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Why Are We Fascinated by the Bad Art of Terrible People?

It’s a shitty painting. If it wasn’t by George Zimmerman, it’d probably be hanging in a café somewhere, maybe the sort of café that serves shitty coffee and gluey pie, where the staff regards people from out of town with ill-disguised suspicion. And if George Zimmerman wasn’t nationally famous for killing Trayvon Martin, it wouldn’t matter whether he painted it or not. But he did, and it is, and thus a sub-high school rendering of the American flag with words from the pledge of allegiance stenciled on the stripes in faux-typewriter Courier is selling for $100k+ on eBay. The amount it’s selling for is almost beside the point — no doubt there’s some clown of a “patriot” out there who thinks he’s doing a Great Thing for America by shelling out a shitload of cash for something by Florida’s favorite gun-toting vigilante. But why does everyone else care?

There are really two interesting issues here: why so many terrible people seem compelled to think of themselves as artists, and why the rest of the public is fascinated with what they make. The most famous is aspiring painter and genocidal lunatic Adolf Hitler, but there are plenty of others: Charles Manson, John Wayne Gacy, Richard Ramirez, the Kray twins and, weirdest of all, this guy. They’re united by the fact that their art largely sucks — after all, if Hitler had actually gotten into the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, 20th-century history might have been very different. But that’s not always the case; Phil Spector is undoubtedly a production genius, and Varg Vikernes’ music is acceptable enough if you’re into church-burning black metal.

Either way, though, it’s not surprising that our subjects are entirely convinced that they’re great artists, regardless of whether this is true or not; among other things, sociopathy is generally characterized by a whopping great ego. Jerry Saltz wrote a piece this morning at Vulture on whether feeding that ego by talking about the art in question is a good idea or not (spoiler: you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t), but either way, you have to make a conscious decision to ignore the art made by crazy people, because your instinctive reaction is generally to be fascinated by it.

There’s an entire market for this stuff, and websites that apparently make a living by selling nothing else. (If you want to, you can google “murderbilia,” where you’ll find all sorts of weird shit, from original Richard Ramirez artwork to courtroom sketches of Ted Bundy and photos of girls pretending to be famous murder victims. Ye gods, the Internet.) Part of the appeal is flat-out ghoulishness — people have always been intrigued by death, and always will be.

But part of it, I suspect, also comes from the idea that art might give some sort of insight into the working of the minds of people whose minds work in a very different way from yours and mine. Everyone likes to play the amateur psychologist — what can we glean from Ramirez’ freaky devil faces or Manson’s weird pseudo-hippie recordings? Honestly, probably not a lot beyond whatever’s on the surface. Sociopaths have a need for attention, and this is another way of grabbing it. They’re also manipulative as hell, which is why, hey, look, Zimmerman’s back in the news with his patriotic painting after getting arrested for threatening his girlfriend with a gun!

And Zimmerman’s shitty painting itself? Well, we can probably deduce that he’s going to keep on milking the patriotism angle for all it’s worth, and that he thinks putting the words “One Nation” under the word “God” is clever (because “one nation under god,” geddit?!), and that he isn’t particularly bright. Nothing we didn’t know already know, in other words. Saltz is correct that we’re not in any way obliged to studiously ignore Zimmerman, but really, we should call this out for exactly what it is: a publicity stunt, and a way to pocket a lot of cash in a hurry.