Fuliginous Fears of the Philistines


Washington -- The deep waters of the art world are yet again being roiled by the great Latrine Debate.

Next month a three-hole privy seat from an old Long Island outhouse will be auctioned as fine art, or perhaps just as an artifact, because one, and perhaps two, famous painters painted it -- or, at any rate, put paint on it -- as part of the merriment of a 1954 croquet party. The question is, is it art?

Willem de Kooning was an "abstract expressionist artist" -- never mind the oxymoron -- who painted the toilet seat. Perhaps he had the help of his roommate, Jackson Pollock, another abstract expressionist. A connoisseur of de Kooning says, "As soon as I saw it I knew it was of his hand." But even the cognoscenti can't be sure about the contribution of Pollock, he of the famous canvases of dribs and drabs.

The New York Times, speaking ex cathedra, announces, "The seat is executed in a style of the two masters." The space between the three holes has undulating black stripes of various thickness and texture. The Times says "the stripes culminate in thick, angry globs of paint characteristic of Pollock."

What makes a glob angry rather than, say, serene or reverent or whimsical? Let those decide who bid at the auction. De Kooning and Pollock paintings fetch millions, but is this toilet seat art or a mere artifact? Millions of dollars may turn on the distinction. Or, more likely, dollars will make the distinction. If millions are bid, that will settle it: It's art.

Before the croquet party was over, de Kooning tore off two of the latrine covers and gave them to a friend. Years later, after the Latrine Debate began, the friend returned them. Did the return of the seats restore the art to perfection? Or was tearing them off part of de Kooning's act of creation? We are in deep water indeed.

Years ago, someone who was present at the creation said "it was done as a joke" for the croquet party and should not be treated as art. But what gave that person, Mrs. de Kooning, the right to rule that something isn't art? I mean, is this still a democracy or what?

The point of abstract art is democracy, understood as populism, egalitarianism and anti-intellectualism. Abstract art is immediately and equally "understandable" by everyone, there being nothing whatever to understand about stripes and splotches.

But the worm of elitism has entered the fruit. As art became more empty, art critics became more wordy. Critics constituted themselves into an indispensable clerisy. No one could understand abstract art until critics had infused it with "meaning." For example: "Pollock's strength lies in the emphatic surfaces of his pictures, which it is his concern to maintain in all that thick, fuliginous flatness . . . "

The democratization of art means "one person, one artist." When anyone says anything is art, who is to say otherwise? So an "earth artist" stretches a curtain across a Colorado valley. A "conceptualist" spends 16 days on the Trans-Siberian Railway placing a different slate beneath his feet each day, then burns his notes and smushes the ashes on the slates, which are then exhibited. A "post-minimalist" artist exhibits a live pig in a cage. An aspiring artist -- who needs to aspire? -- receives college credit for spending a weekend in a gym locker and calls this "a duration-confinement body-piece."

Of course modern art can misfire. A "kinetic sculpture" -- a bucket of fireworks atop the Brooklyn Bridge -- had a faulty fuse. An artist's pride and joy -- a bathtub specked with plaster -- was mistakenly used to cool beer for a party in the museum displaying the tub. At another gallery a janitor cleaned up a pile of bricks that was actually a display.

Recently your tax dollars have been at work subsidizing (it's all right; America has no more pressing needs) "performance artists" like the one whose art consists of political diatribes which she punctuated by smearing her chest with chocolate to symbolize excrement (and the beastliness of men to women). Such stuff is supposed to shock the bourgeoisie but the bourgeoisie keeps opening its wallet, thereby proving that the purest philistinism is fear of being called a philistine.

In 1917 Marcel Duchamp submitted to a gallery a urinal for display. The narrow-minded gallery rejected it but, says the New York Times, "It is now widely thought to be art, a paradigm of Duchamp's lifelong attempt to subvert traditions." Oh. Then Robespierre was an artist and the Russian Revolution was a whopping act of art.

Today many artists, short on talent but long on shrewdness, have stopped trying to shock the bourgeoisie and have turned instead to milking it. Hence government funds for "performance art" and auctions of painted privies.

A decade ago, Robert Hughes, a strong, sane voice about the art scene, noted that American art schools were graduating more people every five years than lived in Florence when Michelangelo and Raphael did, and that New York City had more galleries than bakeries. We must be living in a golden age of art.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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