Morley Safer was one of the best broadcast journalists of all time, and he left a legacy of stories on a wide range of topics, from his historic coverage of the Vietnam War to his reporting that helped to free Lenell Geter from a life in prison.
But in listening to and watching all the tributes to Safer this week, the one that caught my attention was a story he did back in 1993, titled “Yes…But Is It Art?”
In the story, Safer questions much of what is considered modern art. Some examples are a vacuum cleaner going for $100,000 and a pair of urinals selling for $140,000. There’s even a clip of an auction where the auctioneer is not sure if a picture should be vertical or horizontal. I’m not sure it really matters, it looks like is’s just a gray canvas with nothing on it. A painting with the word RAT repeated three time went for $30,000.
Safer features artist Jeff Koons. One of Koons’ works is three basketballs submerged in a fish tank that is listed for $150,000. The artist states, “I was giving a definition of life and death. This is the eternal. This is what life is like after death.” Safer refers to this as “art talk”.
Later in the video one of the museum directors defends a drawing that is just a plain white canvas. Safer calls it a white rectangle. She tells Safer that the work is done by the artist Robert Ryman, who has reduced painting to its very essence. The director notes that the white rectangle is a little flatter than other of his pieces because he has really reduced this one. She refers to Ryman as a minimal artist to which Safer responds, “I would say he is.” Later the director shows Safer an art display that is just candy laying on the floor, which you are free to take from and eat.
Later there is a person shown describing a piece of art in the following way. “It has a multiplicity of potential meanings, it doesn’t mean any one of them, it may not mean a thing.” Safer says he could not agree more.
Safer uses phrases like “a sucker born every minute” and “the emperor has no clothes” to share his feelings about this type of art, and I could not agree more. In fact, one of my first blog posts was about this same issue.
I don’t get a lot of art, particularly the type that Safer described in his classic piece. So it’s nice to know I’m not alone in this mindset, particularly when someone of Safer’s status has the same beliefs.
Thank you Morley for all of the great stories you shared with us. You have inspired a generation of journalists and helped to shine the light of truth in places where it was needed. You will not be forgotten.