For the Love of Bad Art
It’s a #fail, captured in paint.
The Spanish village of Borja, population 4,931, has experienced an unexpected tourist boom of late. But the estimated 30,000 annual visitors aren’t there to seek out the town’s medieval architecture, or its archeological museum, or even the region’s emerging local wines. Instead, they’re in Borja to see Ecce homo, a fresco in the town’s Sanctuary of Mercy church that was famously botched in a 2012 restoration.
In an unexpected turn of events, one of the most notable failures in art history has revitalized Borja’s economy by turning it into a tourist destination. Ecce homo (Behold the man), a 1930 fresco depicting Jesus wearing a crown of thorns, became a global phenomenon four years ago when it was discovered that one of the church’s parishioners, the octogenarian Cecilia Giménez, had attempted to repair the aging artwork by touching up the paint. The result of her work, the BBC correspondent Christian Fraser reported, was that the painting now resembled not the son of God, but a “crayon sketch of a very hairy monkey.” Ecce homo was soon dubbed Ecce mono (Behold the monkey), and became known colloquially as “Beast Jesus.”
Initial responses to Giménez’s handiwork were confused at best. The descendants of the artist who painted the original work, Elias Garcia Martinez, were unhappy that his painting had been destroyed. The Center for Borja Studies first reported the news as an act of vandalism, describing it as an “unspeakable deed.” Giménez, threatened with legal action by the city council, had an anxiety attack and took to her bed. But inevitably, as Ecce homo evolved from local news into a viral Internet meme, both the artist and the town have seen the upside of embracing their unlikely mascot. An image of the work now appears on the city’s lottery tickets. Borja has recently opened a cultural center dedicated to the painting. Giménez has struck a deal allotting her a share of the profits. And visitors have flocked to the town from all over the world in order to see one of the most epic art fails of all time.
Only a few years ago, Ecce homo might have merited a listing or two in regional guidebooks at most. But its appearance coincided with a cultural moment wherein extraordinary failures have become victories on their own terms, thanks to the Internet. #Fail is no longer the pejorative it might once have been—if anything, it’s a kind of hallmark of success. Failed works of art, in particular, subvert notions of what art should or shouldn’t be, offering humor in the form of painterly mishap and exposing the human fascination with screwing up.
Lea Boecker, a researcher at the University of Cologne who studies social cognition, has examined why people love to watch other people fail. In a 2015 study, she found that German test subjects smiled more when watching videos of unsuccessful penalty shots by Dutch soccer players than successful shots from German players. “You feel better. You feel lifted up in comparison to the other person,” she told Nautilus.
Giménez’s work conjures the same emotional response—this combination of empathy and schadenfreude—that brings hundreds of millions of visitors to videos of people attempting to charge their phones in the microwave, or accidentally burning off their hair, or falling off a segway. But it also taps into a popular Internet tradition of approaching art—particularly holy art—with something less than total reverence.
Ecce homo is more than just an ugly face. The painting, and its subsequent memification, fall within a broader category of Jesus-centric memes. According to the scholar Christopher M. Duerringer, putting familiar images in unexpected situations through the “vernacular rhetoric” of memes tends to “extend and subvert the fundamental assumptions and practices associated with iconic images”—in other words, “Beast Jesus” brings the face of Christianity back to his oh-so-human origins. And insomuch as it embodies the modern preoccupation with #fail, it’s only part of a larger tradition of making fun of bad art.
There are countless blogs devoted to poking fun at paintings and sculptures that otherwise would have been forgotten: The Ugly Renaissance Babies Tumblr is an addicting compendium of paintings featuring babies that look like old men, worms, creepy dolls, and Gollum. Other blogs like All This Shitty Art and The Weirdest, Worst Art pay homage to the myriad amateur artists publishing their work on the Internet (to Tumblr users’ amusement and dismay). The Delusional Artists reddit is a place to collectively laugh and scratch your head at the confusing ways artists sometimes express themselves: One post earnestly asks, “How do you tell a delusional artist that they are delusional without seriously offending them?” And of course, Beast Jesus is the star of his own Tumblr.
There’s even an art gallery dedicated to the subject. The Museum of Bad Art, founded in 1994 in a suburban Boston basement, is a bona fide institution dedicated to “building the finest bad art establishment in the world.” Sloppy brushwork usually doesn’t merit inclusion in the museum’s collection—the curator Michael Frank told me he prefers “pieces that exhibit good technique used to create images of questionable taste or meaning.” He points to the aptly named Spewing Rubik’s Cubes as a prime example. The oil painting depicts the toy emanating from the mouth of a “jester gargoyle” against a backdrop of blue—an image, he writes in the work’s description, that “can only be described as puzzling.”
Bad art doesn’t always prompt an amused response, though, especially when it’s taxpayer-funded, or when public figures are involved. The $470,000 “Big Blue Ring” in Calgary was dismissed as “awful” by the city’s mayor, and David Batchelor’s Skip in the U.K., a dumpster rimmed with neon lights commissioned as part of a £95,000 grant, was declared to be proof that “modern art IS rubbish.” Lucian Freud’s infamously divisive portrait of Queen Elizabeth II was hailed by some for being boldly honest—The Guardian’s art critic called it “a painting of experience”—while others were shocked at the portrait’s unflattering nature. The British Art Journal’s editor declared that Freud’s severe representation of the Queen made her look like “one of the royal corgis who has suffered a stroke.”
In 2013, another botched restoration attempt, this time of several frescoes in a 270-year-old Buddhist temple in Chaoyang, China, led to two government officials being fired. The paintings, which once depicted a series of traditionally dressed figures, are now brightly colorful, but not in a good way—“Cartoons drawn by my daughter are better than this,” one blogger told NBC.
But when the stakes are low, bad art is just another amusing reminder of human fallibility. The popularity of the Borja cultural center and the Museum of Bad Art nods to a deeply human quirk: taking pleasure in, and empathizing with, others’ mistakes. Seeing Ecce homo in person is an act of witnessing a singular piece of Internet culture in its native, spiritual habitat, but it’s also, oddly, an act of faith in the predictable human trait of screwing up. Much of the popularity of bad art stems from this contradiction—and perhaps also points toward the inability of paint to adequately express the nuances of humanity, in all their rich and complex glory.