Back in Brooklyn last week I met a couple artist friends at the Boulevard Tavern. Several beers into an informal and boozy summit to transform the mechanisms of cultural production, I made a comment about how faintly the art world registers in small town America. They agreed that this was generally true, but held that certain properties such as Jeff Koons were universally appreciated.
â€œJeff Koonsâ€™ balloon dog guest-starred in â€œNight at the Museumâ€ and he was married to an Italian stateswoman!â€
â€œSo what,â€ I barked. â€œIf you set up an autograph table at a shopping center in Peoria and had Jeff Koons sitting there next to a B-list actor like, say, Harvey Keitel, a line would form in front of Harvey that would lead around the block and theyâ€™d think Koonsy was his assistant.â€
Buddy #1 disagreed that Harvey Keitel was B-list, and I granted that he was a poor choice as an example. Buddy #2 wondered if and why anyone would line up at a shopping center for crappy celebrity autographs, and I granted that the scenario was a poor choice to reflect recognition. We were splitting hairs at that point, quibbling over semantics about what is â€œsmall townâ€ America and what are the measures of â€œuniversality.â€ But even after accounting for the language slippages and fallibilities, we remained in disagreement over Jeff Koonsâ€™ esteem outside the cultural beltway.
In Wisconsin a few days later I decided to conduct a test of my hypothesis by posing the question to actual small townspeople. The test was completely unscientific; I chose my subjects from a single department of a Target store at 2PM based mostly on who seemed least likely to run away from me.
I asked a woman with a chain of Valentineâ€™s Day lights in her hands, â€œHave you heard of either the artist Jeff Koons or the actor Joe Mantegna?â€
â€œI canâ€™t place his face but Iâ€™ve heard of Joe Mantegna. No idea who Jeff Koons is…should I have..is this a Target promotion?â€
My first thought after she answered the question was that in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the average person wouldnâ€™t be nearly so happy to interact with an inquisitive stranger or to concede ignorance.
I repeated the inquiry with seven other shoppers, one man and six women. Five yeas for Mantegna and none for Koons. Though I have some reason to believe that at least two of the subjects were confusing the star of â€œAirheadsâ€ and â€œSearching for Bobby Fisherâ€ with a famous football player, Mantegna clearly took the round.
I left Target with some padded envelopes, a sense of triumph, and still, a tinge of dejection that the father in Joan of Arcadia was infinitely more recognizable than the most prominent living visual artist in the solar system.
Those padded envelopes were for a residency application that I was trying to get out before 5PM. When I got home, I signed my letter, wrote out the addresses on the front with a sharpie, sealed the envelope shut and walked to my father-in-lawâ€™s office to steal some stamps. He caught me rummaging through his desk drawers and, after a semi-good natured joke about my freeloading ways, handed me a book of stamps, and I headed to the post box. It was only after I fished the book of stamps from my pocket that I realized that they were Ronald Reagan commemorative stamps staring at me like it was 1983. I came so close to adhering them to the front of the envelope, but in the end, I just couldnâ€™t bring myself to send them to what were most likely progressive liberals with personal vendettas against the Gipper.
I saved the letter for the next day, when I could buy some bells or forevers. On the way back I thought, â€œhow self-conscious have I become that I would choose even my postage stamps with guile?â€ Then I immediately started resenting the art world for being shallow enough to justify my fears, knowing that a rejection due to the implications of a postage stamp was not far-fetched.
So, the question Iâ€™m proposing for the next shop-talk drinking session is whether eight Midwestern Target shoppers, ignorant to the genius of Jeff Koons, would ever think to politicize a postmark? And whether and to what degree I am paranoid.