Art and Spies

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Art is art, whether it’s a Hawaiian girl painted on a piece of velvet or sunflowers painted on canvas by van Gogh.

It’s a waste of time to say this piece isn’t art and that piece is. It’s even a waste of time to say this piece is good art and that one is bad art. All one can honestly say is that he likes this picture and doesn’t like that one.

Beauty really is in the eye of the beholder, and beauty is all that art is about. That’s true even when we stretch the definition of art to include literature, dance and music. How we respond to it is all that matters.

Art has, like everything else, become a business, and the business of art is to jack up the price. That’s done by people making pronouncements. Like any other salesman, the critic usually decides the art in his own or his pal’s inventory is always the best.

An artist who later became a spy told me a funny story about a New York Times art critic in the 1920s. The artist had been invited to exhibit two paintings at the Brooklyn Museum. He had chosen to paint two new ones during the weekend and was rushing to deliver the canvases when the wind caught his coat and smeared one of the paintings.

When he got to the museum, the art critic was there, and before the artist could apologize for ruining one of the paintings, the critic began, in the flowery language such people use, to praise lavishly the smeared painting. Well, the artist was smart enough to keep his mouth shut. As proof that it really happened, he showed me a yellowed clipping from the Times in which the guy babbled on about the wonderful technique of this new artist.

Later on as a spy, the artist showed the same good sense. He was assigned to Sweden, a neutral country, during World War II, and after a while he noticed a German spy following him. He confronted the German and said words to the effect of "Look, we both have a comfortable and safe billet. If either of us takes the other out, no telling where the survivor will end up. You might end up in Russia, or I might end up in the Balkans. Why don’t we just agree to get along?" And so they did. Sweden was a good place to spend World War II.

After the war, the man returned to art and became commercially successful as a wildlife illustrator.

Another friend who spent his career as a Central Intelligence Agency case officer said that at one time the bureaucrats in Langley decided that classified CIA reports on the Eastern bloc countries should be shared with allied intelligence agencies. My friend tried to convince them that the head of intelligence in the small Central American country where he was stationed really wasn’t interested in anything going on in Bulgaria or Poland.

"The head of intelligence was the president’s brother-in-law, and the ‘safe’ where he kept classified documents was a cardboard box under his bed," my friend said. The really funny part is that the entire impoverished, broken-down little country wasn’t worth the cost of an American embassy, much less a CIA station.

Whether one talks of art or spies, the world rarely operates the way many people imagine that it does. It’s a lot more cynical and sleazy, often corrupt, even vicious, and sometimes stupid. If one wishes to be an idealist, it’s probably a good idea to become a hermit at the same time.

Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years.

© 2007 by King Features Syndicate, Inc.

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