The Miracle of Mediocrity

Nothing lifts the spirits like making bad art

| March/April 2001


The Game of Life
-Mark Harris

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Running Scared
-Craig Cox

The Miracle of Mediocrity
-Jon Spayde

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Every Tuesday night is Bad Art Night at our house. My wife, Laurie, and I haul up the old metal folding table, set it up alongside our dining room table, and pull four or five chairs around. She gets the art supplies out of our crammed coat closet, makes some tea, and puts some energizing music on the CD player: Angelique Kidjo, John Coltrane, or George Jones. When the doorbell rings, it could be any of a half-dozen regulars, or maybe a newbie drawn by the allure of Bad Art.

Eventually, a chatty group is seated around the table, digging into oil pastels, modeling clay, chalk, colored pencils, watercolors and—a wonderful discovery of Laurie’s—fluorescent cattle markers, from a farm-goods megastore. The Bad Art Nighters are doing loopy abstractions saturated with color; they’re making strange, three-dimensional paper-sculpture thingamajigs and neosurrealist collages. Laurie is working on a drawing of an enormous cat whose body is intersecting with a toucan and a map of Belize. To inspire the group, I am reading from a manifesto by the great and bizarre gay filmmaker and performance pioneer Jack Smith: 'If you make perfect art you will be admired; but if you make imperfect art you will be loved!'

Ah, yes, this is Bad Art at its best—which is to say, its worst. One of our faithful attenders once asked Laurie why we use the b-word. Doesn’t it imply low standards, low expectations, low self-esteem? No, Laurie explained. It implies no standards, no expectations, and very high self-esteem. Bad Art is all about conscious, dedicated badness—in community—as a tool of liberation.

Here’s how Bad Art was born. Laurie is a public artist who does big outdoor art with light—projects that may involve turning an entire building into a light box, or projecting slides onto vast scrims. Five years ago, she was verging on artistic burnout. She wanted to do some small art for a change, but she hated the claustrophobia of the studio.

So I came up with a simple idea: five minutes of collage at night, before we went to bed. We tore up magazines and the stock-photo catalog books Laurie uses when she does graphic design. After a few nights, Laurie began smiling. She had a nice little pile of collages. But it was still hard. Five minutes before bedtime wasn’t much, and there was always that inner perfectionist screeching, 'Make a good collage, schmuck!' Laurie began to realize that it was that voice, more than anything else, that kept any art she did, big or small, from being a joy.

Then we read Michele Cassou’s wonderful book Life, Paint, and Passion—a guide to using painting to free yourself from bad little inner voices. Are you afraid of making a bad painting? asks Cassou. Then go ahead and make one. Paint an ugly, sloppy mess, and see how you feel.

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