Judge Validates Prize for Cipher Art


         Last week Lancaster County District Judge Olaf Bertoldo’s decision about what is and what is not art

has further muddied the water between so-called elitist and bourgeois interests. In the judge’s verdict the

elites prevailed, at least in this case, after he dismissed a class action suit against the Bird in Hand,

Pennsylvania Arts Commission, sponsor of a juried art competition and the Cross Current Museum of

Contemporary Art, host of the exhibit. The suit, filed by 25 local arts enthusiasts—some of whom are

amateur artists—maintained they were not permitted to enter the competition because they were not

considered serious practitioners by the arts commission and the museum board. Controversy erupted after

the $25,000 grand prize was awarded to Rupert Fipps, erstwhile lead singer in the punk rock band

Horsewhips from Hell, whose winning entry was an empty frame.

         In a statement explaining his decree, the judge wrote, “It is easy enough to say that what one citizen

perceives as art, another may consider an equine waste product. This court does not rule on individual

perception and taste. One needs look no further than this statement from an anonymous critic: ‘The

perception of appearance is reality.’ If the empty frame entry engenders a perception of appearance from

contest judges, this court cannot say those perceptions are unreal. To the issue before this court, the

sponsors may determine criteria for entry to the competition without interference from said court. Though

the plaintiffs may hold legitimate arguments regarding what is or what is not art, such arguments are for a

different court—the court of public opinion.”

         In the suit several plaintiffs stated their intentions to submit items of a quality similar to that of the

winning entry. Esteban Levine indicated he wanted to display the desk name plate he brought home after

retiring last year as comptroller for a manufacturer of croquet mallets. “My piece wasn’t even framed,” he

argued. “Took up a whole lot less space and everything too.”

         Another plaintiff, Delia Swarth, said she had expected to submit a blank canvas long before Mr. Fipps

creation captured the grand prize. “Why him and not me?” she said. “Why is my nothing worth less than his

nothing? I mean any of my nothings are at least as good as the next man, and probably better. Furthermore,

I had a canvas to show for my effort. Fipps didn’t even have that.”

         Mr. Fipps piece, titled “Throw Mama a Meatball,” was praised by contest judges who stated that the

work represented, “an ineffable leap beyond post-modernism positing our empty culture, absent of

purpose, and questioning the existence not only of the universal mother, but whether we can say with

certainty, that a meatball is in fact ground beef, pork, and seasonings; perhaps emphasizing an open

metaphor for the evolving kitchen and cuisine or the lack thereof in contemporary America, notwithstanding

its clichéd pejorative reference. The conceit of ‘Throw Mama a Meatball,’ richly resonates with the frailty and

the ultimate void within the human condition.”

         “Ridiculous,” Delia Swarth retorted. “What the judges took a couple paragraphs to say is in fact, there’s

nothing there, and nothing was better than something, and nothing was the prize winner this year. Our

issue is not against ‘nothing’ per se, but why couldn’t an unknown contributor also submit nothing worthy of

consideration. Why does nothing by a punk singer carry more gravitas than nothing from an assisted living

facility associate director, or even a pipe-fitter for that matter?”

         Richmond J. Derkins, curator of the Cross Current Museum, dismisses the suit as a minor kerfuffle.

“Most of us in arts administration, or who are arts critics, or who occupy professorships at institutions of

higher learning hear these specious accusations all the time. We try our best to ignore them. A serious

contemporary artist is consumed with process. The dabbler, the scoffer neither knows nor cares about

process. He finds it easy to say things like, “My four year-old can do better than that.’ To which I say, ‘Oh,

yeah?’ Fine art is and always has been a serious undertaking, and people like Ms. Swarth in this case likely

think an illustration in a pre-school coloring book is as worthy as a Rauschenberg mural. I mean let’s get real


         During the hearing, plaintiffs’ attorney, Regina Robinson-Robbinson asked Judge Bertoldo to define

art. Initially he seemed disinclined to do so, but finally offered an Aristotelian reference: “That which is art

cannot be not art, and that which is not art cannot be art universally.” The judge emphasized the quotation

would serve as his explication to Ms. Robinson-Robbinson and the plaintiffs.

         Ms. Robinson-Robbinson said her clients would appeal the decision. “Nothing can’t be art. Never mind

who tries convincing us it is,” she said, adding, “We won’t be easily dismissed by the so-called sophisticates

who dominate the discussion regarding what’s supposed to be fine art. We maintain that any something is

always better art than nothing at all. We’re disappointed that Judge Bertoldo didn’t seem to understand



Michael Fedo is the author of eight books, most notably The Lynchings in Duluth, The Man From Lake Wobegon, and the novel Indians in the Arborvitae. His book Zenith City: Stories from Duluth is forthcoming from the University of Minnesota Press in 2014. Other short stories have appeared in North American Review, Underground Review, Weber Journal, American Way, and elsewhere.