Since modern art, in its early infancy, first learned to say Dada experts have been a little sketchy as to the difference between precedent-setting genius and a wet clean-up on aisle 5 at Kelly-Moore.
Back in the days when Michelangelo roamed the earth there was little question about it. Mike was cranking out the good stuff; his drunken one-eyed neighbor, Lefty Fagioli, was not. And rightly Big M got the Sistine Chapel gig; Lefty was flippin’ burgers at the Coliseum commissary.
Unfortunately, after several dozen movements, a gang of periods, and a revolution or two in art history it’s not that simple anymore. I entered a major art competition recently giving very little thought to the prospect of actually winning, especially when I saw some of the other entries: hot chicks with big racks, artists with the same last name as one of the judges—I mean, I was up against some wicked talent. But it’s kind of like the lottery: you can’t lose if you don’t play.
The big day finally arrived and the winners were to be announced. I was primed to see what kind of unfathomably gorgeous, heart-stopping masterpiece executed with inhumanly-flawless technique would beat out over 10,000 contestants. I opened the page and saw black squares. My first thought was I needed to subscribe to view the results otherwise I’d get this censored version. As I was getting out my credit card I read the interview with the first place winner. He was describing how he had used several different markers and inks to go over the black many times to make sure it was “really” black.
My first thought was, he cheated. Somebody tipped him off. He got an anonymous phone call.
“Listen pal, y’know that big competition you’re about to enter?”
“Yes? What should I do?”
“Really, that’s what they’re looking for?
Just black squares?”
“That’s it. Just black squares.
Ya can’t go wrong.”
“Gee thanks mister!”
“But you better make sure they’re
I could have done black squares. I’m good at squares, and black I’ve got. Darn, if only I’d known! Then I would have been the greatest artist in the whole wo— Wait a minute, no I wouldn’t have! Who’s smokin’ muggles?
Maybe the “good” receptors in my visual cortex were on the fritz and needed to be re-calibrated. So I scrounged up a date and we headed for LACMA . When I entered I saw a large piece of butcher paper with a pencil drawing of a penny. It was perfect. A flawless photo-realistic reproduction of a 5 foot diameter penny. I was excited! Apparently they were going to start having penny admission day at the museum soon. Then I saw an SUV, perfectly drawn in pencil on butcher paper. Then a postage stamp, in pencil, butcher paper, perfect. I was worried. If this is art then my Canon digital SLR is gonna be famous.
I moved on. Something diverted my eye from my feet negotiating the terrazzo. It was an unusual mixed-medium type of affair with no outstanding features to speak of, but maybe I just wasn’t looking closely enough. So I read the title…that didn’t help. What’s this, the medium is oil paint and elephant dung? Interesting. I’ve experimented with flow enhancers to make the paint move a little better but then I noticed a brown lump on the canvas. And my first thought was, “No he didn’t!”
He had, and among the other exhibits, there was a blinking eye on a video monitor, a plastic blow-up cartoon outer-space alien, Some pink neon thing, an original oil on canvas by Arshile Gorky…Wait a minute, what’s that doing here? I was like “huh?” to say the least, thoroughly discombobulated to say the most. I saw some other museum patrons: a perfectly reasonable looking couple in their early 30s. I didn’t want to bias their answer so I asked a completely neutral question.
“Can you believe the garbage they’re calling art these days”?
The gentleman looked at me and smiled (indicating to me he was of sound mind) and said, “I have to agree with you. My wife and I were just saying the same thing. But there is that Gorky back there, did you see it?”
“Yeah, it was beautiful, what a mind, eh”? I said. They both nodded in agreement and we went our separate ways. I caught up with my date. Just an arm-piece really, thought I’d introduce her to some culture. Show her there’s other places to see beauty, besides in a mirror. As I approached my naive little junior student of the arts she was scratching her blond head and giving me a funny look.
She walked up to me and said, “Can you believe the garbage they’re calling art these days?”
Oh, she’s a wise guy, eh? She probably overheard me talking to that couple. I’ll put her to the test.
“But did you see that pencil drawing of the penny?”
She raised one eyebrow and said, “Well it was expertly executed, but what was the point? It was completely devoid of any artistic virtue other than the rendering technique itself, which, as anyone with half a brain knows, does not an artist make.”
I indicated she was right by sticking my tongue out at her.
So it’s a farce. The whole art world has it’s head up it’s collective duff and everyone knows it. Could it be the “emperors new cloaks” syndrome? Some big-shot art critic, whom no one had the chutzpah to question, had a lapse in judgment, it looked like fun, so now all the big-shot art critics are doing it? Or is it just like politics: somebody gets paid off and next thing you know Gorky is surrounded by kindergartners?
Why then do I toil endlessly to drag vestiges of genius from my enfeebled creative muscle when it’s not the muse it’s the moolah that garners the kind of fame and fortune we all dream about, but only those with the black squares to back it up ever achieve?
The answer is simple: I am a victim of free will. I live life in the oncoming lane and I don’t always roll with the punches, sometimes I punch back. Black squares, elephant dung, decapitated Barbie dolls swimming in goats blood, are all defiant statements made to call out the rigid-minded and complacent and say, “Aw gee mom, leftovers again?” Well you certainly put mom in her place.
But wait, mom worked hard on that lasagna, what do you suggest she serve for dinner? Elephant dung? Mom just stormed out of the kitchen in a huff and forgot to turn off the oven. Unless somebody comes up with something better than mom’s leftover lasagna, you’d better serve it up.
Too late! Black squares!