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Bad Is Good?

May 21, 2008

I wonder if people have always been fascinated with bad art or whether it's elevation to rockstar status is a symptom of our own particular post-ironic times?

My question is prompted by recent articles in the media on both sides of the Atlantic about the Scottish weaver-turned-poet, William MacGonagall.

"MacGonagall has long been celebrated as Britain's worst poet, inspiring satirical tributes to his doggerel awfulness from Spike Milligan, Monty Python and even the Muppets," writes Esther Addley in The Guardian.

Now, it seems that the poet who was once pelted with fruit during a reading and who his own appreciation society call "without talent", is in demand. A collection of MacGonagall's poems, on A3 newspaper-style leaflets the poet is believed to have printed, was auctioned yesterday at an Edinburgh saleroom for £6,600 (about $13,000).

This is hardly a vast amount of money in manuscript auction terms when you consider that J K Rowling's limited edition handwritten The Tales of Beedle Bard sold for $3.98 million in 2007 and an original copy of the Magna Carta sold for $21.3 million. But it's still quite a sum for the work of an artist who is universally pilloried.

MacGonagall's cultural notoriety today isn't by any means an anomaly. For some reason, human beings love bad art. You only have to look at the sold-out performances of such music ensembles as the UK's Really Terrible Orchestra and the Bay Area's Porn Orchestra (that performs its ear-splitting works to projections of equally inept old porn movies -- yay! two bad artforms for the price of one!) not to mention the cult status of the films of Ed Wood to see just how passionate people can be about bad art.

Awful music, films, paintings etc inspire us because they make art feel less remote and high falutin'. Bad art puts artists on the same playing field as everyone else. And that seems to be comforting, in a perverse kind of way, to many people.

But I'm not sure how I feel about the hype surrounding mediocrity. I must admit that there's a special place in my heart for MacGonagall's terrible "Bridge of Tay" ode, mostly because my father used to recite it at the top of his voice in a hammy Scots accent every now and again when I was a kid.

But while reciting bad poetry is good for the soul in the sense that it makes us giggle, it's not great for culture as a whole. If we continue to make a big fuss of bad artists, then discerning quality from crap might become quite challenging for many people.The war against mediocrity must continue on all fronts.

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