This essay benefited from conversations with Helena Keeffe, Joseph del Pesco, and Joshua Smith, and I am grateful for their time and thoughts.

  1. Throughout this essay I will use terms like “bad art” and “good art.” All scare quotes and lack of same are intentional. I hope that by the end the reasons for my use of such loaded terms will be clear.
  2. This essay draws on a study using in-depth interviews with visual artists in the United States—as well as ethnographic fieldwork, participant observation, and work with archival and secondary sources—to investigate valuation in the arts. I also used to work as an artist, and artmaking was my primary employment from about 2002 through 2008, which has obviously influenced my research questions and analysis. Though I am now engaged with inquiries and practices similar to those that structured my life then, I no longer introduce myself as an artist in any context.
  3. For another perspective on this see, for example, Miya Tokumitsu, “In the Name of Love”, Jacobin 13, 2014.
  4. See James Green, Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement and the Bombing That Divided Gilded Age America (New York: Anchor, 2007) for some context on rest and recreation under capitalism.
  5. As should be clear by now, I draw on Becker in my conceptualization of art worlds (Howard Becker, Art Worlds (University of California Press, 1984))
  6. See for example Bain (Alison Bain, “Constructing an Artistic Identity,” Work, Employment and Society 19, no. 1 (2005): 25–46) on how important the notion of professionalism is to “serious” artistic practice and identity.
  7. As Sholette points out (Gregory Sholette, Dark Matter: Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture (Pluto Press, 2010), these artists—part of the vast dark matter of the art world—are largely responsible for keeping art worlds afloat.
  8. Not all of the bad artists I interviewed took this “time off.” The few who did not were all older. Was this swing-space appropriation of resources plausible only to the young, the energetic, those who could envision a return to the arts before it was too late? No, plenty of older artists I spoke with told me of their time off to organize a march on the capitol, to undertake missionary work. The common feature of those who never had taken such “time off” from their artwork was simple: they had undertaken art as a hobby, as a sideline, often late in life, most often in retirement. Thinking of art as a hobby, as leisure, as release turned out to be just as destructive to artists’ capacities to temporarily redirect their passions and resources as thinking of artmaking as a profession was. Bad art turns out to be, as I will argue, a sort of calisthenics for public engagement—but only if you take the making of that bad art very, very seriously.
  9. The bad artists I spoke with were not usually engaged in the sorts of conversations that I spend much of my time in, where notions of an expanded practice are widely held, where artists cleaning up their neighborhood and organizing political debates and caring for their families and others and running for office regularly speak of those activities as “performances” or “sculptures”, put them on their CV, promote documentation of their activities in gallery and museum exhibitions. They simply did these things, and then got back to the lifelong hard work of making art. Bad artists don’t call their activism social practice; they call it what it is, and commit to it with all that they have. In contrast, see for example Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Hartford Wash, 1973; WochenKlausur, Shelter for Drug-Addicted Women, 1994; Steve Lambert, Public Forum, 2014; Mary Kelly, Post-Partum Document, 1973-79; and Ben Kinmont, Sometimes a Nicer Sculpture Is to Be Able to Provide a Living for Your Family, 1998-present. Antanas Mockus served as two-term mayor of Bogotá, Colombia. Some of his projects while in office, including the heart-shaped hole he cut into the bulletproof vest he was required to wear, are documented in a catalog from the Walker Art Center (Doryun Chong and Yasmil Raymond, Brave New Worlds, 1st ed (Minneapolis, Minn. : New York: Walker Art Center, 2007)). More recently, Jón Gnarr served as mayor of Reykjavík; see for example his contribution to the catalogue for the 7th Berlin Biennale (Jón Gnarr, “The Courage to Be a Lipstick,” in Forget Fear: 7th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art, ed. Artur Żmijewski and Joanna Warsza (Köln: König, 2012)).
  10. The bad artists I spoke with regularly applied themselves to meaningful, finite tasks of great value. My argument, that these activities are of significant economic and social value and that bad artmaking structures artists’ lives in particular ways that enable such engagements, is intended to be quite different from the one most economists might make. I am interested in value in all of its forms, and would not advocate for the application of cost-benefit analysis to artists’ activities or argue that we should aim to include such activities to show that an art education is “worth it” in terms of future economic productivity. My perspective on value is a growth-agnostic one, and personally I lean towards more sustainability-oriented low- and no-growth paradigms (see for example Juliet Schor, Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth (Penguin, 2010)). I describe a sort of value in bad art beyond the personal and aesthetic, and it’s one that we could make commensurate with monetary value, but I would argue that in this case the dollar is a particularly poor metric not because the activities I speak of are priceless (see, for example, Viviana A. Rotman Zelizer, Economic Lives: How Culture Shapes the Economy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011) for a contemporary sociological view on this issue, one to which I subscribe) or because the dollar can’t work (it can), but because the dollar bullies other measures of value so quickly and efficiently that it silences the vast majority of political, ethical, and moral discussion. My own research, on social processes of commensuration, envisions resistance to commensuration as political, and I would argue that it is often a political lens that should be brought to conversations about value rather than an economic one.
  11. Here I shamelessly and with gratitude borrow the metaphor of calisthenics from the brilliant Jim Scott (James C. Scott, Two Cheers for Anarchism: Six Easy Pieces on Autonomy, Dignity, and Meaningful Work and Play (Princeton [N.J.]: Princeton University Press, 2012).