Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Art: What It Is

by F. T. Rea

In a Richmond, Virginia courtroom about 20 years ago I witnessed an entertaining scene in which an age-old question -- what is art? -- was hashed out in front of a patient judge, who seemed to thoroughly enjoy the parade of exhibits and witnesses the attorneys put before him. The gallery was packed with paint-speckled-blue-jeans-wearing art students, gypsy musicians, film buffs, and various other stripes of weekend anarchists. The defendant was a handbill artist.

At the crucial moment a popular college art professor was testifying as an expert witness. He was being grilled over just where to draw the line between what should be, and what should not be, considered as genuine art. The Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney asked the witness if the beat-up piece of paper in his hand -- the offending handbill, which had gotten its creator busted -- could actually be "art."

“Probably,” shrugged the prof. “Why not?”

The flyer, promoting a midnight show at an area cinema, had been posted by the theater's manager on a utility pole near a college campus. Rather than pay the small fine for breaking The City’s law forbidding such posters on poles in the public way, the manager opted for a day in court. His defense had his attorneys attacking the statute itself as overreaching. They asserted their client had a right to post the handbill and the public even had a right to see it.

The stubborn prosecutor grumbled, reasserting that the flyer was no more than “litter.”

Eventually, having grown weary of the high-brow vernacular being slung around by the witnesses supporting the theater manager, the prosecutor tried one more time to trip the clever witness up. As Warhol's soup cans had just been mentioned by the art expert, he narrowed his eyes to ask, “If you were in an alley and happened upon a pile of debris spilled out from a tipped-over trashcan, could that be art, too?”

“Well,” said the witness, pausing Jack Benny-like for effect, “that would depend on who tipped the can over.”

The line went over like Gangbusters. The courtroom erupted into laughter. The obviously amused judge fought off a smile. The crestfallen
prosecutor gave up. The City lost the case. Although I got a kick out of the crack, too, I’ve always thought The City's mouthpiece missed an opportunity to hit the ball back across the net.

“Sir, let me get this right,” he might have said, “are you saying the difference between art and randomly-strewn garbage is simply a matter of whose hand touched it; that the actual appearance of the objects, taken as a whole, is not the true test? Furthermore, are you telling us that without credentials, such as yours, one is ill-equipped to determine the difference between the contents of a trashcan and fine art?”

Yes, the prosecutor gave up too soon because, whether the wise-guy professor admitted it, or not, that is exactly where he was coming from. A smarter lawyer could have exploited that angle.

Still, the prosecutor’s premise/strategy that an expert witness could be compelled to rise up to brand a handbill for a movie, "Atomic Cafe," a green piece of paper with black ink on it, as “un-art” was absurd. So, the wily artist probably would have one-upped the buttoned-down lawyer, no matter what.

Perhaps the question shouldn’t be -- how can you tell fake art from real art? After all, any town is full of bad art, and good art, and all shades of in-between art. Name your poison.

Rather, it’s probably better to ask -- what is worthwhile or useful art? Then you become the expert witness.

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