughtful, beautiful and strong: Anita Douthat's "Bridal Suite"



Just south of Boston exists a place to which every aspiring artist should pilgrimage: THE MUSEUM OF BAD ART. This institution chooses its collection -- mostly paintings -- with the same careful consideration as any major museum.

Louise Sacco, Permanent Acting Interim Executive Director of MOBA (yes, that's her title), says, "We have the same basic criteria as any fine arts museum: It has to be art. It has to be original. It has to communicate. It has to elicit a response."

They curate with a blithe flare, but they're as picky as any other institution. MOBA divides its collection into three categories: Portraiture (obvious), Landscape (just as obvious) and Unseen Forces ("the full scope of the human psyche and its feeble yet caring yet terrified use of artists' materials and symbols such as the word 'Love' "). Two-dimensional and three-dimensional work, it's all fair game.

Or maybe not. Conspicuously missing from the MOBA collection is the whole genre of photography.

It's easy to be a bad painter. Trust me, I did it. There comes a point in every bad painter's career -- or there should be -- when he or she steps back from a canvas and thinks, "Man, I'm a really bad artist." What happens then? The idea that the painter is a good painter (propagated, perhaps, by high school art teachers and doting parents) is quite rudely splattered; dreams of living the fame and notoriety of Frida Kahlo fly away, and the bad painter is left in a curious position: What do I do now?

Brilliance strikes. Pick up a camera. Take pictures. Become a photographer. Become Henri Cartier-Bresson. Man Ray. Sandy Skoglund. It is much easier to trick oneself into imagining that photographs are museum-quality than it is paintings.

Just ask Sacco. "It's one of the dilemmas we have," she says from her office in Dedham, Mass. "With the power of the digital image, we don't have the expertise to decide what (photography is) bad enough for the museum."

Oh, how quickly one realizes that she's not the first to imagine being a photostar. Pictures of the mundane, street signs, sidewalks and ladies and gentlemen in unflattering outfits -- all cliché since the 1970s. Self-portraits, even mock self-portraits, even with everything as fake as it can be; Cindy Sherman's got you there. What about making it depressing? Take the camera to the country. To the highways. Too late: Larry Clark got all those drug-addicted, bored, sexualized kids. Diane Arbus capitalized on the suburbs, as well as the deformed, the transvestites, the nudists, the hookers and the completely average person. Celebrities? David LaChapelle.

Still, it seems that the bad artist isn't giving up on photography. There are scads of it in so many galleries all over town. But, if you believe Sacco and her mission, you'll understand there is power in bad art.

"People do love bad art!" she says.

And she's right. We love bad art the way we love bad smells. Imagine your buddy opening a carton of something old and spoiled and saying, "Gross! Smell this!" Bad art carries as much communication as good art.

So, good or bad, it's not that important. It's the in-between, gloppy mess that crashes the communiqué. As far as I can see, that mess usually comes in the form of photography.

Photography is the most difficult visual art form to write off as bad, boring or benign. And, with all the fancy new technology, it's the easiest to create, disperse and duplicate ad infinitum. What all this means is not that there's a glut of bad photography but a glut of mediocre photography. Not good, not bad, just quick and bland. Like Chinese take-out. And very few people know the difference.

Some Cincinnati-based photographers do, in fact, make thoughtful, beautiful, strong works: ANITA DOUTHAT, who currently has an exhibition at the Indianapolis Art Center; JON M. YAMASHIRO and DIANA DUNCAN HOLEMS, among others. Cincinnati galleries and museums, as well, have been progressive in their search for good photography: TRINIDAD MAC-AULFFE at Designsmith Gallery, JOHN PILSON at the Contemporary Arts Center, NANCY BURSON's lecture and work at the Cincinnati Art Museum.

Looking at photography should be much easier. Ask yourself if the work appeals to anything in you. Does it have any flavor, or would you rather chew on an old piece of gum?



CONTACT LAURA JAMES: ljames(at)citybeat.com
 
 
 
 

 

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