"The function of art is to make rich people feel more important." 

In 2005, ABC's 20/20 challenged its viewers with an online survey. The survey, composed of 10 images, included four pieces that are considered to be "masterpieces." The remaining six images? They were of pieces that no one would ever consider including in a gallery.

It was assumed that the most famous artwork would receive the most votes. As it turned out, however, the recognizable pieces received far fewer votes than the winner, which was "a piece of framed fabric 20/20 bought at a thrift store for $5."

As a result, 20/20 asked the question, "How do critics and curators decide which is art?"

We--Zoë, Ty, and I--posed similar questions when patrolling the contemporary art galleries at the Art Institute of Chicago. "How is it random," I started, after walking into a gallery that spewed metal brackets and scrap fabric, "if it's deliberately random?" As we wandered those particular galleries, we did have moments of appreciation--especially for Pollock--but what I remember most is Zoë's notorious "YOU'RE DOING IT WRONG" face when viewing clumps of plaster, wood, and nails. As she read the description, Ty stepped toward me and pointed out the window. "I appreciate the vista more than I do the art," he whispered. 

Ty had other moments of contempt. As Zoë and I contemplated a Rothko, he came up to us, lips pursed. "Over there, there is a CHAIR," he said with unmistakable derision, "and there is a light on it. That's it. That's the ART." And with that, he brushed between us, presumably exiting the gallery.
Zoë and I shared a smile, and called to mind the textile museum in Toronto. "THIS is a WINdow," we said in unison. 

 We were mad and giddy, we were. Mad and giddy and giggling. ... Like always, I suppose. 

And, like always, we didn't get to see everything we wished to see. Nighthawks was on loan, as was A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (the painting on which Cameron fixates in Ferris Bueller's Day Off). However, there were hundreds of excellent works that we did get to see--American Gothic being one of them. And there were the Pollocks, the Georgia O'Keeffes, the van Goghs, the Rothkos, the Warhols, the Monets. And, really, it was beautiful and intriguing, just like the people. An array of ages, cultures, interests, opinions. Art students and tourists, curators and creatives, regulars and picture-takers. We were all there. All parading through the thousands and thousands of displayed works, offering thoughts and critiques. Even I offered up a few pretentious phrases, ones like "a blurred sense of movement," "neatly sketched," and "clean, but darkly inviting."

My descriptions mimicked those of artist Victor Acevedo, who was quoted in the 20/20 article. He described one particular piece as a "competent execution of abstract expressionism, which was first made famous by de Kooning and Jackson Pollock and others. So it's emulating that style and it's a school of art." An excellent observation ... for an artwork created by two four-year-old girls.

Later that evening, at dinner, the three of us laughed at ourselves and our pretentiousness. "I love museums," Zoë mused. "Because you get all sorts of people, each with a different description for the same work. And you hear so many inflated phrases." 

"Worth it," I said, cutting my deep-dish pizza into bite-size chunks.

"Definitely worth it."


  1. Ohhh an art debate, I love a good art debate! Haha. I love art galleries and museums too - art has always been interpretive, its personal to the viewer as well as the artist - you will see something that I won't which is why I love visiting art galleries with other people too. I think its great that its so personal though, I love that your friend found more meaning in a lit chair than a Rothko (though I personally love Rothko). The world would be a very boring place if we all loved the same things, the excitement is in the individual.


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