Robert Knight

Robert Rauschenberg made a living turning art into junk.

I’m sorry. The media script has it the other way around. They’re saying that Rauschenberg, who died at 82 on May 12, turned junk into art. He was a Master.

In the larger sense, I think my version is closer to the mark. Inspired by Rauschenberg’s success and unbound by considerations of skill or beauty, a generation of artists was freed to slap together virtually anything. It’s why many modern art museums today are practically paying people to come in and browse.

A lovable and innovative entrepreneur, Rauschenberg provided employment for legions of critics who explained –and are still explaining -- his junk to the rest of us.

In 1999, Rauschenberg told National Public Radio that actual ideas were anathema.

“In the first place, I don’t use ideas. Every time I have an idea, it’s too limiting and usually turns out to be a disappointment. But I haven’t run out of curiosity.” The NPR reporter noted that one critic said, “He never wanted to be held back by an idea of what something should look like.” Even his own.

That would seem to make it rough on those of us who are expected to look at his stuff.

In “Robert Rauschenberg, Alchemist of the Mundane,” The Washington Post’s Blake Gopnik notes that Rauschenberg’s works “are plenty influential. They’re at the root of the past 20 years of installation art. Today’s roomfuls of scattered stuff—almost all the recent ‘Unmonumental’ show at the New Museum in New York, for instance—could barely have existed without Rauschenberg.”

Indeed not. And Gopnik notes also that Rauschenberg’s series of all-white paintings inspired minimalist composer John Cage’s famous 4’33,” in which a pianist sits on a bench for 4 minutes, 33 seconds in a concert hall, and does … nothing. Bravo!

In prose that would be the envy of the two bogus tailors in the Emperor‘s New Clothes, Gopnik explains the appeal:

“Rauschenberg’s white pictures were meant to be receptacles for all the complex light and shade that struck them from the world outside; Cage’s silence was a foil for the ambient sounds of concert hall and audience, a noiselessness that amplified the noise around it. Both works increased our awareness of surrounding realities rather than distracting from them, as many other works of art have done.”

He’s right. Most of us get distracted by paintings that have different colors and shapes. Or by that pesky music, which can fill a concert hall and deprive audiences of the delight of hearing their own coughs and sneezes.

Robert Knight

Robert Knight is an author, senior fellow for the American Civil Rights Union and a frequent contributor to Townhall.