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Outline Link to heading

I love bad art. There’s a lot of fun to be had in art which is unpolished and perhaps unfinished. I think it’s fascinating to read a poorly-told story or play a janky game and experience the unusual decisions the author left for the audience. I probably partake in more bad art than most, given that I participate in an annual bad games tournament, Kusogrande. However, I think this idea raises a question, the answer to which I’ve always taken for granted: To what degree is it okay to call someone else’s art “bad”?

Some context Link to heading

A few years ago, a streamer I follow complained about being typecast as a bad-game speedrunner, even though he runs games he genuinely likes and thinks are good. He felt as though the spirit of Kusogrande and Awful Block at GDQ was one of mockery, laughing at devs instead of with them. He also remarked that sometimes, it’s claimed that this is a “celebration” of bad games, or even preservation of work that would otherwise be forgotten. He said these were disingenuous takes, that it was a way for people to trash-talk game devs while appearing to lift up their work.

I don’t share his stance - he unfairly assigned malicious intent here, I think - but it did get me thinking about the ethics of it all. Is it in poor taste to remark on bad games - and art in general - in this way? After all, I’m not an artist, and if I wasn’t there when some work was created, can I really critique it? Should I?

When I initially drafted this piece, my answer was “yes, absolutely”. Now I think my stance is more nuanced, and I’m not entirely sure how to feel. The thing is, I’m not an artist. I am immersed in the world of art, but I’m not making new things (aside from this blog). I’ve produced some work that was creative in nature but I wouldn’t call it art. With that in mind, I’ve spoken with some artist and critic friends about this topic to get a broader perspective.

And look, artists already know how to deal with critique. This post isn’t advice for artists. This post is for me as a consumer of art, and my assumptions about the nature of criticism.

Should we even make critique? Link to heading

In my last post I asked a friend who works in animation for his thoughts on “bad art”. He had some great insights there, and he had similarly helpful remarks about the topic of critique. He took a fairly hardline stance on the matter, saying he’s “a firm believer that unsolicited critique is never welcome. It’s unproductive, insulting, and drives away people that would otherwise enjoy something.”

Initially, I found this stance pretty strong, but as I’ve had time to digest it I find that I largely agree. A casual internet commenter doesn’t know an artist’s goals for a piece, or where they’re at in their artistic journey, and as a result their ability to offer insight is limited or nonexistent.

I spoke with my brother (an audio engineer) about this and he agreed. He told me he often watches people in online music production communities offer “advice” which is unhelpful and given without regard for the musician’s decision-making process. For example, a noisy recording is typically not desirable, but there are cases where an artist might use noisy mics or equipment in order to evoke a particular sound. To remark “That piano sounds crunchy, you should have cleaned it up” would be pretty ignorant if that was the desired effect.

Painter Damian Osborne notes in this piece that a bad critic turns feedback into a series of decisions they would have made, a projection of their ego. Bad critique rarely comes from a place of humility. If an artist seems to have proportioned a human body strangely, that may very well be intentional. If it wasn’t intentional, was strong anatomy was part of the artist’s goals? It would be pretty audacious of me to say the artist made a mistake without that knowledge.

A man looks at Voice of Fire by Barnett Newman (1967). The painting consists of a tall canvas split into equal vertical stripes: blue, red, then blue again.

Voice of Fire is infamous for its simplicity. One Canadian MP claimed he could recreate it with a paint roller and a few hours. Barnett Newman, Voice of Fire, 1967. Acrylic on canvas, 543.6 x 243.8 cm. Purchased 1989. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. ©The Barnett Newman Foundation, New York/ SOCAN, Montreal (2022). Photo: NGC

Two thoughts Link to heading

  1. One is not required to have “a take”. We’d all probably benefit from practicing mindfulness and considering whether we can add value to a discussion.
  2. If an artist wants feedback, they will ask for it.

Criticism is inevitable Link to heading

That being said, feedback will come. When one puts work into the world (this blog included), that work is being opened up to criticism, fair or not. I don’t think that we as consumers should simply have no opinion on art, or that we should only make positive remarks about the media we consume. I think art deserves to be talked about, and what’s more it should be talked about by people who aren’t exclusively artists or critics. Not just because we have the right to, but because people enjoy discussing what they liked and didn’t about a work, and I think it could be fairly argued that art (and the art market) is enriched by society negotiating its collective tastes.

With that in mind, how can we talk about bad art in a way that’s fair to artists? Is there an ethical and honest way to approach this?

Offering Critique Link to heading

I think if we decide to remark on bad art anyways, we should be able to define what we think is bad about it. I already wrote a whole piece about what constitutes “bad art” so I’m not going over it again. Ultimately though, a lot of critique from individuals will come down to liking or disliking certain choices an artist made.

And for individuals, I think that’s… fine, honestly. The reach of a single person reading trash romances or a group of friends riffing on a b-movie is pretty small. The burden of responsibility to an artist is functionally none.

I do think it changes somewhat when you broadcast your opinions to the world. In the digital age, it is impossible to keep track of every conversation, and this means that artists cannot defend their work from each new interpretation that comes along. This has particular relevance when considering the likes of MST3K and AVGN. These are massive productions, often having an audience much larger than those of the works they review. As a result, unfair or bad-faith criticism has a much higher potential to do harm to artists and their reputations.

CinemaSins is the classic example: They aren’t professional critics or filmmakers, their “critique” is shallow and disingenuous, and when called out they gaslight their own critics by acting as though it’s all satire. To the best of my knowledge they haven’t actively targeted any small artists, but their influence would easily overpower the work of most independent creators.

In 2020, Sega released “Golden Axed”, a canned prototype of a Golden Axe remake. Their store listing called it “janky”, “buggy”, and “an artifact of its time” - all things which turned out to be untrue; The game was unfinished because developer Tim Dawson built it under regular crunch hours and ever-shifting deadlines and goals. He was never given a chance to succeed, and yet Sega’s marketing division dragged his game through the mud on the largest digital storefront around. If the story hadn’t been picked up by journalists, Sega’s false narrative about the game would be the only one anyone remembered.

It’s with this in mind that I finally arrive where I began: Kusogrande, the bad video game tournament.

Riffing on games Link to heading

The point of Kusogrande is to have fun. It’s a tournament where players race to get as far as they can in a terrible video game, which is hilarious to watch. Bad games have all sorts of technical challenges, UX failures, unintuitive design choices, and broken conventions which make them well-suited to the digital equivalent of a 3-legged egg-and-spoon race.

Kusogrande is a little unique in that we select for certain types of badness more than others. There are tons of games out there which are boring or simply mediocre and wouldn’t make for an interesting race; the mechanical components of gameplay are more important to a race setting than say, plot or music. As a result, we usually feature games with awkward controls, strange level design, absurd difficulty, or performance problems rather than poor creative execution.

In this regard, the job of our “game masters” is somewhat simpler than that of an art critic. Because Kusogrande’s races are all about the gameplay, we’re somewhat relieved of the burden of critiquing the “art” half of the game1. I don’t know that this relieves us of the burden of fairness or tact, however, and I think it’s important to give developers the benefit of the doubt. Some games are simply unfinished. The developers of Socks the Cat Rocks the Hill shut down before its release, and many of its faults can be attributed to that incomplete state.

Many of the games we race are old, and an element of their badness can be attributed to shifting standards over time. Wai Wai Monster Land for the Epoch Cassette Vision is a frustrating game running on hardware that was obsolete before it was released. However, its story is also a fascinating one about the rise and fall of Japan’s first home console producer.

There are also myriad subjective reasons a game might be considered bad, matters of personal preference. Many titles that show up on Kusogrande are prefaced with the comment that “this game is actually good, just weird”.

There is also the tricky situation of games whose mechanics are deliberately awkward or meant to complement a theme, but which still result in a poor play experience. Games like Lester the Unlikely or Robocop feature controls that reflect their protagonist’s traits. They’re awkward to play and frustrating, but I have a hard time calling these titles bad. If Robocop wasn’t slow, he wouldn’t be Robocop. If Lester wasn’t a stubborn coward, he couldn’t slowly grow brave over the course of his game. Offering critique on games like this is especially difficult because the mechanical components are part of the artistry, and I think in order to be fair, one needs to consider how the two interact.

Leaving minimal impact Link to heading

It is entirely possible that someone’s only exposure to a game creator is through Kusogrande. I don’t know how much reach the tournament has compared to your average game dev, but is it likely to be a source of harm to artists? For the most part I think no, because 90% of the games raced on the show are decades old. The developers of each have moved on, many to great success2.

Sometimes though, we play more recent games - Is it fair to feature a developer like Dontrel Murphy or MDickie? There are many valid critiques you could level at their work, but the fact remains that they’ve continued putting out game after game according to their own artistic vision. Whether that vision or their work process is any good… well, I personally treat these creators as outsider artists in the same way as I do Neil Breen, but I would understand feeling hurt seeing one’s work end up in “the bad video game tournament”. For these developers I like to focus on the uniqueness and highlight ways in which they’ve solved problems or implemented mechanics in an unconventional way.

An ad for Mystery Science Theater 3000

Mystery Science Theater 3000 has never come across as mean-spirited to me, and they put a spin on the show by producing their own sketches. I think that elevates their work from the sea of low-effort imitators.

Low quality does not mean unenjoyable Link to heading

I mean it, unironically too. Art that’s bad doesn’t have to be unenjoyable, and fun doesn’t have to come at the expense of the art or artist. It’s easy to look at bad media and note its flaws, but much tougher - and more interesting - is embracing those flaws and finding gems in them. It won’t always happen, but like I said in my last post, I think there’s often something interesting or enjoyable to take away from bad art.

Conclusion Link to heading

I admit this post has somewhat tapered off in narrative flow, so let’s wrap it up. My thoughts at the end of this are in two parts:

  1. If you aren’t an artist, if you aren’t being asked for review, you don’t actually need to have a take on art. Consider the actual value of what you’re about to say about a work and whether it needs saying. I’m resolving to be somewhat more conscientious about this.

  2. As it relates to speaking our minds about art in general: Be fair. Maybe this is obvious but there is a lot of low-effort and bad faith discourse surrounding art and media. Consider your reach as an individual and your ability to affect opinion in others. If you must give critique, offer justification for your feedback, and keep your ego in check. Don’t make it about yourself. And most importantly, be open to finding good in the bad.

  1. This is dangerously close to addrssing Roger Ebert’s infamous “Why Video Games Will Never Be Art” which I don’t want to go into here. The process of writing this post has certainly given me thoughts on the topic though. ↩︎

  2. Sometimes developers even watch the stream and comment on the games they made as teenagers. They’ve always been very good-natured about it, to my knowledge. ↩︎