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Tom Waits Salutes (I Think) An Artist I've Never Heard Of

Who's John Baldessari? To judge from this wonderfully mischievous video commissioned by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Baldessari is a hugely — and I mean hugely — successful conceptual artist, whose work has appeared in hundreds of gallery shows, major museum exhibitions. You name it, he's done it.

And yet — in the hands of filmmakers Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (whose movie, Catfish was about hustling on the Internet), as narrated by Tom Waits, script by Gabriel Nussbaum — there is something of the flimflam man in John Baldessari. His work, says Wikipedia, combines "the narrative potential of images and the associative power of language" — which means — I don't know what.

'I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art'

His works include people with colored dots on their heads, oddly composed photographs, large trumpet sculptures. Some of his pieces feature him promising, "I will not make any more boring art, I will not make any more boring art," which suggests that he often thinks he is making boring art, and that maybe he's a little bit amazed that people want to buy and buy and buy what he's making.

That is why I liked this video: it's commissioned by a museum to proclaim a great talent, but watching it, I have this sense that instead Mr. Baldessari & Co. are slyly winking at us, saying, (as he does at the end) that if you've got some ability and you're crazy enough to put in the hours, what an artist really needs is "to be at the right place at the right time." In other words, art is a business like any other, and the key is timing, to hit the market when the market is ripe.

If Baldessari weren't such a charmer, if the edits weren't so pitch perfect, if Tom Waits didn't have the best gravelly-wonderful voice in the world, I wouldn't be recommending this film.

But I am. It's an homage to art or to commerce or to mischief, I don't know which. And it's short. So take a look and decide for yourself.

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Robert Krulwich works on radio, podcasts, video, the blogosphere. He has been called "the most inventive network reporter in television" by TV Guide.
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