Friday, September 6, 2013

The Man Who Says, "No Shoes!"

The Heiress is beginning her second year at The Big U down in Washington, DC. It was also her birthday this week. Thus did I find myself spending the Labor Day weekend in Our Nation's Capital™.

We've been there a few times now. We spend part of the time visiting with her, and the rest of the time seeing the sights, of which there are many to be seen in DC. The National Mall is a great place for anyone who likes museums. We've now been to many of them, but there are still several we haven't visited. This past weekend we visited a few more. We hadn't been in any of the art museums yet, so that ended up being a kind of focal point of this particular visit.

I wouldn't classify myself as a total philistine, but I'm hardly an expert when it comes to painting and sculpting and such. All I can say is that I know what I like, and I know what I don't like.

For many years I worked in the headquarters of a leading European bank that, at least during the era in which I worked there, made a big deal out of being a major patron of the arts. On every floor of every one of its major buildings there hung whole collections of different artists' work. Most of what was on display was of the modern, abstract variety. There was a lot of stuff I really liked, and there was plenty I didn't.

I developed a particular distaste for a large collection in one of the buildings I frequently visited that consisted of pencil scribbles on a piece of white paper that, were it not for the quality of the paper and the fancy frames in which the individual pieces were mounted,could easily have been mistaken for something produced by The Heiress, or The Young Master, both of whom were small children at the time. How much had the bank paid for this nonsense? Who was the guy who produced this stuff? Did he genuinely feel that this was some profound expression of his inner soul, or was this just some kind of elaborate practical joke?

Looking at stuff like that always makes me think of the book Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut (one of the heroes of my youth, but that's a story for another day). One of the characters in the book is the minimalist painter Rabo Karabekian, creator of a painting called The Temptation of Saint Anthony, an enormous canvas painted green, with a single vertical stripe of day-glo orange tape near one end, which is purchased by a wealthy industrialist for an outrageous sum of money. Reflecting on Karabekian's masterpiece, Vonnegut's narrator pretty much sums up my own feelings about that pencil-scribble stuff:

I thought Karabekian with his meaningless pictures had entered into a conspiracy with millionaires to make poor people feel stupid.

The Temptation of Saint Anthony (Reproduction)

The basic criterion I have evolved for judging what I myself like or dislike in modern art is pretty simple: If I could do it myself, it's not art. Whatever the artist may have been trying to express, whatever the medium may be, however abstract, there has to be some combination of originality and craftsmanship for me to be able to appreciate it. 

One of the places we visited on this latest trip was the Hirshhorn Museum, which houses a large collection of modern art. I had lots of opportunities to apply my simple criterion there. And to be sure, I found plenty to hate, plenty to like, and a certain amount of stuff to just leave me scratching my head.

My favorite thing in the Hirshhorn was an installation by the artist Ann Hamilton, in collaboration with Kathryn Clark, called "Palimpsest". Picture a room the size of a medium-sized bedroom, the walls of which are covered with identically-sized sheets of newsprint about four inches square. Each sheet of paper is affixed to the wall by a single push-pin, and on each is handwritten a brief vignette from someone's life. I assume each sheet was written out by a different person, since the handwriting on the ones I examined closely looked different in each case. I'll further assume that each sheet was previously written on and then erased, in accordance with the definition of a palimpsest. In the middle of the room is a glass case the size of a fairly large aquarium that contains two cabbages and a number of snails. There's also an oscillating electric fan that causes the paper sheets to periodically flutter in the breeze. The floor consists of tiles that are actually large slabs of beeswax.

What does it mean? I have no idea. Yet somehow I found it intriguing. I think that more than anything I was impressed by the sheer determination and perseverance it must have taken to collect all those individual stories on small sheets of paper and then arrange them perfectly on the walls. Or maybe it's because despite my conscious disdain, I really am impressed by the cleverness of someone who can get a private collector or a museum to pay a very large sum of money for someone to engage in such a colossal waste of time.

Ann Hamilton, Palimpsest

What intrigued me the most, however, was what was going on just outside the entrance to the installation. Because of the material from which the floor is constructed, you can't just walk into the installation; you have to put on little nylon booties over your shoes before you enter. The nylon booties are available from a bin next to a bench, on which you can sit while pulling them over your shoes, but there's no sign actually explaining this.

Instead, there's a security guard standing outside the room. There are security guards posted throughout the museum to keep people from fingering the items on display; what makes this guard stand out is that about every 15–20 seconds he repeats his perpetual refrain of, "No shoes!" He says this in a loud staccato tone, though not quite shouting, each time someone starts to step into the installation without the little nylon booties, which is essentially every time anyone walks up to look at it since, as noted above, it's not immediately obvious that supplemental footwear is required. Watching this tiny little drama play out in the same predictable cycle, again and again, I had to wonder whether this was also an integral part of the artist's statement.

I asked him if he spends his entire shift standing in that one spot, saying, "No shoes!" He answered that he does. Does he like his job? "Well, sometimes it's kind of funny how people jump when I say it," he explained, "but I'm really glad when I can go home every day."