You’ve heard of Andy Warhol? Of course you have. Many consider him the most influential American artist of the last hundred years.
What do you make of that? What exactly is this influence? What is the function of art in our world?
Warhol created inventive, colorful hymns to commodity culture. He loved celebrities, currency, and other popular objects and icons. He embodied the society of the surface in all its splendor.
And attention was paid. His work is extremely valuable.
You’ve heard of Ronnie Stuiver? Of course you haven’t. He’s a South African engineer. He doesn’t have a television show or a press agent. Some years back, he traveled around rural South Africa drilling holes in the ground for new water wells.
This is important work. People on this planet die everyday because they can’t find clean water. In rural South Africa, millions of lives are in jeopardy. There simply are not enough water wells and not enough uncontaminated pumps. And even when the wells and pumps are in place, getting the water can be extremely burdensome. Hand pumps take a great deal of effort and the wells are often located miles away from home. It falls mostly to women and girls to pump the water and haul it home in heavy buckets. It’s time-consuming labor and exhausting.
Back to Ronnie Stuiver. When he went around drilling new wells, village kids would crowd around and watch him. These kids didn’t have much and they didn’t have much to do. He wanted to give them something. One day he came up with an idea. A very good idea. He would make something that they could play with — and that could rapidly pump water at the same time.
As the children spin and spin and spin, clean, safe drinking water rises from a deep borehole.
His idea wasn’t art, no, no, it wasn’t art. It was merely a creative idea that transformed reality, improved it, opened it up.
You’ve heard of Trevor Field? Of course you haven’t. He was an advertising executive, one of those clever men who have a talent for creating desire, selling a dream, making a buck. He happened to see Stuiver’s merry-go-round attached to a water pump, and he got an idea. A good one. The best one of his life.
He imagined a merry-go-round linked to a pump head, a water tap stand, and a storage tank. He imagined water towers as makeshift billboards, two billboards bringing in advertising revenue to pay for the pump’s upkeep, two others publicizing AIDS education. And he imagined this “playpump” system springing up everywhere it’s needed in South Africa.
But it’s not art, he hasn’t made art. No. He merely conjured a series of inspired ideas that sought to transform everyday life for poor, rural South Africans.
Now through the collaborative efforts of many people, his idea has been put into motion. And it works. Children love the things. Their play reduces the toil on their mothers. And the water is fresh and clean. More than 700 of these merry-go-round pumps have been installed throughout South Africa and it’s quickly expanding to neighboring countries.
The price to install one of these playpumps in a rural village? Seven thousand dollars.
That Andy Warhol painting of Marilyn Monroe at the top of this entry?
An art lover purchased it for $17 million.
You tell me which aesthetic seems more compelling, which creation appears more powerful.