EVERYBODY should recall the traveling tent show that brought the world's greatest art treasures to the hungry outposts of the hinterland. It had about a mile of paintings wound up on rolls, and after each painting had been described by the lecturer and appreciated by the spectators, Jimmie would turn the crank until a new picture was in view. One of the more popular canvases in this collection was variously described. It was a massive burst of crimsons, carmines, and vermilions. When this tent show played in an enlightened community where the folks might know a thing or three, this painting was called ``Sunset Over Venice.'' The Palace of the Doge and the Bridge of Sighs were located by the lecturer, and he spoke with feeling of the ``Pee-azz-o.'' But when the tent show got far into the backwash of East Overshoe, where the principal business was goat cheese, this effort at lah-de-dah polish was dropped, and the big red picture became ``The Great Chicago Fire.'' ``Turn the crank, Jimmie!'' This story has always brought a smile and was never considered a sentient parable about art. Too bad, because it tells us nearly all we need to know. There was that fellow who laid down a piece of canvas and stood on a ladder to heave pots of paint at it. He hove on a following wind. There were those (there always are!) who thought his finished masterpiece did, indeed, resemble the sunset over Venice, as well as several other things, and the artist was persuaded to accept a generous payment for his work. This gave a friend of mine who has a wry and whimsical disposition a dandy idea. He got 100 pieces of cardboard and stood them side by side in a row along his backyard fence. Then he ran along the row with a spray can of blue Rustoleum paint and gave a squirt at each card as he passed. Then he did the same with red paint. And green and yellow and gold. Then he let the paint dry and he took his 100 masterpieces to the flea market at Searsport and sold them to tourists at $17.75 apiece, plus tax, as en passant art. Turn that crank, Jimmie!
Something of great importance in the continuing study, appreciation, and practice of art is taking place in a courtroom in D"usseldorf, where the judges are torn between ``Sunset Over Venice'' and ``The Great Chicago Fire.'' The D"usseldorf Academy of Arts, sponsored by the West German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, recently ``lost'' a valuable item, and nasty litigation has resulted. Years ago now, a ``renowned artist'' (which usually means somebody you never heard about) created his masterpiece. Did you ever hear of Joseph Beuys? Joseph was so pleased with his work that he wouldn't let it go, but kept it to give as a legacy to his master pupil, Johannes St"uttgen. St"uttgen not only loved the work out of sentiment to Joseph, but he appreciated its beauty, and in time he felt the work should have the permanency of museum security, so he gave it to said academy. The lovely legacy of Joseph Beuys thus went on display, and the museum held a small ceremony to accept this generous gift from Master Pupil Johannes St"uttgen. Everybody was pleased, and you might say the sun was setting over Venice.
The work in question is (was) titled ``Grease Corner.'' It was a realistic delineation of a grease corner done in the finest German butter, and everybody who looked at it exclaimed in rapture and said it looked just like a grease corner. It was the life!
Germany is a clean country. So it came time for the D"usseldorf Academy of Arts to schedule the semiannual tidy, and the museum closed for a few days. Anybody who has been fortunate enough to have seen a German Putzfrau at work can easily guess the rest of this story. The cleaning women moved in and gave the museum the usual thorough German hooraw. Stem to stern, complete. Nothing skipped. Nothing swept under the rug. When they got through the museum was nasty-neat, everything spotless; everything in place. ``Grease Spot'' was gone. ``Oh, that - yes, we had a bit of a time with that, but we got it all right. Dirty old grease spot. How did it get there?''
So Master Pupil St"uttgen sued, and the judges are pondering. The D"usseldorf Academy of Arts has learned that ``Sunset Over Venice'' is nothing more than ``The Great Chicago Fire.'' In 1871 dollars, the damage caused by that blaze hit $200,000,000. Herr St"uttgen says ``Grease Spot'' was worth 50,000 marks. As to ``Sunset Over Venice'' - I don't know. I was not enamored of Venice when I was there, and left the place willingly some time before the sun went down.