Dispelling Michelangelo

in defense of bad art

The artists I learned about in history class never stuck in my mind. I forgot their names along with the details of their most praised works. But what I do remember is that Michelangelo, the brilliant mind behind the famed David and Pietà, is known for being an asshole as much as he is known for his artistic ability. Michelangelo had a massive ego and did not take criticism lightly; a popular anecdote tells of how he painted one of his critics into The Last Judgment and crested him with a pair of donkey ears. Nevertheless, this behavior was rooted in his need for perfection. Nobody was a harsher critic of Michelangelo’s work than he himself. He even knocked off an arm and leg from his Florentine Pietà, a marble statue of Christ, because he found that it was irreversibly flawed. In that respect, we as artists, can find ourselves to be just as petty with our own creations.

Most of us who dare to call ourselves artists rarely leave the canvas,  journal, or recording studio satisfied with what we’ve produced. We have all embodied that classic trope of the struggling artist, constantly trashing works-in-progress and crying in frustration when the muses don’t materialize, or when the light won’t shine at the right angle. We fall out of touch with our creativity and refuse to look a different way until we have created something worth calling art.

But if we’re going to be honest with ourselves, we have to realize that creating bad art is inevitable. No artist can turn out masterpiece after masterpiece without eventually finding themselves as the Dr. Frankenstein of their own monstrosity. And if it’s something we cannot avoid—something that not only exists in our career as artists but often pervades it—perhaps that means bad art is just as instrumental to our growth as our best art. If that’s the case, there’s a lot to be said about our worst work and why it’s not so terrible after all.

Sometimes “bad art” is an eager attempt at something new gone wrong. Or we just find it ugly because the subject matter is something we’ve always been afraid to tackle. Whatever it is, bad art is comparable to growing pains. Our art might not look right because we’re operating under unfamiliar circumstances with no guidebook but the desire to develop our skills. Until we get a better feel of what we are trying to accomplish, we grumble, we complain, and we sigh—not much different from the adolescent versions of ourselves, stumbling through middle school hallways, trying to adjust to everything that’s shiny, new, and frightening. Thankfully, in both situations, we grow into ourselves and figure out who we’re trying to be—at least for the time being.

We also often neglect the fact that bad art is still art. The act of deliberate creation, no matter what the result, is just as valuable as the production of something decent. We’re not going to be happy with everything we make, but the very application of our talents is far more important than being content with our projects every time. Our minds are still working, our hands are still crafting, and we are still succeeding at what we do, even if success doesn’t manifest itself in a fresco worthy of Raphael himself. For those who are dedicated to art, failing to bring a vision into fruition is just another name for practice.

Oddly enough, I think another merit of the work that we’re most ashamed of is its ability to ground us. Like Michelangelo, many of us have our egos tied to our art, which means that a disappointment today means overcompensation tomorrow. After my own string of stale prose and poetry, I decided I needed to take a step back from throwing myself into my writing headfirst and start from the basics again. I took time with prompts, picked up journaling again, carved out the time each day for quiet, uninterrupted writing sessions. It’s not to say that this always works; but if you’re churning out failure after failure, it’s important to go the extra mile to find your way out of the rut. Sometimes bad art is all you need to remind yourself that you’re just as susceptible to creative funks as the next person, and you have to do your part to get out of it.

In hindsight, it’s easy to realize all these points about our masterpieces gone awry. But one thing is for sure—no matter how you feel about bad art, it does not devalue your experiences as a creator. The trajectory of an artist is not linear; a seismogram is probably a better representation of your growth—through the many peaks and plummets you face with your work, you just keep progressing. And we’re all better off remembering that the next time our frustrations make us face an existential crisis. Every step of the way, even if we’re not headed toward something perfect, we are still going somewhere. Long after we’ve moved on from the piece, it’s better to have a finished work documenting our progress than to have a sculpture with broken limbs, leaving others to pity the loss of creation to a futile pursuit for perfection.