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“My name is Richard and I’m a Philistine.”

I see that word a lot lately, associated with Morley Safer’s prime-time beatdown of the Contemporary Art market on 60 Minutes last night,  a reprise of a similar piece he did in 1993.

To refresh everyone’s memory, a Philistine is “…a person who is lacking in or hostile or smugly indifferent to cultural values, intellectual pursuits, aesthetic refinement, etc., or is contentedly commonplace in ideas and tastes.” In the context of commentary on Safer and his work, it is someone who isn’t smart enough or sophisticated enough to “get”contemporary art.

I guess I must be one of those people because I don’t see three basketballs floating in an aquarium as “…an ultimate state of being.” I don’t care if a shop vac in a glass display case is “…free to display its newness, its integrity of birth.”  These are comments that Jeff Koons made on his own work in 1993.

Sure, it’s easy to take a few extreme examples and make just about anything look stupid, which is precisely what Safer does.  I’m sure Safer could have found smarter people to defend their artistic tastes. And I’m sure that there is much in Contemporary Art that can teach us important lessons about life, the universe, and everything. What I object to is the reaction of the “Art World” to Safer’s work, which seems to fall in one of two general categories; they either dismiss Safer as a hack or an opportunist or even an idiot, or they dismiss everyone who thinks that Contemporary Art might be a vapid cesspool of self-promotion and self-indulgence a, wait for it, ……Philistine.

Look, I’m not a big fan of Contemporary Art and I’ve said so in these pages more than once. I don’t care for abstraction and I loathe conceptual art. I could be convinced that I’m wrong if anyone might care to try, but I’m not holding my breath. I’ll take Vermeer, thank you, but I’m willing to listen if you think I should give Cy Twombly or Julian Schnabel another look.

 

Girl with a Pearl Earring (Johannes Vermeer, 1665)

I think there’s a tremendous opportunity lost here when the response to “I don’t get it” is “You’re too stupid to understand.” If art is meant to instruct and enlighten, to open doors of understanding, then we should be prepared to talk about what we like and don’t like and, more importantly to listen to other people doing the same. It’s called learning, people, and an open mind is far more important than an open mouth.

Untitled (Cy Twombly, 1955)

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