Why I Don’t Believe In The Whole Idea Of Bad Art

by | Dec 2, 2009 | Articles, WHTTO | 10 comments

When I was a kid I absolutely adored Christmas.

I loved the twinkly lights and the schmaltzy music but most of all I loved that sense of anticipation and wonder and surprise. My family and I lived in a rowhouse that had three stories and two flights of stairs. On Christmas morning I would wake up at some ungodly early hour and  sneak down those stairs with my siblings trailing behind me (I was the big sister) until we reached the living room where the tree was set up and the wrapped Christmas packages were piled high. It was always a breathtaking moment to walk into this normally ordinary room and find it transformed into something so magical and full of treasures.

The studio where I hold my weekly classes in Oakland, CA is in a huge, old Victorian house that is very cool and charming. Over the time I’ve been there I’ve transformed most of the house into art space in one way or another. But years ago I lived there with my husband. The house has two stories so the upstairs was our living space and the downstairs was the painting studio.

It’s like Christmas every day in my studio!

Each morning I would come down those stairs and be greeted by whatever paintings had been created in the class from the day before. And in the early morning light I would have that same feeling of anticipation and surprise that I had as a child , even though I had already seen them. When I’m teaching my focus is on my students, but it was like being alone with these amazing bits of creative expression, in this ever changing sacred art gallery, allowed me to experience them more simply and directly.

My students have a wide range of experience when it comes to art. Some people have been to art school and are even commercially successful with their paintings. Other folks have not picked up a brush since kindergarten. So the span of technical proficiency is pretty wide.

But walking around the studio and taking in the energy and soul with which each piece was created I found that it didn’t really matter. I was moved by each and every one of those paintings. And my feelings of being touched or amused or awed had nothing to do with how skillfully the painting was rendered.

In that moment I had one of those lightbulb-in-the-brain realizations. I kind of already knew it but it suddenly became incredibly crystally clear. I don’t really believe in the concept of Bad Art.

There’s a very good reason why I don’t go to art galleries.

In the conventional art world of galleries and competitions and selling you better believe there is a VERY strong sense about what is good and what is not. That whole process of assessment and critique, comparison and competition is rife in that community. People are always striving to be on top and to be the best which translates into more fame, more recognition, more respect and ultimately more money. There is a built in sense of elitism among trained artists.  A sense of us and them and a strong dividing line between those who can legitimately call themselves artists and the rest of the world.

And I can guarantee you that if anyone from that world happened to show up in my little studio they would be of the definite opinion that Creative Juices Arts was FILLED TO THE RAFTERS with Bad, BAD Art.

I’m pretty sure that without SOME standards the world would spin off it’s axis… or something equally catastrophic.

But even in the world that I hang out in which is a much more “touchy feely hippy dippy expressive artsy anything goes” kind of crowd there is still that concept of Bad Art. Granted, it has a totally different connotation from the artiste mindset. When these folks talk about making Bad Art it is in the service of creative liberation. The suggestion is to allow yourself to make Bad Art as a way to circumnavigate the voice of the inner critic. If you are feeling trapped and stuck and paralyzed and unable to create giving yourself permission to make Bad Art can really get you moving again.

I really, really like the idea that a way to break the hold of  your perfectionism is to make what you THINK is Bad Art. I think that’s a tremendously helpful concept. And has allowed scads of people to take steps towards all kinds of crazy and wonderful artistic freedom. I have even used it myself at times to help one of my students out of a tight creative spot.

But in my heart of hearts I never really believed it. Maybe I’m crazy. Maybe I have no standards to speak of. Maybe my eyes really ARE going. But I just don’t think there really IS such a thing as Bad Art.

There’s art that you might not like.

There’s art that is not technically sophisticated.

There’s art that might be judged harshly by some outside authority or arbitrary standard.

There’s art that does not please the artist.

There’s art that appears to be completely meaningless or confusing.

There’s art that doesn’t match the vision you had in your head.

There’s art that might bring up shame about your artistic skills.

There’s art that might get you in touch with some uncomfortable feelings.

There’s art that is not realistic.

There’s art that is messy.

There’s art that is childlike.

But none of it is really BAD art. There’s nothing wrong with the art itself. The art is just art.
What makes it seem bad is our expectations about what we think it SHOULD be.

There’s something here for everyone to love.

One year at a crafts fair I bought a pretty silk scarf from an artist who used Batik to make her own designs. As she was packaging up my purchase she said to me “You know… I almost chucked that scarf as a huge mistake. I really didn’t like it and thought it wasn’t a very good design. But my husband talked me out of it saying you just never know what someone else might think.”

I’m grateful that she listened to her husbands wisdom. That little scarf really touched my heart and it STILL makes me happy every time I wear it.

And that’s how I feel about my own art. It touches my heart. This feels really politically incorrect in terms of the art world, but the truth is ….I love everything that I’ve ever created not because it meets some standard of good or bad but just because I’ve done it. Each thing that I’ve created is like one of my children and a good mother never plays favorites!

I also love everything my students have ever done for the same reason. In fact whenever I see ANYBODY else’s creations my heart does a little happy dance, because it’s another example of the creative impulse made manifest.

Maybe it’s just proof of how goofy I really am, maybe it’s that same part of me that loves the schmaltzy Christmas music, but I just can’t help but feel absurdly joyful whenever I am witness to someones heartfelt creative expression.

It’s the part of me that is just so grateful that we even HAVE the ability to be creative and that creativity exists in the world. And personally, that’s more than enough for me.

If you’re looking for a place and some dedicated time to practice some of your Bad Art skills I’ve still got 2 openings in my upcoming Painting From The Wild Heart retreat January 16-22 in Northern California. For more details click here.



  1. I’m one of those folks who likes to give permission to make “bad” art in the service of getting past the inner critic. It works for me. But I always put bad in quotations because I don’t really believe any of it’s bad. Like you said, “good” and “bad” are just ideas in our heads about how things “should” be. For me, the permission is just a tool to get past those inner voices that still have ideas about what good and bad is. Most days, I don’t need to give myself that permission anymore, but some days I do. Maybe it’s a crutch? I don’t know. I think it’s more like a step-stool. I still love the way it can free people up (particularly those with strong inner critic voices and perfectionist tendencies) to let go.

    It’s interesting, but when it comes to others’ art, like you, I can always see the beauty. I think that’s what I work towards, being able to always see that beauty in my own work. And in the meantime, I’ll keep giving myself permission when I need it. :-)

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post, Chris!

  2. Beautiful post, and very well expressed.
    I am similiar to you as I find beauty in everything, and feel that each expression is unique to it’s own experience. I feel that any expression is a reflection of our inner world and tells a story of each own, therefore is not subject to being judged. I don’t feel anything is subject to being judged as it deserves it’s right of place in it’s own space, and that goes the same with people and where they are. Every art piece suits it’s purpose and your entitled to perceive it in any way you wish. In the end one becomes their perception, and whether it is ‘bad’ or ‘good’ it is naturally in it’s place for what it simply is.

  3. and this is why I love you so.

  4. Fantastic post! My husband and I say that all the time, “it’s like Christmas every day!” love it.

  5. You know what I think is bad art?

    Pretentious overpriced crap that thinks it’s much better than it really is.

    Things like the “Voice of Fire”.


    The actual painting itself doesn’t offend me. Hey..is someone wants to paint three stripes and call it art, go ahead. Whatever floats your boat…

    But what DOES offend me…is the artist got $1.8 MILLION!!! (Holy Scam, Batman…That’s like $600,000 per stripe!)

    And it’s in the National Art Gallery of Canada. Meaning we taxpayers paid for it out of our own pockets. And we had no say in the matter.

    (Grrr…don’t get me started)

    If I really wanted stripes, I’d just buy a very big flag of France, or something.

  6. Wow! I love this post and I love your attitude towards art! Very wise, indeed, and much more fun all around than being concerned about whether or not what you or anybody else creates is “good” or “bad.” I have many creative impulses to write and to draw, but I tend to hold myself back because I want it to be perfect. When I have on occasion given myself permission to do it badly, I’ve actually been very pleased with the results. Go figure.

  7. @leah Hi sweetie- I don’t think using the concept of making “bad art” ( in quotation marks) as a way to deal with the inner critic is a crutch at all. In fact I myself find it incredibly useful. I’m just on a bit of a crusade right now about certain uses of language.. like good or bad, right or wrong, positive or negative. There’s something about all those dichotomies that’s just making my skin crawl! But I never meant to imply that using the idea of making “bad art” was somehow a “bad technique”. So sorry if it came across that way!!

    @Ana Yes, it’s all about our perception, which is just so personal and intimate. And I love your statement about how “any expression is a reflection of our inner world and tells a story of each own, therefore is not subject to being judged.” So beautifully said!!

    @rachelwhetzel I just TOTALLY adore you too!!

    @Shannon Isn’t that just the most fun way to live? Yay for Christmas every day!!

    @Friar Hey buddy.. thanks for stopping by! And I totally agree with you that if there IS such a thing as bad art it’s certainly the stuff that falls in the category of “pretentious and overpriced crap.” I can’t believe that the Canadian government spent so much money on that painting!! Do they have an art mafia or something like that in Canada? I can only imagine someone writing a check for that amount for a painting that lame if someone held a gun to their head!!

    @dovelily I know what you mean. Isn’t that always the most amazing thing? When we let go of the perfectionism we not only have more fun but also end up with something that truly pleases us!

  8. Great article! When you say “bad” art are you saying that this is an empowering choice that artists make (not critics, not gallery owners or institutions) to further explore what roadblocks s/he has. That is is the artist’s right to deem work bad?

    I just came back from Art Basel Miami and after posting pictures of the scene, I will be writing my impression of this hierarchy-to-the-hilt event that easily thinks they have decided what is good and what is bad. Stay tuned or stop by!

  9. I believe that there is such a thing as Bad Art. I have a friend D. who is a professional artist. He paints what he calls his “commercial” paintings to sell – but he hates doing them. Now he also paints his “real” paintings that he loves – which sell as well. So I am confused: why does he paint pictures he hates when he could just paint pictures he loves because they all sell? Although I find all of his paintings drab and depressing, at least his “real” paintings have integrity because he wants to say something. But his “commercial” painting just growl at you: “I hate you. You’re tasteless if you like me and I all care about is your money”. Now that does not make them Bad Art. Using art to express your emotions because you feel them is fine – even bad emotions. But to waste your time doing something you hate just for money kills. It may do it in little stages but it does do it. I don’t care what work it is: when you fill your life with hate for money, you die inside. And that is Bad Art because it is Bad Life

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