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Post details: The Pothole Project

The Pothole Project

We love to love arts. Dabbling in any culture booster confers certain aura of sophistication. But we don't usually subject our minds to whimsical vagaries of Muses haphazardly. We tend to unleash our aesthetic feelers in officially designated areas, such as theaters, concert halls or art galleries. In the safety of a like minded crowd that is. I guess when it comes to discerning, we really appreciate cues - those little rubber stamps of peer confirmation that tell us we are part of the in crowd. It must be some eons old herding instinct in us.

Our planet is steeped in beauty. Literally. We bathe in it every day, although most of the time we let it slip away unnoticed. No one squats under a post-bloom cherry tree to scoop the fallen petals with their palm, very few have time to smell the roses on their way to the office, and you don't see people stopping on a sidewalk to admire the deep orange tones of the setting Sun. Most of the time we don't even consider it. But take the same scenery, put it on canvass, hang it on the wall and voila: suddenly everyone stops by and marvels at the rich colors, at the amazing textures, at the audacious perspectives.

That's the magic of the gallery - passing through its door is our cue that we are to become connoisseurs of high arts. We can throw away the shackles of banality and emit sighs of enchantment. Oh wow, look at those tulips, honey! Never mind that those are the same tulips that bloom in much livelier colors in the public park just in front of your apartment. Galleries are the places of authorized artistic inculcation; the places where our infirm individual judgment gratefully grasps the invisible hand of centuries old collective opinion.

The same principle is at work when it comes to say culinary arts. The food in a fancy restaurant often seems better than a similar dish served in a hole-in-the-wall joint. The elaborate decor and the impeccable service whisper to us: "Psst! Good food offered here". That is our subconscious guiding light coming on. Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but separating our own subjective perceptions from the objective reality is hard. The visual prompts of a formal and perhaps expensive setting serve as training wheels for our verdict of a local chef's creations.

Our desire to be culturally refined is almost as natural as our predisposition for good food. But not having the handrails of context available can make us feel insecure. If we marvel at an opulent explosion of magenta in a sunlit rug caught in a tree, people may question our weird taste. In the gallery we are safe. Oohhing and aahhing is acceptable. Everything is a certified beauty. The supportive environment is a psychological subsidy of sorts. The kind of extra social dimension which also explains other aspects of our behavior - for instance why most people prefer going to the gym rather than jogging around the block or doing push ups in their own backyard.

However, like in every market, this subtle interference produces distortion. The values in a rigged market are not in sync with the underlying fundamentals. Not all great tasting food makes it into fancy restaurants and not all fancy restaurants serve great food. And same goes for the visual input. Even though art is a tireless rescue mission, not all great sights have been saved from withering in inhospitable places. No matter how many Manets, Monets or Munchs we commission, you can bet that sooner or later some poor schmuck will stumble upon an undiscovered Snowhite sleeping soundly in a plastic coffin obscured by a really dark forest.

The other day I was walking downtown Washington with a friend of mine and somewhere near the Union Station we came across a pothole which immediately caught my attention. It had a beautifully smooth shape that seemed to have fallen out from a Salvador Dali painting. Or maybe Joan Miro's. Anyway, I loitered around for a while to see if anyone noticed it, but the crowd was just passing inertly by. No time to wonder. Not a glance. The irony is that if the very same shape hung on the wall in MoMA and was signed by a famous name - preferably by someone who jumped off the cliff - everyone would be going gaga over it.

But that pothole would never make it into a gallery, because potholes are presumed ugly until proven pulchritudinous in the court of some critic's opinion. Unfortunately, when critics do come into contact with potholes, they are too busy turning the steering wheel. But I liked the raw appeal of this unexpected and unsolicited beauty. It was genuine. So I decided to rectify this insidious injustice and took a picture of it. Actually more than that, I decided I will shoot a whole series of remarkable potholes.

Who knows - maybe some other soul will notice them and one day there will be a shining new annex standing right next to the Museum of Modern Arts: the National Pothole Gallery. And then the natural beauty seekers will have to turn their restless attention elsewhere.



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