Gerald Donato and his wife Joan Gaustad in Shockoe Bottom Originally from Chicago, artist Jerry Donato taught painting and printmaking at VCU for 36 years. Throughout the 1980s he was a regular at the Happy Hour gatherings in the Power Corner of the much-missed Texas-Wisconsin Border Cafe (1982-97). That’s the time in which we got to […]
Gerald Donato and his wife Joan Gaustad in Shockoe Bottom
Originally from Chicago, artist Jerry Donato taught painting and printmaking at VCU for 36 years. Throughout the 1980s he was a regular at the Happy Hour gatherings in the Power Corner of the much-missed Texas-Wisconsin Border Cafe (1982-97). That’s the time in which we got to be friends and he helped me with a special project.
In a local courtroom almost 27 years ago I had a perfect view of a thoroughly entertaining scene in which the age-old question — what is art? — was hashed out in front of a patient judge, who seemed to enjoy the parade of exhibits and witnesses that was put before him. The defendant was this story’s teller. At the time I was the manager of the Biograph Theatre.
The courtroom was packed with art students wearing paint-speckled dungarees, gypsy musicians with hangovers and film buffs living in a movie.
When I got charged with a misdemeanor for posting a handbill I had designed to promote a midnight show, it was a bust I had deliberately provoked. My scheme was to beat the City of Richmond with a freedom of speech defense, and overturn what I saw as its anti-show biz handbill laws.
The City had launched a campaign to put an end to handbill-posting on utility poles that year, so I was trying to fight off what I saw as an attempt to stifle the arts- and music-driven culture I knew best.
At the trial’s crucial moment Donato was on the witness stand. He had taken the stand as an art expert and was being grilled over just where to draw the line between what should be, and what should not be, considered as genuine art. The Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney asked the witness if the piece of paper in his hand — the offending handbill for a low-budget documentary called, “Atomic Cafe” — could actually be “art.”
“Probably,” shrugged the professor. “Why not?”
The stubborn prosecutor grumbled, reasserting that the flyer could be no more than “litter,” no matter how the witness tried to avoid admitting it. Meanwhile, my attorneys continued to stand on the notion that I had a right to post the handbill, good art or bad, and that the public had a right to see it, either way.
Eventually, having grown weary of the high-brow, artsy vernacular being slung around by the witnesses supporting the defense — we also presented a display of about 100 different handbills, mostly for bands playing at clubs — the frustrated prosecutor tried one more time to trip up the clever witness.
As Warhol’s soup cans had just been mentioned, the lawyer narrowed his eyes to ask Donato, “If you were in an alley and happened upon a pile of debris spilled out from a tipped-over trashcan, could that be art, too?”
“Well,” said Donato, pausing Jack Benny-like for effect, “that would depend on who tipped the can over.”
Donato’s line went over like Gangbusters; the courtroom erupted into laughter. The obviously amused judge fought off a smile. The prosecutor threw up his hands and sat down. The City of Richmond lost its case that day.
Although I got a kick out of Donato’s crack, too, I’ve always thought The City’s mouthpiece missed an opportunity to hit the ball back across the net.
“Sir, let me get this right,” he might have said, “are you saying the difference between art and randomly-strewn garbage is simply a matter of whose hand touched it; that the actual appearance of the objects, taken as a whole, is not the true test? Furthermore, are you telling us that without credentials, such as yours, one is ill-equipped to determine the difference between the contents of a trashcan and fine art?”
Still, the prosecutor’s premise/strategy that an expert witness could be compelled to rise up to brand a handbill for a movie, a green piece of paper with black ink on it, as “un-art” was absurd. So, the wily artist probably would have one-upped the buttoned-down lawyer, no matter what.
Perhaps the question shouldn’t ever be crafted to determine how the hell to tell fake art from real art? After all, any town is full of bad art, and good art, and all shades of in-between art. Name your poison.
Rather, it’s probably better to ask — what is worthwhile or useful art? Then you become the expert witness.
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–Words and photo by F.T. Rea