My contribution to the arts education debate: The Importance of Being Bad

(I had a whole other post planned for “The importance of being bad” but decided to use it here.) So the debate rages on. For all interested you should check out the links provided in my previous posts. What I’ve got for you tonight is a comment I left on a blog in response to another person’s comment. A real dialogue, perhaps! You can find the post here. This is what I said:


I agree with plenty of what you say in all the threads of comments you have trailed in the blogs that I’ve seen. Obviously you have a much more informed opinion on the art world than I do.

I absolutely agree with your comment that part of our confusion seems to be a lack of clarity on what the term “art” is supposed to refer to. The breakdown that seems the most crucial to me is between taking art to mean a particular kind of ‘thing’ (a noun), and art to mean a particular kind of activity (a verb).

You make a bold claim that “Good art effects people. Good art changes minds and shapes a country. Bad art does nothing for anyone.” but it seems to say more about art as product than art as activity. We may have to disagree that the lines between good art objects and bad are so clear, but it seems that the activity of art is seldom wrong. There isn’t good creativity and bad creativity, though we may judge the outcomes in those terms, or we may see it directed in questionable ways.

Rather, it seems that the curiosity to explore is itself a virtue. And so I would be tempted to say that the activity of art is itself a good thing. And therefore I would also say that even bad outcomes of art are potentially positive experiences. Its often better to have been creative and made crap than to not have been creative at all.

And the danger is that we punish bad outcomes of art making to the point of discouraging creativity. Art shouldn’t just be the practice of an elite minority who are ‘good’ at it, but a natural birthright of every citizen and our inherent creative capacity. We should nurture even the bad expressions, not just because they may one day lead to better, but because art doesn’t always need to be so serious. Being creative can be its own reward, never mind the outcome.

And art doesn’t need to be ‘good’ for it to have healing potential, to nourish the maker’s soul and add to the qualitative details of an audience’s lives. Sometimes bad art is precisely what moves us or inspires us. Sometimes bad art is itself an education. Is that such a bad thing?

But of course we are so easily tempted to look only at the products of art making. The gallery world makes its money on them, and the academic world grades its students on them. This is what the establishment has its arms wrapped around and is of course vested in defending. And its oh so very privledged and aristocratic to keep its heel on the necks of the common folk. What matters their dreams and aspirations? Peons!

But my question, the question I asked on Arlene’s blog, is whether it is in the establisment’s long term interest to have such a narrow view. By promoting only the exclusivity of ‘good’ art (as passed through their gatekeepers) are they at risk of alienating a populace that is increasingly less comfortable with what they are peddling? Does the establishment run the risk of spurning the public by hiding inside its glorified ivory tower?

Without making the attempt to reach out and communicate to a more diverse audience are these artists just self satisfiedly hobnobbing with the inner circle of their patrons? And will they show surprise when the rubes and Philistines come for them with their torches, to burn them as the inscrutable heretics they are? Does the arrogance of the establishment have any comeuppance in store?

If ‘populist art’ is such a derisory thing, then it won’t be a surprise when that self same populace cuts all the strings to funding the elitist establishment version of art. Can’t blame the bean counters and pencil pushers for denying a privileged past time that mocks them, ridicules their values, and is ultimately irrelevant to its concerns. Can’t have it both ways is all I’m saying…..

Doesn’t it make much more sense to take the gamble on inclusiveness and build the whole community’s connection to their creative talents? Doesn’t even the esoteric dance of establishment art benefit from having an audience that was nurtured to be curious and creatively engaged? Isn’t this ultimately a win/win situation? Is ‘good’ art REALLY that threatened by the ‘bad’ art? It seems like an interesting question…..”


What do y’all think?

Make beauty real!

About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
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4 Responses to My contribution to the arts education debate: The Importance of Being Bad

  1. harleylady01 says:

    I know that you sometimes feel you are speaking into a vast vacuum, so I wanted to tell you that I lurk, I read your posts and I think about them. You write so well that I have been a little intimidated and thus haven’t commented before now. I’m sure there are others like myself, so please don’t stop sharing…we are here.

    I particularly enjoyed the discussions on creativity. I was one of those children who made “interesting” art and as a result I “knew” by age 6 or 7 that I wasn’t “creative”. Also, I grew up in a family that valued intellectual achievement and poor grades in an art class would hurt the GPA/college chances, so I never was encouraged to venture in that direction, nor did I believe I could. I was around age 60 when I found clay rather by accident, but still didn’t believe that I was creative. I found it difficult to believe that people liked my work and weren’t just being polite. But, I kept at it and as my competency improves, so did my confidence, thus freeing my mind to be creative rather than self-critical. However, I must continually work on undoing that early brainwashing..

    Please know that your writings have had a profound influence on me and I’m sure on others. Thank you,
    Sheila Maier

    • Thanks for your encouragement Sheila! I am always excited to meet the ‘lurkers’ who find the things I say engaging or provocative. And I encourage you to be welcome in adding to any discussions I present in these pages. Like what I was getting at in the next post, sometimes its hard for me (or any artist) to feel positive about what I’m contributing if I don’t see it having an impact. Its great to know that folks like you are still out there!

      Thankfully it is never too late for us to discover our creativity. The surprising thing is that this tiny seed that has been buried for so long, paved over by our ‘real world’ commitments, can still provide for the genesis of a blossoming flower. No matter how we ignore it, abuse it, and drive it off, the tiny seed of our curiosity is a resilient capacity. And this is because being creative and curious is so fundamental to what it means to be human. Modern society makes it hard to recognize this, but once upon a time every member of human societies was a wellspring of creative energy and decision making. It is simply part of our genetic make up, part of our natural birthright, and I’m glad you were able to discover it.

      Good luck nurturing your joy and your imagination! And thanks again for chiming in!

  2. harleylady01 says:

    Oops…looks like I posted in the wrong place…please feel free to move my comment if you choose. Thanks,
    Sheila Maier

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