Unless I find myself ducking under a Serra prop piece, I rarely experience vulnerability in front of artworks—except, I realize, when they are very bad. Most of us have had the experience of walking into a show of work that trips over its mental malapropisms or is askew, like make-up applied by a child, or smells suspiciously fishy, as though it’s been left behind the artist’s fridge for ages and only pulled out for this untimely viewing; most of us have encountered atrocious work and felt a vicarious sense of shame on behalf of the artist. But the hobgoblins of bad art actually sneer at me; they threaten me. It’s as though they might attack me at any moment. Or are perhaps attacking me even as I look at them, infecting me like the bacteria that descend silently to feed on sweaty clothes and which are detectable only by their exhalations.
I feel shame for the artist in question. Yet there is something else: probability ensures that I too will be in this artist’s shoes one day—everyone is bound to lay a stinker at least once in his or her life. I am witnessing my own fate, and this certainty eats at me like those bacteria. That I write rather than make visual art in no way protects me from knowing that in all likelihood I will one day try to pass off a bit of old laundry as a new and finished effort. Bad art wakes me from the dream of invulnerability, reminding me of the terror that spreads from chest to fingertips every time I offer some piece of myself up for public scrutiny.
Daniel Kunitz is the editor in chief of Modern Painters magazine. He writes on art and culture for numerous publications, including Harper’s, Vanity Fair, and the Paris Review.