Philosophy of the World: Stairway to Bad Art

Most of the works displayed on the stairs at MORA between the first and third floors are examples of ‘bad art,’ which I have collected over the years.

Bad art is neither outsider art, art brut, nor naïve art, which spring from different artistic impulses. Nor can it be said to be lowbrow — opposing the ‘authority’ of high art. What is probably the world’s only permanent facility for bad art is the Museum of Bad Art (MOBA) in Boston, USA. The museum staged a show in winter 2018 at Gallery AaMo in Tokyo Dome City.

MOBA says its mission is to “…celebrate, collect, preserve and exhibit art that is ‘too bad to ignore’ and never sees the light of day in other museums and galleries. The MOBA collection focuses on works that have gone astray somewhere in the creative process.”

MOBA held its first exhibition in the basement of a private home in 1994, compiled from the collection of Boston art dealer Scott Wilson. The sad oil paintings, found coated in dust at junk shops or discarded with their frames in rubbish bins, have no value in this world. Yet they continue to attract interest. I visited MOBA in 2001, while compiling my book ROADSIDE USA about American cultural frontiers. By that time, it had relocated to larger premises in the suburb of Dedham, in a cinema basement adjacent to the men’s toilets (which many said was a perfect fit). By 2010, the museum was operating at three locations, but in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, closed all of them down. MOBA reopened in September 2022, in the tap room of the Dorchester Brewing Company, Boston. 

MOBA’s selection criteria are as follows:

 (1) The piece must be a genuine work of art and a sincere effort to communicate an artistic intention.

2) Something must have gone wrong with the concept or during the production process. For example, a lack of technique, problematic production methods, quirky themes, over-expression, etc.

3) The resulting work must be interesting and engaging. It is important that it provoke discussion and questioning.

I was first attracted to bad art through the book, Thrift Store Paintings, published in 1992, two years before the opening of MOBA. It comprises works acquired at thrift stores by the author, Jim Shaw. He writes of collecting ‘weird paintings’ since the 1970s. At first, he stuck to a spending limit of no more than $5 per work, which he eventually raised to $35. Although not strictly bad art in the MOBA sense, the paintings sought by Shaw were also considered to have no value. As Scott Wilson of MOBA said, “At first I bought them for the frames, not the paintings.”

The book contains only the barest details about the works, such as the titles of the paintings and, if known, the artists’ names. It is simply an enigmatic collection of strange visual experiences, appearing and ending with each page. Yet even now, 30 years after I first came across it, Thrift Store Paintings remains my most important art book. I’ve been conducting my own rescue of bad art ever since.

A further difference between MOBA and Thrift Store Paintings is that museum founder Scott Wilson is an art dealer, while author Jim Shaw is an artist, although I first came to know him as a musician. Shaw was born in 1952 in Midland, Michigan. While enrolled at the University of Michigan in Detroit, he formed the legendary post-punk band Destroy All Monsters, with Mike Kelley, Niagara and others. Kelley went on to become a leading figure in ‘Californian bad taste art’ along with Paul McCarthy; Shaw’s style is built on his dark, psychedelic and pop sensibilities. He remains based in Los Angeles and in 2015 held a major retrospective at the New Museum in New York.

In hindsight, I believe it was Shaw’s punk eye behind Thrift Store Paintings that attracted me to his book. MOBA’s selections seem to be more on the aesthetic side, and the differences are interesting (neither good or bad, of course).

What is the appeal of Bad Art? It is not, as I have said, like outsider art, or about a sort of beauty transgressing the bounds of orthodox expression, or about the innocent passion of creation. Nor does it offer the popular-culture thrills that can be shared with music, comics and games, as in the case of lowbrow art. What Bad Art makes us feel is not so much ‘excitement,’ but ‘bewilderment.’

If Bad Art was music, it would not be the reasoned compositions of contemporary song, or punk with its destructive impulses, or noise music that dares to offend the senses. My reflex impression of this work is expressed in a song by the Shaggs, the historical monstrosity that is ‘Philosophy of the World,’ where the musicians play earnestly, but where something is fatally wrong, and the more the sounds overlap, the more unhinged everything becomes. This kind of perplexity may shake us more than it moves us; it is the distinctive power of Bad Art that leaves us not knowing what to do with ourselves.