The Art of Gratuitous Praise

By Joshua Zumbrun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 21, 2007

Feeling blue? Unloved? As if nobody appreciates you? Maybe no one can see your inner wonderfulness. Or maybe you deserve to be forsaken. Maybe you are unloved because you're such a jerk, simply unlovable. Maybe you're a victim of the old maxim: "If you can't say anything nice . . . "

So when walking along 14th Street NW, you might be surprised to hear a chime followed by a reassuring voice:

"You help create a brighter future."

The avuncular voice calls out from a bright red-and-white-striped box perched on a platform of bricks, with a speaker at eye level and a grid of ventilation holes in the side. A small sign explains, "The Compliment Machine." The striking colors, stark lines and sharp corners lend the appearance of some strange installation of the municipality, perhaps from the Bureau of Self-Esteem or the Ministry of Happiness.

Ding! "People are drawn to your positive energy."

Is it true? It must be. The Compliment Machine looks as though it knows what it's talking about. Maybe it's a kinder, gentler cousin of Big Brother?

Ding! "You don't hate the player or the game."

Actually, the city has nothing to do with this. The Compliment Machine was conceived by Tom Greaves, 46, a visual artist who lives on Capitol Hill. It's part of SitesProject D.C., an exhibit by the Washington Project for the Arts\Corcoran, which features a collection of public art along 14th Street NW between P and V streets.

"It's a response to how on kids' soccer teams . . . win or lose, everyone gets a trophy," Greaves explains. Not soccer, specifically, but the saccharine culture in which everyone is special and unique, nobody can be criticized and everyone gets an award.

Some people can't stand that culture, others heartily embrace it, but if you're looking for a normative judgment from the creator of the Compliment Machine, you are looking in the wrong place. The machine is his entire comment.

The mellow, jeans-clad Greaves will only say that perhaps the nature of the comment is in the, well, ear of the beholder. As with an unearned trophy, Greaves says, "People can believe it or not."

Will they believe it? If everyone gets the trophy, if everyone receives the compliment, does it really mean anything?

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