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Edward Southerland: Modern art and other con games
By Edward Southerland
Apr 14, 2017
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Featured on a recent TV news magazine was a story about a hot new artist from Thailand. Several art critics were shown praising the abstract swirls and slashes and daubs of color on canvas. The creator’s use of color and brush technique was likened to that of the French impressionist, Paul Gauguin. The next scene was an art auction at a New York gallery with the gavel coming down on the $3,000 sale of one of the artist’s paintings.

The artist is an elephant who paints with a brush held in her trunk. She is the protégée of a pair of expatriate Russians who scurried out of the Soviet Union when the communist regime found their abstract artistic frivolities at odds with honest socialist realism.

A quick search by Google on the Web shows there are enough painting elephants to cause a peanut shortage on the left bank of the Seine if they ever had a convention in Paris. Zoo Atlanta has one, so does San Diego and Toledo, Ohio. Painting elephants are as common as hush puppies at a fish fry. Offer a brush loaded with paint to a Jumbo or a Dumbo and it will dash off a masterpiece in a trice.

Now I’m all for elephants painting. You need a hobby when your big and gray, a long way from home, and it’s hard to get a date for New Year’s eve. But the people who call pachyderm painting art are something else.

They don’t have an excuse. Modern art must be the only medium where something is art because the maker says so and some self appointed arbiter of taste backs him up. In truth, it’s a big con, on a grand scale, inspired by the fable of the Emperor’s New Clothes, where no one on the sideline has the courage to speak up and say “You gotta be kidding—right.”

When workers were finishing the clean up of the newly constructed, soon to be opened Russell Federal Building in Atlanta, they tossed a canvas drop cloth, paint smudged and full of holes, into the dumpster. Just in the nick of time the wipe rag was recognized and rescued. It was, along with six rocks, nice rocks I assure you, but rocks all the same, part of piece of art scheduled for the lobby of the building. It cost the tax payers of the United States $35,000.

Atlanta is also the city where the Georgia Council for the Arts, another tax supported entity, gave a middle aged, unemployed modern dancer a $2,500 grant to choreograph a dance work to be performed for homeless people at several shelters around the city. In her required post recital report, the artist complained that not many homeless people had shown up for the event, and those who did, didn’t exhibit much enthusiasm. She offered to do another dance next year if the grant included enough money to hire a bus to cruise the neighborhoods and round up some viewers for her show.

National talk show host Neal Boortz of Atlanta is a fanatic about taxpayer funded “art.” He likens the programs to straight welfare, paying the incompetent and unmarketable for work no one else is willing, or silly enough to buy. He says, if he can reproduce it, it’s not art.

The last is too strong. I can reproduce Hamlet or Huckleberry Finn, but I can’t create the story or fit the words together with the style and wit of Shakespeare or Mark Twain. I might even reproduce some abstract art, but I couldn’t come up with the idea.

The difference between the artist, what ever his style, and the fraud, lies in the concept of “craftsmanship” as set out in the second quotation at the head of this piece. Picasso is an artist, he had mastered the craft of his calling as a young man. If he chose to draw a cow that looked like a cow he could do so.

Given his mastery of the basics, he could improvise on the basics. If he draws two lines and circle and says it’s a cow, so be it. If I draw two lines and circle and call it a cow, it’s a con. I couldn’t draw a cow that looks like a cow if I had to. Picasso’s two lines and a circle spring from inspiration, my two lines and a circle come from incompetence.

Of course my opinion, in art circles, also is worthless, for I have not studied art, have no taste, and am insufficiently cultured even to venture even an opinion. Only the cognoscenti know best. 60 Minutes once did a story on Colombian artist Fernando Botero, known for his “fat” paintings. All of Botero’s subjects are rotund, sometimes cartoon like in appearance. Not only are his people roundly Rubenesque, so are his dogs and cats and canaries.

Botero is wealthy, his work sells briskly for high prices and reproductions and posters are popular world wide. As much as the public loves him, so do the critics denigrate him. Popular acceptance gains no points with the few who deem to know what is good. If the public understands and appreciates it, it must be commonly vulgar.

One critic spoke with no equivocation. “It’s not art,” she said. “It’s disgusting. I know, I’ve studied art.” Not me, I just know a cow when I see one.