The Googly-Eyed Beholder

Here's a question college professors love to throw out: What is art? I take refuge in Frank Zappa's general attitude about the stuff: I know it when I see it.

Last week I decided to visit SFMOMA, where you can't help but be confronted with the definition of art. I went because I wanted to be moved. I wanted an artist to communicate something to me, and I was sick of both the written word and actual conversations with other people. I think that's what art is to me, an alternate method of connecting.

Right up the street from the museum is Dave's, a bar I've always been curious about. It's the proverbial hole in the wall, small and dark, usually packed with regulars. It's where the suits from downtown go when they don't want a mojito, just some mojo. Doormen from the Ritz and other nearby buildings unwind here after a long day of greeting people who have for the most part probably ignored them. Tourists who read about Dave's in a guidebook hunker down amid all their shopping bags and give their feet a break.

I sat at the bar and ordered the small nachos and a drink. I was in a post-museum zone, relieved to be away from the crowds and trying to replay the pieces of art that I liked in my head. It's never the big, famous works that move me. I still remember seeing the Mona Lisa at the Louvre and thinking, dang, that's one small, sort of lame painting. Nor is it the big-name exhibitions that move me (currently Richard Avedon, Georgia O'Keeffe, and Ansel Adams). No, I usually end up liking stuff by someone I've never heard of. I make a mental note to remember their names, but I never do. I just like the initial feeling I get when I see the stranger's work.

Dave's is full of character, and like SFMOMA, there's artwork everywhere. Above the bar hangs a series of framed pictures of different people: A sheik relaxing in his boudoir, a soldier posed with his gun, someone running with the bulls. I asked the bartender if there was a story behind the images, and she said that they were the regulars. I was sure she must be mistakenly referring to the cluster of photos taped to a mirror, all of people in revelry, drinking and hugging. But nope, she was talking about the odd assortment in frames. She pointed to each one and told me its unique tale. I smiled.

The music playing was equally as varied: Duffy, AC/DC, ABBA. I once again had to thank the inventor of the digital jukebox. Two young guys in suits were sitting next to me, talking about their co-workers and their wives. The usual stuff I get to listen in on. I was having one of those solo days I just love. Nothing is more solitary than going to an art museum by yourself.

When I went to SFMOMA, I was surprised to catch something that I've actually always wanted to see: Marcel Duchamp's sculpture, Fountain. When I first came across it, I was affronted that someone had so royally ripped off the original. I mean, there was no way that Fountain was in S.F. But I saw the name plate, and there it was. Wow. (It turns out that the original doesn't actually exist anymore. In the 1960s, Duchamp commissioned eight copies, and this was one of them.)

Fountain, for those who didn't pay attention in art history class, is an actual urinal. Duchamp took the piss-pot, put it on a pedestal, and declared it sculpture. This was back in 1917, and his actions of course caused a great stir. Postmodernists and avant-gardists and Dadaists and all those “ists” look to it as a gateway piece. While some folks were trying to make heads or tails out of Impressionists, or Picasso's noses in the wrong places, Duchamp went even further and asked us to completely overhaul our ideas of art. So standing in front this particular sculpture was big for me.

I couldn't help but think of Fountain when I saw the “mixed media” work on display at Dave's. A local artist had an exhibit there, complete with steep price tags. But the art was simply ridiculous. It looked like it was done with Magic Markers by a teenager with hardly any rendering skills. Some businessmen were pointing and laughing at the pieces, and to be honest, I joined in. One standout had a big pair of lips with fake flowers affixed to the top of them.

The best part, though, was the artist's use of googly eyes. He or she (again, I didn't catch the name) had attached googly eyes in all manner of sizes to the work, even sticking them to the leaves of the flowers. The biggest piece of all was the most bizarre: It was an old man with a face like one of those troll dolls, dressed like a pimp. He had fake gold chains glued to his neck, a rhinestone earring, and, of course, gigantic googly eyes. The price tag said $300. And someone had bought it. In fact, someone had bought all of the pieces.

So, I ask you, was this art?

Well, it certainly generated a lot of talk at Dave's, if that's a criterion. There was indeed much communicating around it. The image made me think. I wanted to know more about it. And you know what? I was moved. The feeling happened in a bar, away from the museum, but I was moved nonetheless. Now that, I guess, is art.

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