The Beholding Eye

I remember sitting with a friend once, listening to a tirade about people eating "health" food. It wasn't that they liked the food, he contended, but that they liked the image it represented. He was quite offended by the concept that someone might eat food he or she didn't even like, just because they liked the image. But then he sighed and said, "But who am I to say what food should be used for?", saving me the trouble of lecturing him on the virtue of tolerance.

In the window of the Goldie Paley Gallery, at the Moore College of Art and Design in Philadelphia, painter Stephen Keene is cranking out art work, assembly line style and selling the works for from 1$ to 5$ each. A practice apparently so ghastly that professors from the 150 year old art school are getting into shouting matches over the exhibit.

"Art attempts to address the human condition," says faculty member Moe Brooker, "and you don't trivialize the human condition." There are comments that his exhibit is "mean spirited", "cynical", and a "side show"

Here we see the amazing ability of humans to create an offense, then to expand the importance of that offense to justify any level of insult they want to feel about it. "Trivializing the human condition" (Can you imagine?) by the terrible offense of repeating each of his works 32 times and selling them for a pittance to the plebeian masses.

Everyone seems to have an idea of what art (or wine, or food, or a car, or fashion, etc., etc., etc.,) should be to everyone else. Mr. Keene shouldn't have the right, contend some, to sell his paintings as "art". By showing at the institute, and calling it "art", he is "duping" the purchasers of his work.

Duping them no less? Ah, I should have known though, some average person from the street (a lowly nurce or some-such) obviously is unable to look at a painting on a wall, compare the price tag to what he or she sees, and know if it is worth buying.

Of course if this artist were down on the boardwalk painting his 32 of the same paintings at a time, and selling them for a few bucks, no one would cause a ho-ha about it. But since he is a doing it in an important "Institution of Art", he has offended many people's sense of what art should be. So now people are much more offended, and aghast, by his actions then they are by the National Debt.

I guess I am getting tired of the constant national outrage over the concept of when this, that, or this other thing, really qualifies as "art". Tired of the tearing of hair and heart breaking lamentations because someone dared call a soup can label, or a photograph of a penis, or a black stone slab carved with names, "art".

Let art be in the mind of the artist, and the eye of the beholder. Why do we have to fight about use of the label? Lets save our outrage for things that are genuinely terrible, like corrupt government officials and grossly unsafe products. Lets not waste our energy being aghast because someone rubs up against a constructed sense of insult.

By Suli Marr - 1997