Below the Beltway

Art failure: Gene paints himself into a corner

Below the Beltway
(Eric Shansby)
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Sunday, December 19, 2010

I love art, but I don't always "get" it. I'm a bit of a linear thinker. I'm the kind of guy who spends an hour at the National Gallery and comes away wondering whether fig leaves have some sort of Velcro-like property.

So, I was a little wary when my neighbor Cissy asked me to judge a local art contest. I warned her that I don't know anything about art, but she didn't seem concerned. I soon found out why: It turns out that most of the artists don't know anything about art, either.

At my first pass through the hundred-odd submissions, I decided to discard everything that I could have done myself. I considered this a pretty undemanding standard, but it wound up eliminating three-quarters of the entries in 10 minutes. Afterward, the curator told me that I had been "very decisive," which may sound like a compliment but probably wasn't. I'm thinking it was probably the equivalent of complimenting a violinist for being "very loud."

The 30 or so surviving entries -- the ones that would make up the show -- were all pretty good, and I loved my five overall winners. Everything was going splendidly, until I learned that I'd have to attend the grand opening and explain my choices to an audience that would include the artists and their friends.

Now, a professional art judge -- someone named, say, Anatole Fotheringay IV -- would meet this challenge unapologetically, with swaggering self-confidence. I met the challenge by placing a pile of affidavits in the center of the room. It declared that I had made a terrible mistake and had chosen the wrong winner, and that "the most worthy entry was actually titled _________ by the very talented artist ______ ." If anyone wishes to fill in the blanks, I said, I'll sign it.

Alas, I still had to explain my choices. My first prize went to three speckled eggs mounted on what appeared to be cheap, whitewashed wood from a chicken coop. The sly juxtaposition of the natural beauty of the eggs with the homely and utilitarian commercial background, I decided, spoke eloquently to the exploitive soullessness of modernity.

Unfortunately, just before I was to explain this, I saw for the first time that the eggs were, in fact, a cheesy commercial product themselves, wrought not by nature but by Pottery Barn. I had gravely misjudged this piece. But it was too late, so I didn't admit it. I recited my whole soulless modernity thing and then added that the fact that the eggs were not natural, but an earnest if pitiful attempt by humans to replicate nature, gave it an intriguing urgency. Nods of approval. They bought it!

My bigger problem was my third-place winner. It was an abstract painting: no narrative at all, just bold and evocative colors and shapes. I knew that I liked it but had no concrete idea why. So I either had to come up with some bogus explanation or swallow hard and tell the absolute truth about what I was thinking when I first saw this piece, and hope for forgiveness. I swallowed hard and began:

"Okay, the stern gray colors made me think of totalitarianism, which made me think of the Nazis, which made me think of how some people invoke the Holocaust inappropriately to win arguments, which made me think of moral inequivalencies, which made me think about how when you're at one of those gas stations attached to a convenience store, and there's always some guy with a big SUV who starts to pump gas and then goes inside. So, I kept thinking how easy it would be to drive up real close, take the hose from his car and fill the tank with it while he is still inside getting his Ho Hos, and then put the hose back in his car and drive away. His car is so big, and gas is so expensive, he probably wouldn't even notice the loss. And I was thinking this is obviously unethical -- BUT -- would it still be unethical if the guy was ... Adolf Hitler? I didn't want to keep thinking about this, so I decided to give this piece third place."

They applauded!

As a professional art critic, I can assure you there's a lesson in all this. Truth is art.

E-mail Gene at weingarten@washpost.com.


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