The Art of 'Poop'

By Jabari Asim
Monday, May 23, 2005; 9:15 AM

WASHINGTON -- All art aspires to the condition of music, right? Walter Pater advanced that notion way back in the 19th century, and usually it's not hard to see what he was getting at. I can look at the endless loops and whirls in a Jackson Pollock "drip" painting, for instance, and easily hear a tenor sax furiously riffing away. Same goes for Jacob Lawrence's epic celebrations of black laborers -- muscular, kinetic images whose rough-hewn lyricism recalls the blues. Even in the work of a young hotshot like Kehinde Wiley, who combines portraits of streetwise youths with religious iconography from the Renaissance, I can hear the gospel-infused hip-hop of Kanye West's chart-topping "Jesus Walks."

A certain untitled work by Tom Friedman, on the other hand, gives me pause. I looked it up on the Web after reading about it in The Washington Post. The work, which the Post described as "a two-foot white cube with a barely visible black speck set right in the middle of the top surface," failed to attract a minimum bid of $45,000 at an auction held at Christie's in early May. The black speck, I should add, was not paint or charcoal or chalk, or some other material commonly associated with art. The auction catalogue provides a helpful description: ".5mm of the artist's feces." Really. I tried hard to come up with a musical analogue for this messterpiece and all I could think of was "Shaving Cream," a novelty hit from my misspent youth. A sample:

An old lady died in a bathtub

She died from a terrible fit

In order to fulfill her wishes

She was buried in six feet of ...

Shaving cream, be nice and clean

Shave every day and you'll always look keen.

I'm no Puritan when it comes to art, and I admire other examples of Friedman's oeuvre that I've seen on the Web. I'm also aware that the scatological approach is nothing new. I remember thumbing through my wife's conceptual art textbook in college and coming across Piero Manzoni, who in 1961 packaged his droppings in cans and made them available as signed, numbered "editions" of "Merda d'Artista." Thinking back, I initially worried that I had somehow imagined Manzoni's escapade, but my fears were allayed when I encountered a handy compendium of such stunts at Don't you just love the Internet?

There's also British artist Chris Ofili, who in 1996 got in trouble with New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani over his portrait of the Virgin Mary, which was partially composed of elephant dung. These days Ofili is enjoying a warm critical embrace for his quite innocuous watercolor portraits of black women, but back then he was quick to point out the merits of working with waste. He has created other works of art from that material, the names of which, unfortunately, can't be quoted here. A 1999 profile in had him singing the praises of poop. "Elephant dung in itself is quite a beautiful object," he said. "But a different sort of beauty. And I want to bring the kind of beauty and decorativeness of the paintings together with the apparent concept of ugliness of the (excrement) and put them together and try and make them exist."

Friedman's artistic goals don't sound all that different. "I wanted to find a material that you could present the smallest amount of and it would have the most impact," he told the Post's David Segal.

Ofili could tell him something about impact. An Englishman became so enraged by Ofili's show at the Royal Academy in London that he dumped a wheelbarrow of manure on the sidewalk outside the exhibit. The point of his protest, he said, was to prove that "modern art is a load of" -- uh, shaving cream.

Friedman's piece provoked no such furor at Christie's. Could its failure to sell be a sign that American art patrons have lost their tolerance for post-digestive art? Could a similar lack of patience soon develop among the general citizenry? Just think what would happen if we all suddenly declined to buy what so many of our so-called leaders -- masters in the fine art of bull-slinging -- have been trying to sell us. It would give "waste disposal" a whole new meaning.

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