Monday, February 18, 2008

Happy President's Day, Stephen Colbert

A month ago I stopped by the National Portrait Gallery to see it for myself - I was in the neighborhood, so why not? (I lost my card reader, hence the delay.)

The pic is of students from George Mason University taking photos of themselves in front of Colbert's portrait, located between the bathrooms outside the Hall of Presidents.

Colbert stated a good case to get his work into the museum. He established his national importance and influence and then critiqued work on the wall around the galleries of portraits. He protested Alfred Stieglitz's portrait, which depicts a diagram of a camera. "If it's on aesthetic values, (the Stieglitz) is better than your portrait," stated NPG Director Marc Pachter. In terms of aesthetics, Pachter is correct. Colbert's portrait is a series of three digital photographs, put through a paint or pastel filter in Photoshop, then printed on canvas. It is "art" that looks better on television than it does in person.

The humor is two-fold. The first is a commentary on the cheesiness of political portraiture in recent decades (exception - Kennedy). Historically, the portraits of presidents consists largely of a white guy in a chair. Of course, the portraits represented in Wikipedia do not necessarily speak for the portraits on display at The National Portrait Gallery - but you get the idea.

The second is a commentary on the art world - or rather how those outside of the art world (makers, sellers, collectors, and educators) appreciate a work of art. Without question, more people have flocked to the museum in the past four weeks to look at this Colbert piece than any other museum or gallery in the area in recent months - with possible exception to the Annie Leibovitz / Ansel Adams double-billing at The Corcoran. And why do they flock? Is it to look at a notable piece of art? If in reference to the work on the wall, it only looks like art: a "painting," in a frame, hanging on a wall. If there is any art in this work, it is in the spectacle. People trying to read the wall text - which discusses the production process - are asked to kindly step aside (by the guards) so that people can take a picture of/with the work. It is a spectacle so popular that the initial viewing of six weeks, for this accidental piece of performance/audience-art has been extended until April first. Pachter has taken a page from John Cage and Marcel Duchamp. The museum can only benefit.

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