Encountering Art in the Void
In 1990 a friend of mine told me about a surreptitious caper a friend of hers had carried out which entailed replacing a piece of art that had been hanging in a lecture hall on the campus of a well known Atlanta university with artworks he himself had created.  She didn’t exactly seem proud of his gag or the work her friend had sneaked onto the lobby’s walls, and at least part of the impetus seemed to stem from observing the lax to nonexistent security in this particular building. They probably also considered it a risk free operation in light of the anticipated apathy on the university’s part over the displaced artwork, which theoretically could have been stolen without anyone caring or even noticing.  Although I can’t remember my friend’s exact words about the kidnapped work, I seem to recall her saying that she and her associate had both agreed before the affair that it wasn’t a good painting, either because it was mere institutional decoration or because it didn’t mean anything or perhaps some combination of both judgments.
 
After describing the situation, she took me to the scene of the relatively harmless crime so I personally could witness the aftermath.  The culprit had installed several rather unremarkable and childish geometric face-like forms woven from construction paper in the spot where the university’s painting had once been installed.  Then my friend took me to the bottom of a stairwell leading to one of the building’s exits.  Leaning against the wall in the all but hidden space beneath the stairs sat the painting her friend had removed.
 
It was square, probably around 30”x30” and was supported by a stretcher that was around an inch and a half thick.  The surface of the canvas was divided into two roughly equal areas by a clean, slight arc.  One side of the arc was blue, the other side was white.
 
The painting was far from what I’d envisioned, and I found myself somewhat taken aback by it.  I realized I had been anticipating something more easily dismissed; something inviting casual ridicule, like a purchase from a typical “Starving Artist’s Sale” as periodically advertised on local television.  Alas, the only critical response I could immediately formulate was that the painting seemed dated, but this remark may well have invited discussion that would have betrayed personal shortcomings of my own that I was only coming to terms with through the questions unfolding around this very situation.  For the sake of maintaining a facade of confidence, I halfheartedly concurred that the painting was bad, although introspectively I was not sure.
 
As I thought about the hidden painting after leaving the lecture hall, I began struggling to dissect this deceptively complex philosophical phenomenon.  The first quality of the painting I had to confront was that it was a work I’d had to have struggled to execute myself.  I wondered whether I was capable of such polished craftsmanship at all, or if I’d have ever thought to compose such a subtle painting.  The next quality pertained to the characteristics that made me think the painting was dated, as I mentioned earlier.
 
What this observation forced me to admit to myself was how much art history I had forgotten since my last class in the subject over a year earlier.  Since this painting bore no signature on either the front or the back of the canvas, I could only speculate as to who might have produced it, or whom the producer might be influenced by.  I began perusing my art history books when I got home.  The first thing I was reminded of was how many different variations of abstract and nonobjective painting had developed in the twentieth century, and how complex and arduous these legacies had been.  I began narrowing down the possibilities as to how to best classify the painting beneath the stairs.  
 
At the very least, I’d remembered enough from school to dismiss the mystery painting from the candidacy of a Mondrian, who of course only used black vertical and horizontal lines and fields of red, blue and yellow in his most well known paintings.  For a moment, I thought it slightly resembled certain works by Ben Nicholson, but his compositions were more complex.  It may have been an attempt at imitating Barnett Newman’s work, although the curve comprising its composition wasn’t typical of Newman’s most famous paintings.  As I continued my art historical quest, I became reasonably sure that the painting was best characterized as what my art history book termed “non-painterly field painting.”  It seemed especially to resemble certain works by Ellsworth Kelly.
 
However, no matter how much art history I reviewed, the painting still possessed too many indeterminate qualities.  I still didn’t know who the artist was, what the work was intended for, or if it was indeed meant to be viewed as art at all.  Was the painting one of a multitude of mass produced products intended specifically for decorating lecture halls, or had I been standing face to face with a misplaced and forgotten Ellsworth Kelly original?  However unlikely this may have been, it was impossible to say with complete certainty in the absence of basic information about the painting.
 
Nevertheless, this unusual encounter emphasized the significance and value of art history as profoundly as any of my art history classes had.  It also reminded me that art history is more important for documenting art than it is for qualifying it.  The painting beneath the stairs certainly had its qualities; what it lacked was documentation for putting its qualities in proper historical context.
 
As of the time this writing (2010), the incident I’ve been detailing occurred almost twenty years ago, but I’ve recalled it numerous times in relation to different situations since then.  I suppose it is possible that since the fundamental parameters of the event consisted of questionable art in a non-art context, that I’ve been reminded of it most frequently during the last ten years during which time I’ve been employed in an office that may well epitomize a non-art context. Most offices could probably be categorized this way, and unfortunately individuals who overestimate the importance of their own trade and misconstrue it as an official stamp of authority extending far beyond their respective professional fields seem to be staples of office culture. Hence, it would follow without question that such dubious authority would reach into matters concerning art, since, apparently, evaluating it is as simple as forming an opinion, no matter how hasty or thoughtless.

The new voids in which this perspective became clearest were those of restaurants, cafes and bars, whose owners and managers approach the matter of exhibiting art from within an unpredictably broad range of sensitivity to quality and purpose.  Despite whatever the intention of the restaurateurs may be, this nevertheless adds to the obfuscation of the difference between art and decoration to an even more extreme degree than in my earlier example from the university lecture hall.  Although forgivable, if not understandable for these businesses (and unfortunately, even for more official public art events) this practice reinforces a sentiment that distorts the function of the arts from one of fostering a community-wide enthusiasm for a cultural phenomenon to that of catering to obtuse consumption.  My conviction in this matter was cultivated through accumulated exposure to coworkers casually voicing their opinions, often during lunches or happy hours.  On some occasions, works decorating different dining establishments would be of sufficient interest to my associates to spark chatter, inadvertently providing random opportunities to listen to declamations on art and related topics. It seemed most felt it was appropriate to do so with no inclination for treating the matter with any degree of seriousness beyond that necessary for choosing new clothing.
 
Emphasizing that art should not only be preserved, but presented as part of history is one of the most direct and crucial roles museums can serve, and that restaurants naturally cannot. In this light, the rather cynical and cliché art school admonition against studies superior to finished works can be viewed in a broader, less dogmatic light when sketches and finished paintings alike are presented as artifacts from an ongoing intellectual process, rather than as products to be accepted or dismissed.  It may sound cynical if I were to say that I saw what may well have been Manet’s worst painting, a quick study on a small canvas at The Philadelphia Museum of Art, but the opportunity to witness such an item is a genuinely educational opportunity. If nothing else, it serves to illustrate that Manet’s revolutionary works were a product of a continuing process that generated some results in a more polished final state than others.  So in conclusion, the possibility also exists that my friend’s friend may have himself remained dedicated to producing artworks since pulling off his art-swap prank twenty years ago, and perhaps done so to such an extent that elucidates the intentions behind his early construction paper works and puts them in context as a developmental phase in what may have become his career as an artist.