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The Art of the PBJ

So, how do you like your peanut butter: a) smooth, b) crunchy, or c) fine art?

If your answer was “c,” then read no further. Perhaps you are among those intellectuals who can parse the meaning of nontraditional media and unpack the symbolism hidden in coded works of art. Or maybe you are just another sucker for the emperor’s new art. I don’t know. But, after a recent visit to Seattle’s Asian Art Museum I found myself compelled to reexamine my notions of what, exactly, qualifies as art.

Generally speaking, I’ve always been an easy audience for any and all kinds of art. From finger paintings to Faberge, I applaud people for even attempting to produce art, because I think life would be so barren without it. So, yeah, I’m a big fan of art. However, even the most gullible audience at times feels the tug of doubt, the creeping suspicion that someone is trying to put something over on you.

That’s how I felt when I first walked into the new “Reflex” exhibit of works by Brazilian artist Vik Munoz, who has made a name for himself with photographs of familiar images recreated in nontraditional mediums. In one series, for instance, the artist used sugar to produce unusual pointillist copies of photographs of children taken in the Caribbean. The enlarged images resonate with a subtle tension between the sweetness of the medium and the implicit bitter subtext of the children’s economic dependence on this cash crop.

Another series of images depicted selections from the Museum of Modern Art painstakingly reproduced using the dust vacuumed from the building itself. Still other works employed children’s plastic toys, straight pins, and refuse from the dump to fashion copies of familiar paintings by artists such as Goya and Monet.
For me, though, the most riveting works in the exhibition were the ones made with edible materials. The giant chocolate syrup photo montage. The sequence of Jackie Onassis’s face traced in ketchup. Portraits of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi rendered in pixels of black caviar. And, most of all, the “Double Mona Lisa” in Peanut Butter and Jelly (after Andy Warhol).

I stared at this large cibachrome print – it measures four by five feet – and the only thing I could think was, “Why?”

My initial reluctance to accept this unusual homage to Da Vinci’s masterwork was probably inspired in part by the coincidence of having just seen Art School Confidential a few days earlier. In that dark satire of the art world the line between fiction and reality is razor thin, and as I peered at these reinvented copies of other works, I kept wondering when John Malkovich was going to saunter through with a dry comment.

My companion at the museum seemed untroubled by conflicted feelings about the merit of the exhibit, although in passing she did voice a preference for grape in the jelly selection. I told her I could respect that, but had gone over to apricot long ago. But, I kept puzzling over the way we ascribe value to works of art. Recently, for instance,  Andy Warhol’s print of Mao was sold for seventeen million dollars. I’m no expert on investments, but I do know that in a world where millions of children are starving, seventeen million dollars could buy a lot of PBJs.

Eventually,though, I decided that maybe I was missing the point. After all, in the visual arts as in literature, some works are meant simply to entertain, others to educate and inspire. Rarely, a work accomplishes all of these goals. But, when I look at a copy of the Mona Lisa executed in peanut butter and jelly, I have trouble silencing the still small voice inside whispering, “Psst. This is bullshit.”

I guess it boils down to whether you think art is meant to decorate or stimulate. If all you want from art is something that goes with the couch, then I guess it doesn’t matter what the subject is, or the medium. But, if your idea of art is that it should provoke thought, suggest narrative, lift the spirit and/or feed the fire within, then perhaps any work which is created with thought and skill is worthy of the title. Even if it’s made with crunchy Skippy’s.

Whether or not you want it above the couch is another matter.

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