Form, Function, and a Despondent Giraffe

Day 431

I went to the Museum of Bad Art because one of its three locations is a neighborhood institution. It’s in the basement of my local independent cinema, so I had been by the sign for it many times, but never stopped in. I have always been curious about what the Museum of Bad Art is really for. Their stated mission is "to celebrate the labor of artists whose work would be displayed and appreciated in no other forum.” That seems to imply a serious or lofty purpose, but the rest of what I've seen from them makes it seem like they don’t take themselves too seriously.

Yesterday, I left enough time around seeing Wonder Woman to go check out the museum. I was a little apprehensive, worried that the museum is really just making fun of people who aren’t good at art but try anyway. Keeping in mind the fact that this location is in one of the centers of MA hipsterdom (Davis Square in Somerville), I didn’t know whether to take the mission statement at face value. But, once I was inside and reading the labels on the art, my read on it was that this quirky museum is absolutely making fun of bad art, but mostly not making fun of bad artists. The current exhibit is “MOBA Zoo,” a series of art featuring animals, and the labels speculated more about the intentions of the characters in the art than the intentions of the people behind them.

A painting of a gray dog and a small animal which may be a monkey sitting on a picnic table. The proportions are all off. The dog holds a marker in its mouth, or has a band-aid covering its mouth.
"Charlie and Sheeba," a mainstay of the museums 600-piece collection and a part of the MOBA Zoo exhibit

The Somerville Theatre’s version of MOBA (there are also galleries in Brookline and South Weymouth) exemplifies the notion of form following function. It’s in a dead-end basement hallway, with pipes overhead, peeling paint, and torn carpet, with two spiral couch things covered in weathered red velour. A few of the paintings’ labels are written in Sharpie.
I wouldn’t want a tribute to bad art to look any other way. The more I visit and review a diverse array of museums, the more strongly I believe that the general atmosphere is central to setting the tone in a museum. Things should be polished and put-together, unless part of the point is that they’re not. Within that polish, there’s a wide ranges of formality and informality and a variety of moods that can be conveyed; museum ambiance is like a theater set. MOBA feels kind of seedy, but not in an unsafe way.

I couldn’t write about MOBA without talking about the label text. Most of them start with the artwork’s “tombstone information,” like name, date, etc. Each one states how the piece came to be in the collection, which is more than many museums do, except in this case the origins are things like “purchased at a garage sale” or, in the case of a particularly bleak giraffe portrait, “donated by [donor] who received it as a gift from her now ex-boyfriend.” The rest of the label gets into speculating on what the animal might be thinking, or occasionally the use of color or form (to cause a particularly effective artistic disaster). I sometimes got the sense they were making fun of art museum labels. “Real” art museums’ reputation for labels written in the incomprehensible and absurd language of critique is sometimes deserved. As satire, however, most of MOBA’s labels fell flat. I liked them better for what several seemed to be doing, just taking an idea in a piece of art and running with it. Moving from piece to piece, I got the impression that I was walking through a Buzzfeed article on bad art, except that the atmosphere of a Buzzfeed list is always the same, and MOBA has a distinctive sense of place.