At Library Art Contest, An Exceptionally Low Bar

Jan 10, 2019

For many middle and high school students, the bar is set high for getting good grades, making the team, and landing the lead role in a play. Recognizing that, a library in western Massachusetts recently set the bar really low, offering a carefree event of making bad art.

It was on a Friday night, when about a dozen kids who could have gone to a game or the mall chose to convene in the basement of the Clapp Memorial Library in Belchertown, Massachusetts.

Maybe it was the promise of prizes that brought them in. Or the chance to get a number of laughs by making the best worst possible replication of a famous piece of art.

After about 90 minutes of creativity, the presentations began.

High school freshman Ben Grillo chose to paint “The Swing,” a fairly well-known 18th-century oil by Jean-Honoré Fragonard.

At a recent night of making bad art, eighth-grader Ben Grillo replicated "The Swing."
Credit Jill Kaufman / NEPR

“The worst thing about my painting,” Grillo said, pausing as the other kids already found him funny, and the painting apparently bad, “is that I created the main focus of the painting out of glue, instead of paint.” More laughter.

“I think everything else about this is self-explanatory,” he said. Not quite.

“May I ask why there is no swing in a painting called 'The Swing?'” asked Brooke, a seventh-grader. (Her family asked that we not use her last name.)

“Well, I just didn't think it was that necessary,” Grillo said, to more laughs.

The bad art event, advertised on social media and in the newspaper, is the brainchild of Charlie Pope, the library’s teen event coordinator. Pope grew up in Belchertown, and went to this library and the same schools as the kids.

Pope is now a senior at Mt. Holyoke College, known for its high expectations. And when it comes to being creative, Pope said, paralysis can set in.

“You can be so determined to make something great,” she said, “that you'll be afraid of making something that's not great, so you won't make anything at all.”

Pope said she's heard about other libraries holding these bad art contests. She also happens to take an art class in college.

“My professor — she has this whole mantra that there's no such thing as bad art, and whatever you create has value, because it’s been created and because it has intention put into it,” she said.

As the teens continued to present their final pieces, tenth-grader Kylie Corbin showed her recreation of Eugène Delacroix's “Liberty Leading the People,” a famous scene from the French Revolution.

In Belchertown, Massachusetts, high school student Kylie Corbin reimagined "Liberty Leading the People."
Credit Jill Kaufman / NEPR

The first thing Corbin pointed out was the French flag, done in glitter glue. She also used paint, markers and some pom-poms (for feet).

“I cut out most of the people,” she said. “There's a guy just kind of laying there. And then there's two people on the side. They have one arm, and a gun. Well, that guy doesn't have an arm.”

The worse the piece, the louder the laughter. Brooke’s “Mona Lisa” was next.

A "Mona Lisa" like none other, at a recent night of "bad art" for teens in Belchertown, Massachusetts.
Credit Clapp Memorial Library

“OK, I did a very, very terrible representation of the 'Mona Lisa,'” she said.

Brooke's hands were covered in paint. The paper, with Mona Lisa at the center, was saturated in garish color, and Brooke had used a collage technique.

“So, she's got a toilet roll for the neck. She’s got a very long neck,” Brooke said. “And it's just bad."

Bad art is nothing new, and over the last few years, it's become a legitimate genre, according to artists, non-artists and even philosophers.

John Dyck is the lead author of “Appreciating Bad Art,” an article first published in a philosophical quarterly called the Journal of Value Inquiry. I sent him photos of the art from the Belchertown contest.

"As I was scrolling through the pictures, I just immediately laughed out loud when I saw the toilet paper roll on Mona Lisa,” Dyck said, laughing.

The teens beautifully “dethroned” great works, Dyck said. But would the pieces meet the aesthetic standards at an institution like the Museum of Bad Art? The Somerville, Massachusetts, gallery has hundreds of pieces in its curated collection.

“To be bad art, something has to be failed art,” Dyck said.

Being a philosopher, Dyck has thought a lot about artistic values and how they're flipped. Something truly so bad can be seen as good. That's not the same as when it comes to moral or ethical values.

“So I could never lie so awfully that it's actually the truth,” Dyck said. “Or I could never treat someone so terribly that somehow, I treat them right.”

At the end of the evening, the teens at the library were instructed to cast their vote for their favorite piece — or least favorite, as it were. 

Grillo's “The Swing” (with no swing) took third prize. Sarah Fisher's bright orange and yellow version of Vincent van Gogh's “Starry Night” came in second.

Tenth-grader Sarah Fisher's take on Vincent van Gogh's "Starry Night," at a recent night of "bad art" in Belchertown, Massachusetts.
Credit Jill Kaufman / NEPR

“In first place, with the longest neck of all time, we have the 'Mona Lisa,'” Pope announced, and the small crowd let out a small roar of laughter.

The winners were invited to claim their prizes, which — appropriately — were books.

The next teen event at the library is the history of Friendly’s Ice Cream, which got its start in Wilbraham, Massachusetts, not far from Belchertown.

If the promise of ice cream is on the table, these teens may return.