Bad art may have philosophical lessons to teach

Stephanie Ross

When two reputable critics disagree about a work of art, who is right? Neither? Both?

Is there any defensible reason why those who appreciate inferior works of art should try to “train up” and appreciate more difficult works preferred by recognized critics?

For philosopher Stephanie Ross, bad art may help provide answers to such questions.

“Rather than tracking disputes about masterpieces and works clearly in the canon, I will start with bad art and rotten reviews,” said Ross, a Center Research Fellow and professor of philosophy at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

There is no shortage of good material. Her research list includes bad art condemned by recognized critics, the holdings of the Museum of Bad Art in Boston, the conceptual art of Komar and Melamid whose “appalling” paintings were created in response to questionnaires aimed at learning people’s preferences in visual arts, an anthology of bad verse titled The Stuffed Owl, and the work of artists such as poet Rod McKuen and painter Thomas Kincaid who are scorned by the critical establishment.

“Problems arise when we contrast everyday factual statements—‘The cat is on the mat’—with aesthetic claims about works of art—‘That’s a somber portrait,’” said Ross, “The latter claim seems contestable in ways that the former is not, and this raises metaphysical worries about works of art. Do they possess their constitutive properties less securely than do ordinary objects? When two critics disagree about a work of art, how do we decide whom to trust?”

The study will complete her larger project on ideal critics, which involves a “rational reconstruction” of 18th-century philosopher David Hume’s essay “Of the Standard of Taste.” Hume asserts that there is a standard for judging works of art as either good or bad, and that it is set by the converging judgments of “ideal critics.”

Ideal critics, in turn, are defined by a specific set of essential traits, though Ross argues that several of the traits require real human critics rather than the idealized Humean variety.

Important questions concern not only the role of respected critics and the reception of avant-garde works, but also “the multifarious ways in which lesser appreciators engage less worthy works. In this way, my rational reconstruction of Hume’s theory will illuminate the full range of our encounters with works of art and better show art’s place in our lives.”
The inclusion of ordinary and inept appreciators as well as the ideal opens potentially useful critical ground that lies somewhere between the notion that there is only one standard for right appreciation and the extreme, relativist position that one critical point of view is as valid as another.

Ross is the author of What Gardens Mean (U of Chicago Press, 1998), a leading work in the movement to treat gardens as art worthy of the sort of critical analysis directed toward painting, literature and music. Her book on the nature of aesthetic appreciation will continue to extend the critical terrain—and yes, there’s a place for emotional kitsch.
“I will explore arguments about the merits and demerits of sentimentality,” Ross wrote in her project proposal. “This may call for a trip to the Precious Moments Chapel!”