Projects such as Catskill’s Cat-n-Around show, in the estimation of art critic Beth E. Wilson, “represent a formulaic, utterly lowest-common- denominator surrender of aesthetics to commerce and to marketing.” Ms Wilson is accustomed, she says in Chronogram magazine (“Touch Not the Cat. The Problem with the ‘Cat-n-Around Project,” 7/1/08), to review mid-Hudson “exhibitions and other artistic efforts” that “I find interesting, positive, noteworthy”; shows that “bring some sort of benefit; efforts that “raise the bar or otherwise contribute to the general advance of humankind.” Catskill’s “painted or otherwise decorated” fiberglass cat figures do not qualify.
Such “’sculptures’” bear “approximately the same relationship to ‘art’ that McDonald’s has to real food” and are “just about as detrimental.” They offer “the illusion of creativity” while deterring “real thought.” Although they seem to be “enormously popular,” “popularity alone is not a proper gauge for the success or failure of a public art project.” “Even if you think they’re just fun, a mere diversion, they do positive damage as [sic] they become the sole representation of ‘art’ in the community.” -------Because those cats (and Hudson’s dogs, and similar “animal projects”) are “slaps in the face to…more significant” local “artistic projects,” then Arts Councils that co-sponsor these “dumbed-down” projects betray their trust. They “abdicate” their “responsibility” to “active, engaged serious artists” as well as to “the public [they are] supposed to serve.”
Ms Wilson’s most painful moment while viewing the Catskill cats came when she encountered “two women…who commented to me, ‘We love them, they‘re so creative. Every one is so different’.”
Local response to Ms Wilson’s disquisition has been, well, acerbic. “That woman,” says a respondent, “would stop kids from sketching.” “Wilson’s tirade,” says another, “is to art criticism what the Catskill cats are to ‘serious art.’ The difference is that although the artists who decorated the cats may take themselves seriously as artists, they understand that the cats project is all for fun.”
To those sentiments we venture to add a few points:
*Abdication. Included in “Touch Not” is a photograph of a cat. Not included is a picture of a Catskillian cat, or a cyber-link to the whole collection (www.cat-n-around.com or www.catskillcatsandhudsonhounds.com). That omission marks, on the part of the reviewer and of her editor, an abdication of responsibility.
*Tunnel Vision. While damning these “animal projects” as sell-outs to “commerce and marketing,” Wilson does not hint at how the “artistic efforts” that she normally covers manage to escape that corruption. After all, the exhibitions are held by gallery owners with clients who hope to make money from selling the stuff.
*False Target. Much of the Wilsonian tirade consists of asserting that the Catskill cats, and their animal ilk on main streets in other towns, do not pass muster as “real” or “serious” art. That thesis might be worth propounding if the contrary claim had been asserted (and thus exemplified false advertising) and if the delusion it fostered were consequential. In the words of a local sponsor, the project “was never intended to be a fine art project” even though many estimable artists participated, it “brought enjoyment to thousands” of visitors,” it will bring “financial benefit to many good not-for-profit organizations,” and it made “an art form available to those who might otherwise be intimidated by a gallery or museum exhibit.”
*Evasion. Passages in “Touch Not the Cat” argue, alternatively, that shows like Cat-n-Around sabotage art (or “serious” or “real” or high art). That causal proposition would surely engage people who think of themselves as partisans of art. Those people might well expect Ms Wilson then to develop her thesis. She could start, perhaps, by working out, instead of just spitting out, her Big Mac analogy: that McDonald’s fare is (i) not “real food” and is (ii) “detrimental” to real food. Do Big Macs block the availability, the acquisition, or our appreciation of real food? ------In the absence of solid counter-evidence, it seems plausible to suppose that projects such as Cat-n-Around contribute a mite to the cause of Serious art. Prospective participants are invited to imagine various ways of ‘dressing’ a given raw material: a fiberglass feline, in this case, rather than a slab of marble, a log, or a bucket of wet clay. They are incited by the prospect of material reward as well as of recognition for an unusual kind of public service. They undergo learning experiences in the course of implementing a chosen design. They also get to see, along with other spectators, the variety of ideas, materials, colors, and finishes that eventuate in response to the challenge of starting from a common base. Meanwhile, children are invited to join the game by carrying out their own designs with Flat Cats and Kittis.------- With friends like Wilson, real food, real thought and real art don’t need enemies.