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The Great Modern Art Conspiracy Theory, and Other Relevant Gripes

DISCERNING of human nature as he was, Mark Twain would not have been surprised at the cluster of people peering at four wet/dry vacuum cleaners in an illuminated plexiglass case. No, they were not do-it-yourselfers at True Value Hardware. They were art connoisseurs visiting ``High and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture,'' an AT&T-sponsored exhibit that opened Feb. 23 at the Art Institute of Chicago.

The object of their admiration was, purportedly, high art: ``New Shelton Wet/Dry Double Decker.'' On lightweight folding stools, the group listened sympathetically as a docent explained, in essence, just why Jeff Koons's creation merits museum display.

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Even the docent couldn't help smiling when one woman tried to assist in the pretense. Had Mr. Koons specified where on the wall the electrical outlet should be in relation to the case? she asked. ``That's interesting from where I sit.'' Not all are deluded. Another viewer grasped the full significance of the work at a glance. ``I'll bet it's called `Four Vacuum Cleaners,''' he said and moved on.

One can similarly dismiss most of the exhibit: I'll bet it's called urinal, clothespin, cake, paper scraps glued to canvas. The artworks fail to excite the senses or engage thought even as much as the objects of popular culture that inspired them. Brought together in ``High and Low,'' they are a devastating indictment of the art establishment.

It's all so clear. The artists who produce such work, and the galleries, museums, critics, and collectors who admire them, conspire in an Orwellian reversal of values. Egregious is ingenious. Trite is original. Superficial is profound. Meaningless is meaningful.

Reputations and commercial interests depend on stifling scoffers (Oh, I could do that) and unbelievers (Good grief! How much did they pay for that?).

The exhibit celebrates the success of this deception. A taped narration recounts how Jasper Johns overheard the remark that gallery owner Leo Castelli was so shrewd, he could sell beer cans as art. Mr. Johns returned to his studio and began making beer cans and other objects. Mr. Castelli sold them all.

``Look at other areas of our culture,'' consoles Michael Leja, an assistant professor of art history at Northwestern University. ``What are things like Pet Rocks? There are absolutely ridiculous, stupid commodities that become very successful because someone promotes them properly. I think Jeff Koons's point is, art is exactly the same way.''

I came to a museum to learn this?

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``I think you're asking,'' Mr. Leja continues, ``that contemporary art do what Old Master art used to do - give you some kind of profound emotional or perceptual thrill or experience.''

``I just don't think that that's what interests the taste-makers, the people who run museums, the people who write criticism. The fact that a lot of these artists reject that is frustrating. It's meant to be. There's this antagonism built into the relationship between avant-garde artists and the mass public,'' Leja says.

One reason the average viewer's opinion is ignored, he adds, is that no one records it.

Perhaps, then, the art world needs to borrow statistical tools from the world of sports. A work would not be held in awe because it happened to grace a museum's wall or was fashioned by someone famous.

Rather, it's performance would be judged in terms of the public response - how many flickering glances, absorbed stares, epiphanies hit over the centerfield fence.

A sampling of viewers turns up occasional enthusiasm for ``High and Low.''

Thomas Fritschi, a mechanical engineering student from Switzerland, called Marcel Duchamp's ``Fountain,'' a urinal lying on its back, ``lazy art'' but historically significant because Duchamp did it first.

``This is art history. This was the beginning of modern art,'' Mr. Fritschi says. ``If somebody would do it nowadays, it wouldn't be art to me.''

Brooks Wolfe, a Chicago artist who works in ``everything from sculpture to photography,'' says the vacuums are ``more like a grouping than a sculpture.'' Asked if ``grouping'' is an art medium, he smiles doubtfully, but offers, ``it aims to jar your senses, to make you look at it as art.''

Jean Nerenberg, an art therapist, helps nursing home residents overcome limitations and ``affirm themselves'' by engaging them in arts and crafts. ``I don't see much aesthetic value'' in Koons's vacuums, she says, making sure this reporter was not the artist. ``It's hard not to be cynical....''

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