In the summer of 1877, a working-class Scottish weaver experienced an epiphany. Sitting alone in his bedroom, he was seized by a flame of passion that, in his own words, “seemed to kindle up my entire frame, along with a strong desire to write poetry” [i]. The sensation lasted only five minutes, but for the rest of his life, it compelled him to follow in the footsteps of his beloved Lord Byron and Shakespeare. Against his father’s wishes, he abandoned the weaving trade, instead traveling across England to seek audiences for his works.
Today, he is venerated as the worst poet in English history. William Topaz McGonagall (later Sir William Topaz McGonagall, Knight of the White Elephant of Burmah) died penniless after a career spent peddling his works to his friends and sympathetic passersby. The only success he ever found was as a circus performer, where his poem recitations drew large crowds, but they too vanished when city magistrates banned audiences from pelting him with eggs and potatoes.
McGonagall’s sheer lack of talent continues to inspire awe in us today. He penned his magnum opus and most popular work, The Tay Bridge Disaster, to eulogize the victims of the 1879 Tay Bridge collapse in Dundee, Scotland. From the first stanza, he makes clear that he has no interest in stylistic conventions such as imagery or diction. What follows are fifty-four lines of spectacularly bad prose, a masterclass in how not to write poetry, without the slightest hint of self-awareness. McGonagall not only fails to grasp that poems do not always have to be literal, but he attempts to rhyme “Edinburgh” with “sorrow” and “New Year” with “New Year.”
Most atrocious and glorious of all is the poem’s ending:
Oh! ill-fated Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay,
I must now conclude my lay
By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay,
That your central girders would not have given way,
At least many sensible men do say,
Had they been supported on each side with buttresses,
At least many sensible men confesses,
For the stronger we our houses do build,
The less chance we have of being killed.
Unlike the Tay Bridge’s girders, McGonagall’s legacy holds strong. Despite his artistic and financial failures, he succeeded in becoming one of Scotland’s most famous wordsmiths. Modern readers take just as much delight in tearing apart his poems and marveling at their obtuseness as his contemporaries did over a century ago.
We are fascinated by bad art. Good art will always have its champions; there will always be Lord Byrons, Michelangelos, and Hitchocks that imprint something extraordinary on our creative consciousness. But if Lord Byron is at the summit, somewhere far down the mountain must be a McGonagall, a passionate but misguided climber wearing flippers instead of boots. Something about their struggle, not their achievement, compels us to keep watching, celebrating and mocking in equal measure.
In the era of the Internet, “So Bad It’s Good” (SBIG) art enjoys an unprecedented level of appreciation. From Twilight fanfiction to Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, these creations that could have died quietly in another age attract millions of followers worldwide. These “fans” mercilessly poke, prod, and parody bad art with little regard for the artist’s original intentions.
This begs the question: Why do we love bad art?
We love SBIG art so much, in fact, that it often receives more recognition than technically superior art. Wiseau is practically a household name, even inspiring a film documenting his creative process, The Disaster Artist. Meanwhile, countless other independent filmmakers, whose movies are competently directed and edited continue to languish in obscurity.
The easy answer is that bad art is an easy target for collective ridicule. We enjoy propping it up just to beat it back down and in doing so feel better about ourselves. Bad art gives us a sense of validation because, for all of our personal shortcomings, we at least have the aesthetic sensibilities these artists lack. This theory certainly explains why bad art tends to give rise to humor, but it is also a pessimistic and simplistic perspective. Perhaps bad art has more to offer than cheap schadenfreude?
To better understand the SBIG art phenomenon, I searched for a modern-day Tay Bridge Disaster. There is no shortage of creative blunders competing for that distinction, but one stood out from the rest: James Nguyen’s 2010 film Birdemic: Shock and Terror. Largely financed by Nguyen himself, the eco-disaster horror romance follows a couple attempting to outrun flocks of mutant eagles. Their adventures lead them to discover the horrors of global warming and what it means to be a family. If Birdemic is to challenge McGonagall’s finest works, it certainly has big shoes to fill, but it has already earned a reputation as one of the worst films of all time. My curiosity piqued, I sat together with some friends on a Saturday night to watch Birdemic. We agreed to finish the movie no matter how bad it got.
The opening to Birdemic is a slow burn. California software salesman Rod runs into his old high school classmate, Nathalie, who is now an aspiring fashion model. Rod is the perfect man: he takes his career seriously, drives a plug-in hybrid Mustang, and cares more about a woman’s personality than her body. The two hit it off and begin a promising relationship. While these scenes were mired with technical mistakes and hilariously stilted acting, my friends and I often found ourselves checking the time. Nguyen seemed to follow only the most cookie-cutter romance tropes laced with some head-scratching dialogue, such as when Rod and Nathalie discuss living together only a week after meeting each other. He teased us with hints that a sinister force was encroaching on their perfect lives.
Then, forty-five minutes in, something magical happens: computer-generated birds invade the screen. They dive-bomb into the homes of terrified California residents and slit their throats. We watch in amazement as Rod and Nathalie rescue two newly orphaned children who miss Happy Meals more than their parents. Despite the unfolding visual mayhem, it is clear that Nguyen is trying to communicate something important, perhaps too many things. As the ragtag group drives across the state in search of safety, they come across sober-faced characters that teach them of mankind’s hubris. A scientist lectures them on how global warming is encouraging the spread of viral diseases. A war veteran mourns the humanity he lost in Iraq. A professional “tree-hugger” delivers a monologue on forest fires. As the final credits rolled, my friend remarked, “There’s no way the director was being serious.”
James Nguyen is almost as legendary as his movie. His life and character show striking parallels to those of McGonagall. He had little formal education in filmmaking, but he worshipped the cinematic greats, especially Hitchcock. With little financial incentive, he spent “every penny” on Birdemic’s $10,000 budget [ii]. Just as McGonagall traveled around Britain to share his poetry, Nguyen drove across California in a car covered with fake bird feathers and a sign reading “BIDEMIC [sic]” to promote his film. Most importantly, both McGonagall and Nguyen share an apparent obliviousness to the reception of their works. Nguyen attributes Birdemic’s popularity to its sleeper “cult film” success and not to its status as a train-wreck masterpiece.
As I read The Tay Bridge Disaster and watched Birdemic, it became clear that one significant commonality between the two was the dissonance between intention and execution. We expect them to go hand in hand. If an artist has a beautiful idea, the art he produces should reflect that beauty. Likewise, if the artist lacks inspiration or her motivations are superficial, this should become evident in their product. But when the artist fails to translate their inner passion into outward delivery, we viewers find ourselves in alien territory, a dimension where people swat vultures with clothes hangers. In both The Tay Bridge Disaster and Birdemic, the artist’s sincerity is as apparent as his incompetence.
These works occupy an “uncanny valley” of artistic value. In the field of aesthetics, the term is used to describe our emotional responses to objects that increasingly resemble humans. When an object bears no resemblance to a person, we rate their likability highly, because we understand that they are inanimate and safe. When an object looks perfectly humanoid, we also have a positive response, because we perceive them as one of us. Between these two peaks, however, is a point where the object is halfway between human and not-human. This negative space is where clowns, puppets, and animatronics live. Their visual ambiguity prevents us from discerning threat from non-threat, friend from foe, and violates our social sensibilities. The effect is disturbing, but also thrilling. The uncanny valley feeds into our morbid curiosity. A remnant of evolutionary psychology, we experience a unique adrenaline rush when we encounter it, as our brain attempts in vain to predict the strange object’s motivations.
SBIG art feeds into the same fascination. Birdemic constantly kept me on my toes, not because it was intentionally building suspense, but because I had no idea what filmmaking rule Nguygen would break next. Rod and Nathalie are not relatable everymen; they are androids programmed to imitate human mannerisms. Nguyen created a world that only half-resembles real life, where characters can instantly change from rational to incomprehensible. Similarly, The Tay Bridge Disaster invites us to read it again and again because of the multifaceted levels at which McGonagall defies our expectation of good poetry. In other words, bad art creeps us out. It forces us to reevaluate how other people engage in the creative process or even interpret reality itself.
This dissonance is exceedingly rare. The Museum of Bad Art (MOBA) in Massachusetts, the only museum in the world that claims to “celebrate the artists’ right to fail,” rejects far more pieces than they exhibit [iii]. Not all bad art, according to the curators, can be good. One of the principle criteria they use to select artwork is a failure to reconcile artistic purpose with skill. By definition, this cannot be accomplished intentionally, as many MOBA submissions have attempted to force SBIG. It is the fateful consequence of spirit and misdirection, mixed together in a violent creative cocktail. Outstanding examples of MOBA’s honest bad art include Ferret in a Brothel and Sunday on the Pot with George. A personal favorite is Lucy in the Field with Flowers, which features a remarkably grumpy woman sitting in a Monet-esque landscape.
However uncommon and interesting SBIG art may be, this still does not answer the question of its actual value. Does it offer us something constructive? I believe the answer lies in how we distinguish good from bad in the first place. Aesthetic judgment is predicated on the assumption that certain artistic elements are more desirable than others. Of course, what these elements are vary from person to person and from culture to culture, but they provide a common ground to evaluate an artist’s merits. Humans are social creatures; we thrive on solidarity in our language, ethics, and customs. Naturally, our tastes in art show some consistency as well. Even if someone personally despises Lord Byron’s works, she will begrudgingly admit that he occupies an influential position in high poetry.
It is critical to understand that McGonagall and Nguyen are not “outsider artists” in the truest sense. Their aim is to emulate respected notions of art, not forge their own paths. This is what validates their failure and makes their art unequivocally bad. They bought into society’s expectation for what is worthy of praise but fell far short of their aspirations. I contend that their art is necessary for us to hold socially consistent aesthetic values. If there is good art, there must be bad art, and bad art can inform us of why we make critical aesthetic judgments at all. Birdemic allowed me to fully appreciate great cinema. I learned about the importance of frame composition, sound production, and scene transitions from watching what happens when it all goes wrong. On the other hand, bad art allows us to re-evaluate what we thought we enjoyed but actually dislike, and vice-versa. McGonagall’s insistence on rhyming at the expense of rhythm and scansion illuminated the dangers of taking a poetic element too far.
Our appraisal of a piece of art shapes the way we consume it. Consider archetypal good art: a painting adorning the Louvre’s walls, a poetry collection tucked in a scholar’s bookshelf, an art film screening at a festival. Cultural etiquette dictates that these works should be enjoyed in silence, to absorb its message and allow its genius to permeate the soul. We obsess over its significance insofar as the artist intended there to be significance. Put another way, good art is art that is done unto us. We passive, unworthy spectators are invited to be enlightened by a master of their craft.
I had a very different experience watching Birdemic with my friends. Throughout the hour-and-a-half journey, we constantly cracked jokes about the characters, the cinematography, and the nonsensical plot. We delighted in dissecting every aspect of the movie, not to uncover Nguyen’s intentions, but to excavate potential humor. When an artist fails to uphold their vision, they invite the viewers to fill in that gap. We become active participants in art-making, reinterpreting the purpose of the work, from an environmental message to meme fodder. Artist and viewer form a synergistic relationship, wholly unintentionally, and the sum is far greater than its parts. SBIG art is art that we help create.
We often use the phrase “So Bad It’s Good” to describe works that we enjoy because of their appalling quality. To me, this term is misleading. It implies that bad and good lie on a single spectrum, and that it is possible to go so far in one direction that it wraps around the other. The Tay Bridge Disaster and Birdemic are substandard, but they are certainly not the worst pieces of art in their respective fields. As a child, I produced poetry and movies that are far inferior to anything by McGonagall or Nguyen, and they have never become good. A better description is “failure art”—art that captivates us because it strays so far from its original aspirations. Rather than follow a linear trajectory between effort and merit, failure art soars in another direction. It travels to uncharted frontiers of incoherence and uncertainty, a new universe of incompetence. As we watch it collapse under its all-too-great ambitions, we are thrilled to discover that we can pilot it into a spectacular explosion.
- “Brief Autobiography.” McGonagall Online, 18 Dec. 2014, web.archive.org/web/20190927221932/http://www.mcgonagall-online.org.uk/life/brief-autobiography.
- Brody, Richard. “Why ‘The Room’ Is a Better Movie Than James Franco’s ‘The Disaster Artist.’” The New Yorker, 5 Dec. 2017, www.newyorker.com/culture/richard-brody/why-the-room-is-a-better-movie-than-james-francos-the-disaster-artist.
- Lay, Stephanie. “Uncanny Valley: Why We Find Human-like Robots and Dolls so Creepy | Stephanie Lay.” The Guardian, 14 Aug. 2018, www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/nov/13/robots-human-uncanny-valley.
- “McGonagall’s Life.” McGonagall Online, 17 Dec. 2013, web.archive.org/web/20190917064644/http://www.mcgonagall-online.org.uk/life.
- McGonagall, William. “The Tay Bridge Disaster by Knight of the White….” Poetry Foundation, 1880, www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45828/the-tay-bridge-disaster.
- McRobbie, Linda Rodriguez. “On the Science of Creepiness.” Smithsonian Magazine, 29 Oct. 2015, www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/science-creepiness-180957093.
- Nguyen, James, director. Birdemic: Shock and Terror. Severin Films, 2010.
- “The Worst Movie Ever Made? The True Story of ‘Birdemic.’” YouTube, uploaded by VICE, 4 Aug. 2016, www.youtube.com/watch?v=uZoFNVhEfpE&t=488s.
- Unknown Artist, Lucy in the Field with Flowers, The Museum Of Bad Art, Somerville MA.
- Wu, Marissa. “The Museum Of Bad Art.” The-Bu-Buzz, 2 Mar. 2018, www.thebubuzz.com/single-post/2018/03/02/The-Museum-of-Bad-Art.