In the spring of 1995, Real Change decided to hold a Bad Art Show to raise money for the paper, which was then less than a year old. People would be invited to submit bad art, which could be anything. It could be original bad art; it could be bought at a thrift store or a Woolworth; it could be rescued from a Dumpster; it could be a watercolor by a chimpanzee. We would raise the money for Real Change by auctioning off the art and retaining the proceeds.
I recall some proud bidder walking away with a portrait of Elvis executed in colored macaroni.
At the time, I was on the verge of homelessness. I was also starting to make a tiny monthly income by painting at the StreetLife Art Gallery in Belltown. I was making only $100 per month, but I happened to like my art, so I didn’t want to declare any of it bad. So instead of offering one of my paintings, I volunteered to kick off a live bad performance stage show with a recital of my own bad poems. It went very well, in my humble opinion. I had a shill in the audience leading them in booing me. I was fortunate in that the microphone and speakers on stage were badly positioned, so I was able to read my poems in the midst of screeching, squawking feedback. I deliberately heightened the feedback.
Besides the auction part of the deal, we would have a distinguished panel judge the submission to determine which was the worst. The judges consisted of none other than myself and the other members of the volunteer Real Change editorial committee.
That part of the show was the most ill-conceived. We quickly learned after trying to judge just a few of the pieces that judging bad art is way harder than judging good art.
To judge good art, all you have to do is ask whether you would want that thing hanging over your sofa in the living room.
To judge bad art, you have to figure out in what way it’s bad.
Is it conceptually bad? Is it poorly executed? Is it offensive? Is it unintentionally bad, demonstrating incompetence? Or is it intentionally bad, showing an artist who knows how to pull bad off in a big way? Would it cast a horrid pall over your living room, making it unbearable to spend time in it? Or would it be hilariously bad, so people would enjoy it for the laughs?
We had to work fast and improvise categories. I don’t remember them now, but we settled on about five categories, and there were that many winners. “So bad it’s good” was one. “Offensive” and something equivalent to “ghastly” were others.
Why am I recalling all this? Well, there seems to be no consensus regarding just how bad the now-unused King County Admin Building is, as a work of architecture. Some people say it’s the ugliest building in King County. Former King County Executive Ron Sims once said it was “the ugliest building in the world,” which I can’t believe. There’s got to be an uglier building somewhere. But there are others who admire its Kafkaesque quality. It’s so dreary and oppressive that it’s cool.
I kind of like the irrelevant floral mosaics on the walls on the Fourth Avenue side, apropos of nothing. Who thinks “what these drab walls need are mosaics of flowers, because this is a government building, so let’s see some pretty colorful flowers just before we traipse inside”? It’s almost as good as if they put up four different mosaics of Elvis at four different times of his life, like the USPS postage stamp set that came out years ago.
There are those who say that the fact that the ground floor of the building has almost no windows is proof that the building is horrid. But I say that’s a feature, not a bug. Who wants to look across the street to see the hind parts of the King County Courthouse? Windows are so overrated.
They say nobody wants to work there now, especially in the first and second floor spaces. But I bet if all the interior walls had flat screen televisions showing hundreds of hours of looped YouTube cat videos, all those government workers would beg to come back.
There’s no such thing as a bad cat video.
Read more of the Apr. 27-May 3, 2022 issue.