Once upon a time we lived next door to a couple who had specific ideas about what should or shouldn’t be done with a garden box. You can champion any aesthetic you like, as long as it’s on your own property. That’s how I feel. I have no right to object if you choose to bury a truck nose down in your front yard. It’s your yard. You had better not tell me what to put in mine. Unfortunately, we shared a garden box in the space between our two homes. The property line went down the middle of the box.
The neighbors decided to put in a small lemon tree. They asked, and we thought the idea was nice so we paid half the cost. My wife liked a kind of decorative cover called impatience. They didn’t. No problem. It was planted on our side of the box. It began to grow pretty high, but it was still on our side of the box. The neighbors started to tell us to what height and degree it should be trimmed. We ignored the suggestions. It was on our side of the box.
One day we came home from work and part of the impatience had been removed, a lime tree had been planted in the center of the box, and there was an invoice for half the cost in our mailbox. The neighbors had asked me very casually a few days before about a lime tree, and I had said I would think about it. I hadn’t agreed to anything. I would never have agreed to rip out the wife’s decorative plant choice in any case.
My wife wasn’t happy, and wanted to escalate the conflict in the direction of shouting and/or legal threats. I knew the conflict was property rights vs. personal taste. I left the neighbors a letter explaining I had no intention of paying for something I hadn’t agreed to. The next day when we came home, the lime tree had been transplanted to their side of the box, and ALL the impatience was torn out and lying in our driveway. I decided to settle this disagreement – with art.
I had the impatience replaced (on our side of the box). Next came the informal articles of war. Defining the rules of the aesthetic I wished to illustrate took days of discussion with my wife and other artists. Ideally, art objects would be so bad:
1.) That they produced shudders of revulsion upon first view. You must get that “What were they thinking?” feeling. A mere “ew, that’s bad” feeling would indicate the art wasn’t BAD enough.
2.) The objects could be found, bought and/or assembled, as long as they contributed to the overall effect of Rule #1.
3.) No more than ten dollars per week should be spent.
We started looking at local stores and garage sales for ideas and examples of inexpensive bad art. I spent ten dollars having a sign company make a small-scale replica of a triangular yellow street sign, the sort that might say things like “yield” or “slide area”. Our sign said BAD ART ZONE. I planted it in the center of the box, on the property line.
Cuteness gone wrong was one reliable source of cheap bad art. We bought a pink, glittery-slimy ceramic centipede with imploring, bugged-out eyes that looked up at the viewer. The eyes had human-looking long, curly lashes. I placed a gaudy, green prancing unicorn, a cheap, knock-off of “My Little Pony” nearby. Children in the neighborhood began stopping as they walked past. They would point at the ghastly items in the garden box and laugh. We were on the right track.
My wife and I held a small contest with each other to find the worst ceramic frog to add. Mine was a lazy, fat green fellow wearing Bermuda shorts who lay on his back holding an umbrella drink on his tummy. Hers was worse. It was brown-orange, with crazily zig-zagged eyes. It was crouching forward (sort of). She placed it behind a clump of the impatience. It looked like he had gone behind the bush to take a dump.
Gossip began to circulate between our next door neighbors and others living up and down the block. The wife next door was horrified at what we were doing. She complained that neighborhood property values would decrease. Give me a break. It was a garden box the size of a single bed. If you own the property, you get to “plant” whatever you want.
My land, my rules, at least as far as garden art goes. The reactions spurred my desire to step up the level of complexity. The Fourth of July holiday was approaching. Our bad art garden box was an expression of the rights we won in the American Revolution. We installed a black, wrought-iron thing that looked like a partly-melted trellis and on the twisted hooks we affixed cheap Christmas ornaments and a miniature wood placard with the word FREEDOM on it in primitive block letters.
The Gettysburg of our bad art war came soon after. It was the item that hastened the end of the conflict. It was my masterpiece of found/combined/assembled awfulness. It was a three-foot-tall imitation Corinthian column made of plaster. The column had a relief of gaudily-painted grapey-viney clusters winding around it. On top I glued a yellow plastic drinking glass decorated with the universal “smiley-face” symbol. The glass was filled with oversized glitter marbles. Rising from the marbles was a plastic back-scratcher, the kind with a replica of a hand with curved fingers at the end. The curved fingers proudly held aloft a miniature cheese grater. I named the work The Pillar of Cheesiness. It represented the hubris of people’s need to artificially elevate the value of what they like by confusing personal preferences with lasting value. In other words, whatever we like we will tend to call “good”. We assume our biases are indicators of taste.
The neighbors surrendered unconditionally within a month. At least it seemed that way to me. They put their house up for sale. They were never able to discuss the garden box with us face-to-face. When we encountered each other on our way into or out of our vehicles, we made the smallest of small talk. They were younger and upwardly-mobile, and had three small children. Perhaps there were reasons for their move I knew nothing about. Without the inspiration of the active conflict, I turned my attention away from the garden box. As happens with the abandoned edifices of collapsed civilizations, the plants, weeds and vines overgrew and reclaimed the space occupied by the art. I left the items hidden within the overgrowth. A tiny jungle now holds hidden treasure for garden box archeologists of the future to discover.