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Appreciation of modern art isn't elusive; it can be as easy to grasp as your wine glass

The Baltimore Sun

Art is a very subjective thing, so it is best to keep your gallery comments ambiguous, yet relevant.

Wine people are experts at this sort of patter, which is why so many art openings feature wine-and-cheese receptions. The fact is, many things that can be said about wine can be said about art.

For example, if you are standing in front of one of those ubiquitous vase-with-flowers paintings, you could murmur, "What a fine bouquet!" Whether you were talking about the wine in your glass or the painting on the wall, you would be entirely appropriate. Or, say you are standing in front of one of those moody oil portraits of unhappy Renaissance people. You could remark: "It has conspicuously dark overtones." Just make sure you are drinking red wine before you say it.

On the other hand, if you come upon a modern artwork made up of approximately 18,000 folded worn blue denim work shirts piled high on a steel and wooden platform, the pat "bouquet" or "overtones" comments are not going to work. Don't worry, there are plenty of ambiguous yet relevant observations you can make - just be sure to keep your initial thoughts to yourself.

I know this because I formulated mine immediately, and they were: 1) This is one massive load of laundry that would make anyone blue. 2) How did the artist manage to describe this thing to the curator? "Well, it's kind of like a mountain of folded blue work shirts, with some of the sleeves hanging down forlornly at strategic points. And it's probably going to take up an entire exhibit room, and cost approximately one bachillion American dollars to ship to your museum!" 3) I wonder where the gift shop is?

So I kept these astute impressions to myself and walked meditatively around the large pile of blue shirts. Just as I was about to venture a comment, I realized that there was a LIVE PERSON aspect to the artwork. At a prescribed time each day, an "attendant" was to show up and sit at an austere wooden table at the end of the pile of shirts, painstakingly erasing names from a roster in a printed book. It was just sheer luck that I happened to be there when the attendant was scheduled.

A lot of us crowded around the attendant, as if we had never seen someone use a classic Pink Pearl school eraser. We stared in respectful silence as he worked to erase a name without creating a hole in the paper. It took a long time.

For some reason, all I could think of were the guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, stoically going through the motions while people watched. I was suddenly filled with an inexplicably and overwhelmingly sad feeling about all of the important people who have been forgotten over time.

Which, as it turns out, was just exactly how the art was supposed to make me feel. A small explanatory statement on the wall in the exhibit room said the piece, titled Indigo Blue, by Ann Hamilton, might have something to do with the forgotten contributions of the blue-collar worker in America.

So modern art is not intimidating, people. You do not need an art history degree to "get it." Listen, if a person such as me, who heretofore embraced the concept of the "sofa-size oil," can "get" modern art, so can you.

Sadly, before Blue Indigo, I had the mistaken idea that if your living room couch was blue plaid, you could purchase the blue-shirt exhibit for that room, because it would "go." Now I realize that art doesn't have to "go"; I could put Blue Indigo anyplace in my home where I want to feel something, even if that feeling happens to be "morose and downtrodden."

And that is the beauty of modern art. It just doesn't get more ambiguous or relevant than that.

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