Sometimes one hungers for truly masterful art. Art that blends conceptual ideas with technical panache, and which communicates timeless philosophical truths in poignant yet effortless style. Paintings that evoke the intricacies of the psyche and convey messages that stir emotion deep within one’s being. Works of such perspicuity, such instinctual human appeal, that they catch the eye and arrest the soul of even the most jaded viewer.
In such moments of wanting, I often find myself turning to the works of art I consider to be classics. And when I say classics, I refer—of course—to the popular Tumblr Pterrible Dinosaur Drawings.
I didn’t always consider digitally coloured line art to be worthy of a seat alongside Botticelli and Picasso; but digital artworks like Pterrible Dinosaur Drawings are so much greater than the sum of their scribbled parts. Since when have emotions been expressed so clearly, so insightfully, as through these struggling green-tinged ideograms? When festive dinosaur (Pinosaur? ) celebrates the Christian tradition within modern consumerist parameters, they are as much a ‘mood’ as is the turkey in Robert Braithwaite Martineau’s The Christmas Hamper—oil paint snobbery be damned.
Comic artists have historically had to break in from the outside and fight to be taken seriously by galleries, simply because they arrived later. Moreover, comic art comes with baggage: political cartoons in particular have a history of being antiestablishment, controversial, and challenging to elite classes and the status quo—consider the notorious Punch magazine, for instance. Excluding such art from the establishment was once a priority for those in charge. While comic art is no longer automatically associated with controversy or immorality, reception of it remains influenced by past perceptions. Cartoon dinosaurs remain beloved by the masses, but not so much by galleries.
If an artwork’s value is to some degree associated with scarcity-driven price hikes, digital art risks always being at a disadvantage.
The challenges faced by digital art and easily reproduced work such as cartoons are also exacerbated by 21st century technology. There can only be one original of an oil painting, for example, whereas a print or a digital file of a cartoon can be easily acquired and distributed—so easily, in fact, that such art can be perceived as less scarce and therefore less valuable than more traditional art forms. Indeed, many modern emerging artists share their work via Instagram in order to reach and build audiences. If an artwork’s value is to some degree associated with scarcity-driven price hikes, digital art risks always being at a disadvantage.
In this sense, then, ‘success’ when it comes to digital art—such as the drawings of Allie Brosh of Hyperbole and a Half, David Shrigley, and Alex Norris of ‘Oh No’ webcomic fame—is contextualised through popularity online, rather than art galleries. ‘In theory, contemporary art institutions cover all kinds of contemporary art,’ researchers Beryl Graham and Sarah Cook write, ‘but in practice, they don’t.’ Even Bruce Petty, one of Australia’s best-known cartoonists, has criticised cartoons as being, by and large, ‘an appalling abbreviation… high on impact, random on accuracy and aesthetics’.
This question of aesthetics is perhaps most interesting of all. If an aesthetic pleases an audience, doesn’t that mean the artwork has succeeded? Indeed, why shouldn’t modern digital artworks be considered classics themselves? And in an art world awash with everything from oils to toothpaste, madonnas to velociraptors, what even qualifies as ‘good art’?
In thinking about how we judge art, I am frequently reminded of another of my favourite modern classics—this one a piece of timeless religious iconography. It has captured both hearts and minds and brought joy to millions. Naturally, I refer to the inimitable botched fresco sometimes known as Ecce Mono (‘Behold the Monkey’) in the Sanctuary of Mercy church in Borja, Spain.
An unpretentious work of art, Ecce Mono was created in a good faith attempt to restore the church’s Ecce Homo (‘Behold the Man’, c.1930) fresco by Spanish painter Elías García Martínez. Martínez’s Christ fresco was quite literally eclipsed, however, by the earnest restoration efforts of local octogenarian Cecilia Giménez—arguably now one of Spain’s best-known living artists.
A striking aspect of this tale is the fact Ecce Mono has become a major tourist attraction. Borja, with a population of barely 5000, now draws up to 30,000 tourists each year—placing the town on the map in an unprecedented way. The town has since opened a visitors’ centre that celebrates the fresco, complete with official fresco merchandise ranging from cups to clothing.
Ironically, Ecce Mono enjoys far greater popularity than its technically more complex antecedent ever received. Like The Last Supper, it is recognisable at a glance. Like the Mona Lisa, its face graces keepsakes and inspires memes and other homages.
Are these not hallmarks of success? For all Ecce Mono is derided as being a technically terrible painting, it effectively succeeds on a level never attained by many classically ‘better’ artworks. Tourists make pilgrimages to Borja and Ecce Mono evokes emotions in its viewers, tells a story, and provokes thought. For all its technical panache inspires ridicule, the emergence of another botched fresco inspires genuine glee. What’s more, if we valued paintings on technical skill or realism above all, Picasso and Jackson Pollock would receive far less attention, and Anh Do’s realist portraits would be more internationally recognised than medieval paintings of cats. Audience appreciation, fame, and tourist dollars do not automatically follow technical quality.
Ironically, Ecce Mono enjoys far greater popularity than its technically more complex antecedent ever received. Like The Last Supper or the Mona Lisa, it is recognisable at a glance.
Much of an artwork’s perceived value depends on an artist sharing contextual understanding with their audience—and this subjective form of attributing worth has influenced over centuries which artworks have been canonised, preserved, promoted, and which are now considered classics. So before traditionalists picket the Ecce Mono visitors’ centre, one must ask: realistically, has art ever been judged or valued in fair and logical ways? And is objective judgement of art even possible?
In a viral art meme, American television personality Mr Rogers offers a peaceful message in a world brimful of rampant competition and monetisation of hobbies. ‘Do you like to draw with crayons?’ he asks, before turning to a blank page. ‘I’m not very good at it,’ he explains, ‘but it doesn’t matter.’
So-called ‘bad art’ is its own kind of style. Its badness typically doesn’t refer to its message—hateful or discriminatory creations are their own type of non-art—but rather to its style and technical complexity, or lack thereof. More formally, bad art might be understood through the lens of the ‘naïve art’ genre: art that is characterised by its technical simplicity and often awkward, childlike qualities.
Bad art has been enjoying a heyday fuelled largely by the internet. Artwork communicating social commentary or emotional truths that resonate with audiences can be spread quickly and widely, reaching far more people than might a picture in a gallery. Moreover, the stylistic simplicity of bad art means such artworks are often clear and to the point, and therefore broadly accessible.
The unintimidating nature of bad art means the bar for engaging with it feels lower, and this in turn helps make it ripe for crude and comical adaptation and parody—forms of homage that can help original artworks retain currency.
What’s more, a phenomenon that makes parodies of bad art particularly interesting is that some deliberately play with artworks’ ‘bad’ status. Whereas most parodies are simple, cruder imitations of originals, parodies of bad art are perhaps unique as a sub-genre for reversing the parody structure: instead of painting the Mona Lisa using toothpaste, for example, parodies of bad art might involve making fine art oil paintings of webcomics or memes. This is ‘good art’ made from ‘bad art’, which in turn creates—you guessed it—more ‘bad art’.
Some digital art and cartoons manage to bridge the divide between online or informal art and ‘legitimate’, gallery-backed art. David Shrigley, for example, has commented on how when he graduated from art school in 1991, he received middling grades and didn’t sell anything at his degree show. ‘There wasn’t a precedent for people selling work that wasn’t figurative painting,’ he said in a 2015 interview with The Guardian. Over time, however, Shrigley’s work gained a cult following and eventually widespread recognition owing to its satirical nature, irreverence, and relatability. His sense of humour also conveniently aligns with modern online humour, meaning his work continues to feel relevant and find fans. His work is now exhibited worldwide.
Shrigley’s grassroots success also brings to mind the trajectory of Keith Haring, whose pop art and graffiti-style work emerged in 1980s New York. In the earliest stages of his career, Haring would graffiti blank subway billboards with his art, much of which advocated for social causes such as safe sex and AIDS awareness. ‘Some viewed him as a pop, commercial media manipulator,’ wrote Rolling Stone, ‘while others took him very seriously.’ Backlash against his work occurred not least because of his unapologetic, progressive politics and his identity as a gay man. Dismissing his art on the grounds of technical quality was one of the more cowardly ways of attempting to dismiss him. As his politics become more broadly accepted, however—similar to how Shrigley gained a cult following before mainstream recognition—Haring eventually became known as a pioneering pop artist and street artist.
The unintimidating nature of bad art means the bar for engaging with it feels lower, and this in turn helps make it ripe for adaptation, parody and homage.
The sheer volume of art being produced for little or no money and shared via the internet means contemporary artists may face greater challenges than either Shrigley or Haring in securing cult followings, or in being perceived as rare or unique. Nevertheless, the convergence of internet culture with naïve art also offers unprecedented opportunity for non-traditional creators.
Naïve art, sometimes known as ‘outsider art’ is usually created by people outside of recognised establishments, who lack the formal education or training many professional artists possess. Just because creators of naïve art might lack formal qualifications and classically honed skills, however, does not mean they lack messages and ideas to convey. What’s more, niche internet sub-cultures and communities can be perfect starting points in helping them build their careers.
I’d argue part of what makes naïve art—and bad art—important, therefore, is the fact it is commonly practiced by amateurs or self-starters who may find themselves on the outside due to lack of privilege or opportunity rather than lack of talent or insight. In some ways, the internet has helped even the playing field for artists, giving them access to audiences through means other than a gallery—an institution from which they might have been barred owing to lack of formal training or connections. Bad art often appeals because the thousand words the picture is telling are words that haven’t been previously communicated. To ignore or dismiss naïve art out of hand is short-sighted.
Considering the pace at which digital culture and modern references transform, critics might argue that bad yet popular art—particularly that which is found online—will not survive the test of time. Memes, for example, can be made and disseminated quickly, meaning they risk enjoying fleeting popularity and being forgotten quickly. Similarly, owing to their dependence on shared contexts and online algorithms, works ranging from Pterrible Dinosaur Drawings to fine art parody portraits of Grumpy Cat could be considered too transient, too ephemeral, too stuck in their moment to last the test of time.
For starters, these works are already well-loved, and being loved and cherished is surely one of the greatest means of achieving posterity: namely, through the hard work and adoration of others.
Secondly, the internet is forever constricting and homogenising and regurgitating culture, meaning what we have now may yet be with us for a very long time.
And finally, don’t talk to me about contemporary digital art being stuck in its moment when the entire field of art history spends a great deal of time interpreting symbols and meanings embedded in old paintings and explaining them to present-day viewers. Would I know the titular ermine in Da Vinci’s Lady With An Ermine could symbolise pregnancy, owing to the association of weasels and pregnancy in Italian Renaissance culture, if I did not live with an art history student? No, I would not. Judging whether the subject of a portrait is in her second trimester based on whether she is holding a white-coated stoat is far more ‘of its time’ than a highly relatable image of a dinosaur taking a shower. Do not fight me on this.
In the same way as a pregnant 15th-century Italian woman might have felt a spark of recognition upon seeing an ermine in a painting, I am charmed, comforted, informed, and entertained by many works of digital art and bad art. Enjoying art simply as it is—without analysis of its technical quality or position on the high-brow/low-brow scale—is a way of living in the present and of connecting with works or art in an immediate and intimate way. Relatability doesn’t necessarily imply quality, but it does suggest that bad yet popular art offers something on a personal level: namely, the gift of feeling seen and understood. Not every piece of art can do this for every individual. For many young people in the 21st century, cartoons like Pterrible Dinosaur Drawings and the like are our ermines. And I, for one, like to appreciate my ermines for what they do offer, and treat them with respect.
Bad art is not the same as terrible, problematic, hateful art. Bad art can be charming, insightful, emotional, and thought-provoking. It can be found online, within the lines, outside of the lines, and spilling out over the face of Christ on a church wall in Borja.
It is real art; its own definition of classic—and we in the audience keep enjoying and perpetuating it, time and time again.