What bad art is for

When I was in San Francisco last week I was walking down Market Street and heading toward a restaurant after leaving a friend’s work party. That’s when I noticed this sculpture.

Do you see it? I know it’s dark. Even during the day, this art is designed to be sort of tucked away. It’s an ornament for this building’s entrance. It’s an angel, I guess. In its own way, it’s the perfect symbol of our time.

It might be an angel, but it could just as easily be a demon or nothing at all, actually. There’s the featureless face, saying nothing. There are the limpish wings, apparently holding this figure upright at least as much as the internal metal piping that’s (cleverly?) left visible in its legs. There are no arms, because even if it had something to say it definitely shouldn’t call out or gesture to passersby. It’s just bad art, commissioned for a limited public purpose to be unobjectionable and sort of pleasant without the chance of any aesthetic or sectarian dispute over it, because while it was made to seem like something that might stir the spirit, it doesn’t convict the observer and tends not to stir sentiment, either.

Why settle for something like this when sculptors used to produce remarkable public goods like Angel of the Resurrection? What is bad art for?

I think bad art helps satisfy our sense of the sacred in public life (of the human need for symbols of transcendence) without saying anything concrete that anyone would really have to talk about, disagree about, or have their lives arrested by and shaped in some positive way. We’re able to have art that suggests “there’s something more to all of this,” but without trying to cultivate virtue in the lives of its admirers, because what is truth? It’s better not to get into that.

Another thing that bad art is good for is removing the need for conservationists to worry about more stuff to preserve in the future. Artists who could be inheriting and iterating on the received wisdom of thousands of years of human experience are instead choosing to flow with the fashions of their time by making disposable ornamentation with the cheapest materials. It’s as disposable as so much of its surroundings in the rest of our culture, which makes it simpler to replace with something else in the future.

Bad art is encouraging, too. It reminds us that we can be mediocre and still successful. It might be a distinctly American thing in this way, where in the midst of one of our most ambitious and wealthy cities, we prove that we still don’t really know why we’re walking into these buildings every day in the first place.

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