MOBA Changes Trash to Treasure

Museum of Bad Art blurs the line between the good, the bad, and the ugly

Boasting the tagline “art too bad to be ignored,” the Boston-based Museum of Bad Art (MOBA) hails itself as “the world’s only museum dedicated to the collection, preservation, exhibition and celebration of bad art in all its forms.” The small-scale volunteer-run MOBA received a surprising amount of media attention when it held its first public exhibition in March 1994. The museum then opened its first permanent gallery space in October 1995 next to the men’s room in the basement of the Dedham Community Theater. In May 2008, they expanded to a second gallery space in the Somerville Theater in nearby Davis Square.

To gain entry to the Davis Square gallery, visitors must buy a ticket, not to the gallery, but to a movie playing at the theater, regardless of your desire to actually watch said movie. After entering the theater, the gallery itself is inconspicuously tucked away, located downstairs and down a hallway. It contains about thirty works of bad art drawn from the MOBA collection of over 400 pieces. Some had been rescued from the trash, others purchased at antique fairs, yard sales, second-hand stores or thrift shops, even a few donated by the artists themselves.

You might think, then, that any piece of junk you come across could qualify as bad art. But MOBA won’t settle for just any third-rate canvas; only 10 to 20 percent of submissions are “bad enough” for the MOBA board and there are rigorous rules dictating what will be considered. No works by children, no commercially-produced paintings, and no tacky tourist art are permitted. Nor are kitschy paintings on black velvet, paint-by-numbers, or latch-hook rugs accepted. “Any of the aforementioned may be compelling,” reads the introductory wall text, “but are probably better suited for the Museum of Questionable Taste, the International Schlock Collection, or the National Treasury of Dubious Home Decoration.” Above all, submissions must be sincere attempts to make an artistic statement, not just spoofs competing for the “worst in show” award.

Talent or virtuosity does not preclude admission into the pantheon of bad art, nor does artistic ineptitude alone ensure it. The works that are included vary in style and medium, but most share certain characteristics. First off, bad art tends to be figurative. Garish, unnatural colors seem to be a prerequisite. And much bad art just contains bad subject matter (take, for instance, a bovine form precipitating down what appears to be a waterfall in “Suicide,” or George Seurat relieving himself in the pointillist-style “Sunday on the Pot with George?”).

Many of the works on display in the MOBA galleries are accompanied by tongue-in-cheek wall labels that cite a laundry list of famous artists as possible influences, mocking art historical commentary, and criticism. One label, for instance, compares “The Lady with Big Pants” to Goya’s “Nude Maja,” while another pretends that a painting entitled “The Last Dance” may be, “an atypical, late work by iconoclastic French painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.”

But perhaps the biggest joke of all is that, despite the “bad” tendencies that run through many of the works in the collection, the badness isn’t always apparent. Try as the curators may to establish guidelines and standards for what makes bad art, I’m not sure that it’s all bad, or frankly, all that different from what you might see at a regular art museum. Compare “Out of Joint,” an expressionistic portrait of a seated mustachioed man set against a mustard and teal colored background, to an Egon Schiele self-portrait, for example, and you might have a hard time guessing which one lives at the MOBA and the other at the Met. Leafing through the comment book, I saw that many visitors, like me, couldn’t help but compare the art on display to “good art” and found that the distinctions weren’t always obvious. “Who is to say what is good and bad? Expression is what matters,” wrote one reviewer in the comment book.

The questions that MOBA provokes about aesthetic judgment and the role of the museum are the very same questions raised by many modern and contemporary artists like Marcel Broodthaers, Daniel Buren, and Hans Haacke, who turned a critical eye to the context in which their work was exhibited. Indeed, this practice of institutional critique is one of the key influences in the artistic developments of the late 20th century. Is MOBA, then, with its humorous take on the way in which museums assign aesthetic value, participating in this same discourse of institutional critique? What does the very fact of creating a bad art museum say about the over-intellectualized realm of contemporary art? And if MOBA is more interesting for its idea than for the actual works on display, can it be regarded as a piece of conceptual art itself? Is the Museum of Bad Art, in short, a work of good art?

—Columnist Alexandra Perloff-Giles can be reached at aperloff@fas.harvard.edu.

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