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On Bad Art

Warwick’s Centre for Research in Philosophy, Literature and the Arts and the University of Hertfordshire are pleased to host an online panel event on the topic of bad art and its place in both philosophical aesthetics and art-critical practices. The event will consist in three short talks and a joint Q&A session and take place via zoom on Wednesday, the 21st of June at 3PM BST. See the abstract for each talk and further details on the event below:

Presenters: Mélissa Thériault (Université du Québec á Trois Rivières), Matthew Strohl (University of Montana), and Celia Coll (University of Hertfordshire)

Chair : Eileen John (University of Warwick)

Date: Wednesday, 21st of June 3PM BST.

Contact: Celia Coll ( for the zoom link to the event.

Talks and Abstracts:

‘There is no such thing as bad literature’

Mélissa Thériault (Université du Québec á Trois Rivières)

Abstract: There are failed books, badly written, of course. Nevertheless, when we talk about bad literature, we generally designate categories of writing, without regard to the possible qualities of the works taken in isolation. We reject cheap sentimental novels, chick lit, fan fiction, for example; and most of the time, rejecting these productions aims to establish our own cultural legitimacy. Also, to call certain literatures “bad” sometimes leads one to despise a whole community (often without realizing it): for example, saying that these folks are without history and without literature, or that some communities do not really have literature because it is not written or commercially published.

In this presentation, I will argue that there is no such thing as bad literature, and that no matter where we stand on the subject, we can see that delegitimized literary productions (sometimes referred to as 'paraliteratures') reveal in fact what we expect from a literary text. This step gives us precious indications on the values carried by both the act of writing and reception. For these reasons, these delegitimized writing practices are worth observing in order to understand our implicit motives for devaluation but also for recognition.

Bad literature is what others like, and what you want to be different from. The question is: why does it matter so much?

‘Humility and “Bad” Art’

Matthew Strohl (University of Montana)

Abstract: Most art appreciators are comfortable with the idea that some art encounters call for humility. If I visit a Japanese ceramics exhibit and I possess little prior familiarity with the category or its context, then I should be very hesitant to draw strong evaluative conclusions from my untutored responses. I argue that many encounters with art that we are inclined to write off as plainly or obviously bad also call for humility. I enumerate several reasons. First, coarsely negative evaluative claims of this sort typically rest on similarly coarse normative principles (e.g., “stilted writing is bad”), and we generally shouldn’t be confident that such principles hold in a given case until we work out the details. Second, we are often not aware which categories or what context might be relevant to evaluating the work. Third, coarsely negative evaluative claims preemptively cut off discourse that might reveal forms of interest we hadn’t imagined. Fourth, without a good faith attempt to engage with the details of the work in question and a broad range of potential appreciative perspectives, coarsely negative evaluative claims are more likely to express implicit biases or prejudices. Finally, the impulse to make coarsely negative evaluative claims is often reflective of a form of aesthetic vice that I call “the narcissism of narrowness.” Cultivating a sense of generosity and openness towards art that is readily dismissible as bad stands to make us more valuable participants in our aesthetic communities and encourages a more flexible and creative relationship with art. In Susan Sontag’s words, it is “good for the digestion.”

‘Interpreting Works of Literature: The Good and the Bad’

Celia Coll (University of Hertfordshire)

Abstract: In contemporary philosophy of literature, appeals to actual authorial intention in support of an interpretation of what is fictionally true (i.e., the fictional content) in a work of literature are, with a few exceptions, broadly speaking unpopular. Arguably, one such exception is the apparent attempt to re-construct actual artistic intention when explaining failings or perceived failings in a work of art, and the badness (or good-badness) which potentially ensues from these failings, that we find in the likes of Strohl (2022). I propose that the fact that such reconstructions are deemed intuitively acceptable to explain the badness in certain works of art is germane to the question of whether appeals to actual authorial intention are ever legitimate in the interpretation of fictional content in the following respect. One of the ways in which a work of literature can fail is by failing to standardly express intended fictional content, in such a way that the author’s intentions are still publicly intelligible and thus amenable to the reconstruction that would explain an artistic failing in that work.

If appeal to authorial intention in cases where such intentions are not met is legitimate, with respect to the standard expression of fictional content, what does that tell us about the role of actual authorial intention in cases where such intentions are met? I argue that the legitimacy of the appeal to authorial intention in the bad cases are indicative of the legitimacy of the appeal to authorial intention in the good cases. I make my case through the application of Gricean-inspired accounts of malapropisms to Amanda McKittrick Ros’s infamous Helen Huddleson and to Jane Austen’s Persuasion. The resulting proposal echoes one of the theses defended in Stock (2017): if we find the Gricean approach to malapropisms and meaning more generally plausible in cases of ordinary language, then a similarly intentionalist account of meaning must ensue for the interpretation of fictional content in works of literature, both good and bad.