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Is this art?

Cartoonist Al Capp (1909-79), creator of "Li'l Abner," once said that abstract art was "a product of the untalented, sold by the unprincipled to the utterly bewildered."

As pithy as this statement might be, I think Capp was only partly correct. Yes, some creators of modern art are untalented, and yes, some of those that sell it are unprincipled. But hey, lack of talent and being unprincipled aren't exclusive to the art world; look at Enron.

However, bewilderment while staring at modern art is altogether unique to the gallery and museum experience. I, myself, a resolute aficionado of modern art, have occasionally shied away from the too unusual. One time in Seattle, at the University of Washington's art gallery, I was invited by a gallery docent to remove my shoes and walk through a conceptual work of art that I found distasteful, if not disgusting. With a shudder I declined the invitation and moved on.

On March 1, I visited the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to review its exhibitions . The 5th floor's exhibit, "Treasures of Modern Art: The Legacy of Phyllis Wattis at SFMOMA," had several of the world's icons of modern art on display. One of these icons, Marcel Duchamp's "Fountain," was positioned so visitors had to confront it.

For those not familiar with "Fountain," it is one of Duchamp's notorious "ready-mades" — manufactured consumer products displayed as finished art. It revolutionized the possibilities for making art.

"Fountain" is a lavatory urinal procured from a manufacturer of plumbing equipment. Duchamp displayed the piece by rotating the urinal 90 degrees from its normal, functional position, leaving the piece unembellished except for the inscription "R. Mutt 1917." (The original, purchased in 1917, has long since disappeared. The "Fountain" on display in San Francisco was recreated in 1964 from Duchamp's exact specifications of the original).

While I find "Fountain" amusing and at least historically significant, many museum visitors were truly "bewildered."

"What the . . . it's a stupid toilet."

"You've got to be kidding."


"They can't be serious."

All legitimate remarks, if you're bewildered.

In any event, I believe you can't stop untalented artists from creating what they consider to be art. It's too dangerous. Your opinion might be wrong, and then you'd be responsible for putting the kibosh on the next Picasso — and who would want to do that?

You also can't stop unprincipled people from selling to gullible buyers. It's an emperor's new clothes kind of thing.

And bewilderment? The only way to fix that is by visiting enough art galleries and art museums that you expand your mind to the point that you start to understand all modern art and then nothing will really shock you anymore.

Well, almost nothing.