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Artomatic 2004: Hanging Is Too Good for It

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 11, 2004; Page C01

Here's a fine idea. Let's find an abandoned school and then invite local dentists to ply their trade, free of charge, in its crumbling classrooms, peeling corridors and dripping toilets. Okay, so maybe we won't get practicing dentists to come, but we might get some dental students, hygienists and retirees to join in our Happy Tooth festival. What the heck, let's not be elitists here: Why don't we just invite anyone with a yen for tooth work or some skill with drills to give it a go. Then we can all line up, open wide and see what happens.

I'll be at the front of the line.


Artomatic 2004 is five floors of mediocrity jammed into shabby rooms in an indiscriminate show that does nothing to advance the cause of serious art. (Lucian Perkins - The Washington Post)

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After all, it could hardly be more excruciating than this year's Artomatic, the fourth edition of the District's creative free-for-all, which opens tomorrow. Organizers have gotten about 600 local "artists" -- anyone who could ante up the $60 fee and 15 hours of his or her time, in fact -- to display their creations. They're on show in the sprawling, scruffy building in north Capitol Hill that once housed the Capital Children's Museum and several charter schools.

The result is the second-worst display of art I've ever seen. The only one to beat it out, by the thinnest of split hairs, was the 2002 Artomatic, which was worse only by virtue of being even bigger and in an even more atrocious space, down by the waterfront in a vacant modern office building.

I won't dwell on the art. And I certainly won't name names. No one needs to know who made the wallfuls of amateur watercolors, yards of incompetent oil paintings, acres of trite street photography and square miles of naive installation art that will be polluting this innocent old building for the next three weeks. There's something for everyone to hate. The rest are works only a mother could love.

There may just be a few decent things hidden in the mix -- with so many thousands of objects on display, the law of averages says there must be. But three hours' worth of looking didn't spot too many. Some of the glasswork looked all right. (Glass is such a gorgeous medium it's hard to screw it up, and you need some basic training even to begin to work in it.) There were a few political one-liners that had some heft. But with works hung pell-mell and cheek-by-jowl in every corner of five floors of shabby rooms and corridors -- lighted by fluorescent tubes and the cheapest clip-on floods -- anything good was bound to get obscured by mediocrity. There's not even an attempt to keep like works together, or to craft oases of somewhat more polished art.

I don't blame the people who made this work, bad as it mostly is. This is, as they say, a free country, and if someone wants to mess around with art supplies at home, then only their nearest and dearest have the right to complain. It's the basic premise of this show that is so badly at fault.

You'd think that the purpose of a public exhibition would be to give the public a fair chance of seeing interesting art. Or you might think that it could serve emerging artists, too, by giving them a chance to learn from the best work that's out there. But what useful purpose is served in showing work by anyone who wants to have it seen, however awful it may be? How can an art exhibition be counted as anything other than a dismal failure when it's so bad overall?

Or worse. A show like Artomatic, in theory organized and stocked by lovers and supporters of fine art, is actively insulting to all the genuinely talented artists who have managed the long slog to a professional career.

For almost the entire history of Western culture, art was not conceived as something just anyone could or should make. Imagine living in Renaissance Florence and telling one of your Medici pals that you were going to have the family altarpiece painted by Joe Blow the baker, who felt like giving it a try. It would have seemed a joke. An Artomatic would have seemed sheer lunacy. Ditto if you had lived in Rembrandt's Amsterdam, Gainsborough's London or the Paris of Monet. For most of the last 500 years, dentists have been seen as less professional a bunch than artists.

But somehow, over several decades now, we've bought into the nutty idea that fine art matters so very little, and is such easy stuff, that everyone and anyone can make it. (Actually, the idea has disappeared almost entirely among the kind of art professionals and intellectuals who suggested it in the first place, around the turn of the last century. The idea of art-by-anyone at first met with stiff public opposition, even ridicule; I'm only sorry it finally managed to catch on.)

Real, worthwhile art, the kind that says something that hasn't been said a million times before, requires carefully honed, hard-to-acquire skills -- sometimes manual, always visual and intellectual. Almost all artists worth the time of day know what's come before them, understand what's being made around them, and then -- against the odds and with terrifically hard work -- manage, every now and then, to make an art object that can contribute to the larger cultural conversation.

There may be a remote chance that such a person has been laboring unrecognized in a garret somewhere in Washington and that only Artomatic could have coaxed him out of hiding. But it's about as likely as finding a genius cavity-filler lurking in our dental open house.

After all, there are already lots of institutions dedicated to finding and displaying novel talent in the arts. Several alternative and artist-run spaces in the Washington area -- DCAC, Flashpoint, Transformer and others -- consider almost anything that comes over the transom. Their organizers tell me that the problem isn't a surplus of submissions; programming tends to suffer because they have too few options to choose among.

Despite public perceptions, the art world isn't anything like a closed shop: Curators, dealers and critics are always on a desperate hunt for new makers of new kinds of art, and they'll take it absolutely anywhere they can get it. Well-known mid-career artists are the ones who tend to face neglect; the hot young things that no one's seen before are where the action is. I guarantee that anyone with talent who might be discovered at a show like Artomatic would have had a fine chance of being discovered anyway.

What the District truly needs is more displays of carefully selected, quality contemporary art, so that local emerging artists -- and, just as importantly, their public -- would have more and better examples of how serious creativity can work. As things stand, too many local artists, as well as a few of our dealers, get attention they wouldn't get in any city where they faced some decent, savvy competition. The region needs its artistic bar raised another notch or two. Whereas Artomatic, of course, removes the bar entirely and invites anyone and everyone to stroll on in and strut their stuff.

It's not as though we are a society that fiercely discourages the making of art, one that needs an Artomatic just to make sure anything gets made at all. More art schools turn out more trained artists every year, and they all have to compete for a slice of the same meager pie of patronage, funding and public attention.

Artomatic costs more than $100,000 to put on, drawing funds from the artists themselves as well as from the public and private sectors; it absorbs major gifts in kind and vast amounts of volunteer time; it gets plenty of media coverage and pulls in tens of thousands of visitors. And all the money and resources and attention that go Artomatic's way are, by definition, not going to serious art that needs a boost, and deserves a higher public profile. Artomatic isn't only good for nothing. It's bad for art that matters.

Artomatic is open Tuesday to Friday from Nov. 12 through Dec. 5 at 800 Third St. NE. For further information, visit www.artomatic.org.


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