The joy of bad art


Dear Artist,

Yesterday, just as I was about to sign a painting, a close friend jingled the studio inbox. “My work,” he wrote, “has been truly exciting over the past year. What bothers me is the bad art that I have to hang next to in some of my galleries. Dealer “X” has taken a turn for the worse and now has really lousy taste. Some of the stuff in there makes my eyes bleed. It’s depressing. Why do they waste their time with it? What do you do about the problem?”

I was inclined to fire back the old idea that one man’s junk is another man’s treasure. Then I started thinking about it. He was right. Galleries sometimes wander off-course, lose their eye and even their touch. They sometimes get punchy and desperate. Sometimes their better artists move to other galleries. Sometimes they never really had it, but muddle along anyway. Some may continue to offer and sell lesser works because they have built a reputation with the greater ones.

I started thinking back to when I first started out. In those days I aspired to be the “worst” artist in a gallery. This was a position for which I was fully qualified. What I really wanted was to be hung in excellent company, among artists whose quality I admired. One day–one of those epiphany days–I looked at a painting of mine that was hung next to an acknowledged master. I realized then that I was finally getting the hang of it.

“‘Bad’ paintings are your good pals,” I offered him. “They make your own paintings look better than they are. Even ‘bad’ paintings done by yourself are capital because they make your good ones look like great ones. And don’t disparage the poor work of others because you were probably once on that same spot. You can take some satisfaction in knowing that all work, however jaded, sloppy, poorly composed, or incompetently executed, has its exalted place. A painting is a human soul as it strives to grow. A work of art, however rude, is an aspiration toward something greater. Be thankful to your blooming muses that you have chosen to be part of the process. Be thankful that your fellow travelers, old and new, are walking the road with you. And besides, what is ‘bad?’ Only damned fools and critics use the word ‘bad.'”

Best regards,


PS: “There are no absolutes in painting. All is measured by that relative term “quality.” It is in this search for quality that the artist is, of necessity, the eternal student.” (Rex Brandt)

Esoterica: There’s a good argument to ignore the machinations of the gallery world. Pay attention to the home fires. Be stuck in your head. Love your processes. Play your own game. Hold your course. “Art comes to you proposing frankly that you give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass.” (Walter Pater)

The following are selected responses to the above and other letters. Thanks for writing.


Competition from dead artists
by Anonymous, UK

Here in England the dealers I deal with would rather sell dead artists. For them there is more joy in a small canvas they buy from elderly Mrs. Tiddlewinkle for one hundred and sell to eager Lord Houndstooth for one thousand. In North America living art is more eagerly collected. Apart for the fact that they like your stuff, people are prepared to invest in your art Robert. For us, it’s sad. Now that the British “sex-mad” woman-painting Robert Lenkiewicz is dead, a nice market is forming around him. I just don’t think it’s in the British nature to think much of artists until they’ve croaked.


Promiscuous art dealers
by Anonymous, USA

The main complaints that the established artists have in connection to dealing with dealers in our area is in the constant bringing in of clone art—that is paintings by new artists who have chosen to paint in the same way as the leading artists. Dealers have little loyalty here (in Florida) and are constantly on the lookout for something almost as good at a cheaper price. It’s a case of greed on a large scale, both by the unscrupulous artist and the promiscuous dealer. The situation cheapens the work of inventive and quality-motivated artists and speeds up the turnover to new fads. My client base is constantly telling me that they have lost respect for certain dealers because of the prevalence of this tendency.


What passes for art
by Richard Brown


painting by Richard Brown

In moving through rooms in our National Gallery we noticed a couple studying a refrigerator perched on top of a cement safe. My comment, in a rather loud voice, was, “This is either a work of art, or the gallery people in their haste to re-open on time just stuck these items in the corner.” At this point the couple turned with their studious faces and gave me a disapproving look. Not wanting to leave well enough alone I added, “If this is a work of art, then I hope the artist has titled the work “COLD CASH”! I succeeded in cracking the couple up.

The point is who calls a room covered in used motor oil a work of art, or a gallery with a string stretching diagonally from bottom corner to top corner, called “Division of Space” a work of art, or “Rotting Meat on a Dressmaker’s Dummy”, a work of art. I know I’m opening up a can of worms, (that’s probably a work of art too). Maybe that’s the route to take to be recognized. However, it’s an avenue I personally do not want to pursue.

(RG note) It’s possible that public galleries, and other spaces that display used crankcase oil or rotting loin-chops, do a service for the public by helping a wider range of people define their expectations and understanding of art. Installations can be stimulating and invigorating. At least part of the immense popularity of quality collector art these days is due to a backlash from installation and entertainment art.


Anything goes
by Moncy Barbour, Lynchburg, Virginia, USA


painting by Moncy Barbour

There are rules in drawing that cannot be broken. It is math. But the rules can be bent and new rules invented. For example, Cubism. For myself anything goes in art. Some art holds more beauty, some more story, some more invention, some more simplicity, some more complexity. But bad art to me is coloring outside the lines in a coloring book, but not even then if it was meant to be.




Feeling good
by Angelika Ouellette, Calgary, AB, Canada

Recently I was wandering through an art gallery with an acquaintance. One of her comments was how she would hate to have certain pieces of art we were observing, in her home. She said they made her feel awful. As I looked at the paintings she was referring to I could relate to that sensation. As a fellow painter I marvelled at the quality and minimalism of the form, shape, colour and texture with which the artist was able to convey his message. Whether the message was to himself or the viewer the impact felt meaningful in that moment, to me. As we stared at the painting we shared what it made us feel. We had a ‘bingo’ moment when we both expressed feelings of betrayal and disillusion as qualities we saw within the painting. That meant these qualities resonated and were alive within us. What a wonderful communication, in that moment we felt a connection with the artist and each other. As a human soul striving to grow–qualities change, or we would not grow. Once a quality is recognized and felt we have a choice to keep it or release it and move on. In that moment I felt compassion for the artist, the person I was with, myself, and the world I live in. It felt good.

Would I purchase that piece of art and display it in my home? Perhaps. I would certainly value it as a touchstone to an intimate and insightful moment. What motivates anyone to buy art?


Artist owned gallery
by Barbara Mason, Portland, Oregon, USA


painting by Barbara Mason

Having had part in a very professional artist owned gallery for the last 10 years, I can tell you that as our membership changed and grew over the years we have had some serious hanging problems. We have a maximum of only 15 members as our space (756 sq feet) is small. We feature one artist in the front of the gallery, it is a long narrow space, and the rest of us usually have one piece up in the back half of the gallery, as well as some very small stacks of framed work. We are all getting very good at hanging, it is a learned skill and believe me, not that easy to make all the work look good when hung together.

All the work is juried by the members and we have long very serious discussions about work that is brought to us. We never just dismiss it, we always try to help the artists focus and we always tell them why they were not juried in. We try to be helpful critics as we were all at this point in our artistic careers. We don’t see bad art, we see immature art, unfocused art, poorly executed art and occasionally great work. Once in a while we turn down great work because it does not fit with the look of our gallery, it is just too polished and mature for us. We think we are doing both the artist and our gallery a favor. This polished work would look out of place with us and therefore make the whole gallery seem unfocused. We are all mid-career artists with one or two beginners, whom we all nurture. We are planning to take one person every year as a scholarship member, one who will have the full responsibility of membership, but will pay no fees. They will learn how the gallery works, sit their days and at the end of a year have a one person show. We will invite all the gallery owners in the area to see their work and send them on their way, taking in a second scholarship person at the end of the year’s time to take their place. We are still formulating how this will work and have not chosen a scholarship person yet, but we think this is a good way we can “give back” to all the people who helped us when we were starting out and needed a hand up.

(RG note) This artist-run example can be found at


Community arts gallery
by June Raabe

I volunteer in an Arts Council Gallery. All kinds of work is hung there. I am one of the several gallery artists, so there’s always at least one of my paintings hanging there. Some days I feel I have succeeded at what I tried to “say,” many other days I am deep in gloom because we have so MANY excellent artists and my efforts look poor, to me, in comparison. Many of our visitors ask first, “local art?” I answer “yes.” Often then the person will offer: “I paint, but I am not good enough.” Then I smile and tell them this is a community gallery committed to encouraging all levels of artists. I invite them to join, tell them of our juried shows, of the theme mini-shows that members can enter each month for a very modest hanging fee. Paintings are only rejected that are in extremely bad taste or framed so very badly, they are liable to fall off the wall! Nudes are acceptable, last year we had three watercolour drawings of a pregnant nude woman, and they were beautiful, although the odd person (of course) commented negatively. One of our accomplished artists, paints in a style that some unsophisticated viewers have called “childish.” The paintings have bright colours, are “in your face” in style. The artists says he likes to make “social comment’ paintings. Personally I think he will be famous one day so I bought my self a tiny example of his work. This sort of gallery helps to educate people about art and helps them to make up their minds what is good or bad.


Cane maulstick
by Rosalind Lipscomb Forrest

On my studio easel I keep an old wooden walking stick with a crooked handle. The crooked top end of the stick hooks over my canvas; the bottom end of the stick is held away from the canvas by the easel painting tray; hence I have a hand rest 2 inches away from all areas of the painting surface. That the walking stick is 3 feet long is not a disadvantage since it is long enough for all of my paintings.


Signature a creative work
by Susan-Rose Slatkoff


painting by Susan-Rose Slatkoff

At the age of sixteen I fell in love with painting. As a very serious young woman, after visiting many galleries, I decided that it was of ultimate importance that I develop a fine signature which would look professional on the bottom of a painting. After many attempts I finally came up with what was most likely my best creative work — my signature. I use the same one today — but nowadays I generally try to put the signature in an unobtrusive place, which doesn’t detract from my composition.


Copyright in other countries
by Bob McMurray, Canada


painting by Bob McMurray

Copyright laws vary, sometimes considerably, from one country to another and can only be enforced in the originating country. I am not aware of agreements between any specific countries to honor each other’s copyright laws. The copyright laws of the country where you create and/or sell your work protect you from infringements in that country. Many countries have similar but not identical laws and in these countries the artist would have a measure of protection. However, many more have little or no copyright protection for artists and in those countries it becomes academic as David Sharpe suggests in the last collection of copyright information. But some protection is much better than none at all.

(RG note) Valuable information on copyright for artists is in the previous responses at







Marusa Mason
Vermont, Hermanus, South Africa


“Gloria and Kerry”
by Marusa Mason



Bad art


In the cafeteria of the Museum of Bad Art (MOBA)


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