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Sunday, July 31, 2005

Profiles In Mediocrity

I really need to quit doing this to myself. Again I went through the Sunday morning ritual of eating a great breakfast with my family and relaxing with the newspaper, and CBS' inane Sunday Morning show in the background, as a brief respite from the endless snakepits of the political atrocity-fests. And some of the show was okay; you can't go wrong with Al Green, who is the most peculiarly happy person one can encounter in the already peculiar confines of TV.

But then they had this piece.

Like Michelangelo and his Sistine chapel ceiling in Rome, fellow artist Michael Carmichael has been working on his masterpiece in Alexandria, Ind., for years.

The house painter returns from work each day to his studio to paint a puzzling spheroid -- over and over.

It started out with Carmichael's baseball. Then, 27 years later, it is covered with thousands of coats of paint.

It's a lot of dedication, as Bill Geist of CBS News Sunday Morning first reported on April 25, 2004. And it's paid off in the world's largest ball of paint. It's probably hitting close to 1,300 pounds.

"Some that know a little bit about art, they do call it an art piece," says Carmichael.


I dunno. I have a pretty simple rule about art: if I can do it -- or more to the point, if you can easily train a chimp or a dog to do it -- it's not art. Sorry. That leaves Christo and his stack of colorful bedsheets out too. Pretty much anyone can hang a bunch of orange bedsheets, and pretty much anyone and paint a fuckin' baseball over and over and over again.

Now, if someone were to recreate, say, the Sistine Chapel on the face of the painted spheroid, that would be art. This is just a small-town bonding ritual, which is perfectly nice and fine. I don't really like dumping on small-towners in Bobo's World, because that's basically where I'm at. But I simply do not get this exaltation of the mindless, this ritualized navel-gazing of mediocre pastimes. It's like watching someone mow a fuckin' lawn or something. Perhaps a piece on people who do things that are productive as well as actually creative would be more edifying. Piano prodigies are always good.

Profiling a guy who's repainted a fuckin' baseball thousands of times is not edifying. It's sad.

But the thing that really hit me about the whole story was this:

Carmichael has an even loftier goal: to draw tourists out to the middle of nowhere to see his big ball of paint.

"People have already come from all over the United States," he says.

Spectators also come from Germany, Australia, Italy, Thailand and other places around the world. Carmichael's wife, Glynda, who's painted 8,000 coats, believes it will be just like the "Field of Dreams."

"If we build it, they will come," she jokes.

Glynda hopes to have a souvenir shop that will sell souvenirs such as T-shirts, the paint chips and more.

Mayor Steven Skaggs is hoping the paintball will revitalize the town. Perhaps, one day, a sign will welcome visitors to town with the words "home of the world's largest ball of paint."

David Steele, who heads the city council and the local Groundhog Society, says the town hasn't received this much attention since a giant hairball was discovered there.

"Something that came out of the sewer," recalls Steele. "It was in the National Enquirer, as a matter of fact. We want to be known as a town of balls."


Lord help us all. They want to be known as a town of balls. I'm not even going to bother with painfully obvious testicle/scrotum humor, that's how much this depresses me. This is truly sad -- a heartland Midwest town, that at one time probably had some sort of manufacturing plant, some industrial base, devolving to this nonsense. This is probably a town that once produced something, a good or a product that people wanted to buy, thus allowing the producers to earn an honest living and support their families and communities. Instead of painting cars, they're painting baseballs -- or more accurately, one baseball. Over and over again. And then a few thousand times more.

I know many people consider the accumulation of crap to be a sign of "Americana", but I have never understood this notion. If giant balls of paint and twine really are Americana, then we really are in trouble, because this used to be a country that embraced the principles of dynamism and innovation. Collecting balls of garbage is a sign of mental illness.

You want a goal? I'll give you a goal -- give these folks productive, meaningful jobs, because clearly they don't have them right now, nor does the town seem to place too high a priority on such things. Painting the same baseball 20,000 times is not a goal, it sounds like a punishment from Greek mythology. Maybe someone should have to push the ball of paint up a hill, only to have it roll all the way down just before the top.

Amazingly, it gets even more depressing:

Carmichael was cited as an inspiration to young people, young people such as Andy Cunningham.

"If it weren't for hearing about Michael's ball of paint, I would still be sitting in my room doing absolutely nothing," says Cunningham.

Instead, Cunningham is wrapping the world's biggest ball of plastic wrap.

"It's all solid plastic wrap," says Cunningham. "It's about 40 pounds."


Great. This kid could be, oh I don't know, learning about the wonders of this huge world all around him. He could be learning some sort of craft, whether creative or trade-oriented. He could be striving to play an instrument, learning the wonders of writing twee love songs to women who are only going to break his heart. That too is part of experiencing the myriad ways of the world.

Instead he's making a huge ball of Saran Wrap, and thank God, because otherwise he'd be sitting in his room doing absolutely nothing. Unless Andy is 3, this is not nearly as charming as he seems to think it is.

We have become a culture that is deeply suspicious of intellectualism and knowledge and understanding, a culture that is content with exalting the inane and banal to a status far beyond their merits. People would rather check out William Hung than Yo-Yo Ma. That is the hallmark of a very adolescent, immature mindset, a mindset dominated by inertia and clutter. Of course, there is some degree of yahooism in every culture, past and present, because of the law of averages and fools living up to their names. But considering the immense resources and capabilities the USA has at its very fingertips, the current proportion is simply staggering. It's impossible to ignore.

This is of a piece with shit like pie-eating contests and child beauty pageants, things that are supposed to embody some slice of "Americana" or some such, despite the complete absence of the characteristics that should epitomize this country, like skill and fortitude. I find that insulting. I still think that this nation and its citizens were meant for so much more than gluttony and ennui. I think these people ought to join the fuckin' Peace Corps or something, or take a pottery class at the community college at least. Do something; making giant balls of paint and Saran Wrap is not something, it is worse than nothing. It's fucking stupid.

55 comments:

Kitchen Window Woman said...

It sure isn't what I consider art. Art takes thought, inspiration, trial and error, creativity, skill, curiosity, method, experimentation, courage and work! Art to me is about the relationships between objects, color, line, between the art itself and the viewer...and so on. Art is a progression.

Endlessly painting a ball white is a mindless meditation at best, hanging sheets is doing laundry, and a giant snarl of saran wrap is what happens every time I have to put the leftovers away after dinner! What bored people.

Cheef said...

You are confusing craft with art. It does not matter whether you CAN do it. it is whether you DID. Same as poetry. Sure, you COULD have written it. But you DIDN'T, did you? You may be the most skillful painter in the world, but if you have nothing to say your work is not art.

It is art if it has meaning. You look at art for meaning. To admire skill, you go to a craft show.

Furthermore, you do not need a university degree to have something to say. Best art in any field comes from drop-outs and cranks. And it is probably not art if you can easily translate it into another medium. So don't ask for a glib explanation.

You are a braindead squarehead if you don't get this work.

FootFace said...

I know this isn't your point, but can I just say something about pie-eating contests? These have always bugged me. With so much of the world living in perpetual hunger, it has always seemed so... mean. Shoving food in your face--fast--for entertainment. It debases everyone who participates.

I know that forgoing a pie-eating contest doesn't mean a starving person will eat. It's just the thought. Celebrating gluttony in a world where so many lack so much. Like burning money just because you can.

I'm climbing off my soapbox now. I thank you.

the rev. said...

Sorry a big ball of paint is not art, it's a big ball of paint. It is not art any more than me painting the living room-walls off white is art.

The "town of balls" idea reminds me of the town in "Waiting for Guffman" that bills itself as the "stool capital of America"

obelus said...

Alexandria, IN is mostly known for producing Christian singers. The Bill Gaither Trio hails from there and has made that their recording home. Sandy Patti got her start there. Marion, IN, twenty-one miles due North, is the birthplace of James Dean and the paper plate.

Craig Heath said...

Pathetic, isn't it? We'll be reduced to a nation of people greeting each other at WalMart and vacationing at each other's tourist traps to gape at each other's "Biggest Ball of Whatever".

Does the empire feel particularly crumbly to you today?

Heywood J. said...

Great comments, folks, from a welcome variety of approaches.

Kitchen Window Woman pretty much nails it on the head, as far as what I consider to be art. There should be some sort of striving, whether in the technique of the piece to demonstrate skill and craft, or in the spiritual elevation inherent in the piece -- and by that I don't mean some kitschy Thomas Kinkade haloed-cottage-on-a-cobblestone-road-in-front-of-a-waterfall nonsense, either.

Cheef is technically correct; the old artsy-fartsy standard that if you can frame it, it's art. But I have always hated that definition, because human nature being what it is, it devolves into very cynical crap like John Cage refusing to play a piano and calling it a "piece", or Andy Kaufman reading Moby Dick for two hours at a comedy club.

Many artistic statements are "weird", but merely being weird is not necessarily an artistic statement. Weirdness coupled with an actual talent, which involves cultivating a skill -- that's art. That's Frank Zappa (who, of course, also believed in that cynical definition of "art"; fortunately, he had a wealth of skills to back it all up).

FootFace's point about the ugly symbolism of pie-eating contests is in accord with sentiments I've expressed in earlier posts. Trencherman contests in general are pretty disgusting to begin with; tethered to the nauseating dynamic of pro-wrestling marketing, it's despicable.

Other countries simply do not do this creepy shit. China has a billion-and-a-half people; I guarantee you that not one of them is painting a fucking baseball 20,000 times and acting like it's some sort of achievement. They do not have professional hot-dog eaters in Russia.

Some would say that these useless activities are the hallmarks of a wealthy, if decadent, culture that can get away with such things, so relatively poorer countries like China and Russia just aren't to that point (yet, presumably).

Well, they don't do that sort of shit in Europe, either, and they certainly could. They wouldn't dream of doing it in Canada. No, it's a peculiarly American malaise, a nasty mix of willful blindness and ignorance that simply does not manifest itself thusly anywhere else.

And if it were because we just have too much of everything, then that's not really any better, is it?

I really like The Rev.'s Waiting For Guffman comparison; that's one of my favorite movies. It holds up remarkably to repeated viewings, like Spinal Tap, because the people are all too real.

Obelus' point, to me, hints at how many parts of the Midwest, the so-called heartland (because people on the coasts have no hearts), are left with very little to cling to. It is a region where tent-revivalists and P.T. Barnum hucksters cleaned up the rubes periodically over the last century or so. It's too easy to just say they're dumb or whatever, but as KWW pointed out, they must just be impossibly bored -- though I can't imagine getting bored enough to collect a ball of Saran Wrap. Ever. I'd have to blow my brains out.

Craig, the empire has felt crumbly to me since the Reagan years, but now more than ever. Per usual, I blame it on Oprah. Twenty years of working her demons out in front of millions of addled morons has convinced a generation of halfwits that they're all special in every way, even if they can't do anything useful, and have no interest in trying or learning.

What could make a mighty empire crumble faster than that?

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