Learn From Bad Art

“Bad art makes the viewer much more active…Bad characters invite invention.”

Chris Kraus


Spending time on bad art, like reading a bad book for example, can obviously be a soul-sucking experience. There’s even an Italian proverb, which says, “There is no friend so faithful as a good book, and there is no worse robber than a bad book.”

Of course, good or bad art is subjective. I’m not talking about art from the perspective of ratings and awards — you could find gems in an unpopular or flopped piece of work, just as you could find that something highly-acclaimed is overrated or not worth the recognition.

Bad art, as I define here, is simply art that you don’t enjoy.

Wisdom tells us to not waste any time on bad art, and instead spend that precious time on art that we do enjoy. And frankly, that’s what I would often tell people — particularly those who are struggling to read more. 

But if you’re a creator — if you’re an artist, I would urge you to do the opposite. 

I’m sure you already know that learning from other people’s works is the bread and butter of getting better at what you do. If you write, you need to read a lot. If you play music, you need to closely study other musicians’ records.

But this time around, try to pay close attention to bad art as well — because as comic book writer Alan Moore put, they can be “more inspiring” than good art. 

Alan Moore is well-known for the breaking the bounds of comic book writing. While comic books were often seen as “not serious” or mere entertainment, that changed when Alan Moore brought them into maturity by introducing a sense of realism and philosophical weight. In his books such as Watchmen and Batman: The Killing Joke, you wouldn’t find one-dimensionality in the characters, or predictable “good vs. evil” story arcs.

Moore would advise aspiring writers to read terrible books. 

As he explained, if you’re too captivated by a good book, there is a risk of being unoriginal, that your work would be too similar to that book. 

“A genuinely helpful reaction to a piece of work that you’re reading is: ‘Jesus Christ, I could write this shit.'” he said. “That is immensely liberating, to find somebody who is published, who is doing much, much worse than you. And by analyzing why they are doing so badly, this will immensely help your own style.”

Opening yourself to bad art can help you learn valuable mistakes not to make. 

Take a good hard look at why you didn’t like it. What is it about it that offended you so much? Which particular bits of lazy-writing or over-writing ruined the experience for you?

For me, watching almost anything from The Simpsons past the first ten seasons feels like a waste of time. I’m disheartened by how the series went from being brilliantly funny and relatable, to being lazily written. 

You could tell that the writers put their heart and soul into the first ten seasons. They were well-grounded in our shared human nature, and their timeless themes, such as family struggles and friendship, could either make you laugh your butt off or cry yourself to sleep. After that, they just started capitalizing on cheap jokes and trends, as well as the characters’ stupidity — God knows how they have managed to stretch this for decades now.

In a similar vein, I felt that The Conjuring was genuinely one of the scariest horror movies I’ve ever watched. It worked because of how well it convinced me that it was really based on actual events. The movie makes you feel as though everything about it is close to what you’d realistically imagine could happen to yourself —  if you were to live in a haunted house, that is (and I have lived in a haunted house before).

The other movies in the Conjuring franchise felt like just another boring typical horror flick. While some of them were still “based on true events”, they had the tendency to oversteer from the original events that they were supposedly based on, and the scares were too comical and overblown. 

So the next time you read a bad book, or watch a bad movie, or listen to a bad song — rather than being shut down, sit with your feelings and think for a moment. 

That small moment of reflection that you get from bad art, I believe, has just as much, if not more, to teach you in being better at your work than you do from good art.

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