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There was a fella back home named Harold Hooper who had a nice place on a straight-away right there on Route 1 about a mile out of town. When he retired from the post office he decided to come up with some clever item he could make and sell to the thousands of tourists going by his house all summer.
After doing a little market research Harold settled on the birdhouse as the easiest and most popular item to make and sell for the most profit. When he told folks around town about his birdhouse idea everyone agreed it was a good one. They also agreed that Harold had a perfect spot there on Route 1 and he should do quite well.
The only fly in the ointment was that when Harold finally started making his birdhouses it was obvious that he was a terrible carpenter, completely unskilled with no idea how to skillfully join two pieces of wood together. Still, he threw together about two dozen rickety birdhouses, slapped a thick coat of paint on them and hung them from the branches of the large maple tree in his front yard. Then he set a large, gaudy sign on his lawn to announce to the traveling public that he was now in the birdhouse business and had all kinds to sell for $20 each.
As expected, tourists began stopping almost immediately to check out Harold's wares. After examining a few of the flimsy structures those same tourists would get back in their cars and drive away. At first Harold thought that he might have priced his birdhouses too high. So he reduced the price from $20 to $18 and made signs to reflect the savings.
Tourists continued to stop, but after looking refused to buy Harold's birdhouses so he continued reducing the price. From $18 they went to $16, then $14 and $12. By mid-August Harold decided to price them at $5 each just to get rid of them. At that price he did sell a few, but by the end of the season most of the birdhouses remained hanging in the maple tree — unsold.
Although he was unskilled in carpentry Harold was not a stupid man, he learned a lot from his fruitless birdhouse adventure. He learned that despite his perfect location on Route 1 and despite the obvious popularity of birdhouses he lacked the skill needed to make birdhouses people wanted to buy. So he stopped making them.
I was reminded of Harold's experience the other day when I read in the paper about someone known as a “performance artist” who received a generous federal grant because no one was willing to pay to see him do his “performance art.”
Many people wish the folks in the art world would learn the simple lessons that Harold learned years ago there on Route 1. But they haven't. In the art world, if the average person refuses to buy a piece of work because the artist lacks artistic skill and aesthetic vision, then the arts community thinks the artist should get grant money from the government treasury so he'll be encouraged to keep making things people refuse to buy.
I recently came up with what might be a workable solution to the money-for-art problem. I think the arts people in Washington should follow the example set by the folks in agriculture over 50 years ago. When people don't buy enough of the food that farmers produced, the Department of Agriculture folks began paying farmers NOT to grow food.
Why can't we do that with those unskilled artists? If someone insists on making all kinds of worthless objects that no one buys, why not have the National Endowment for the Arts agree to pay these “artists” not to make any more “art?”
Think about it while I e-mail my congressman.
John McDonald is a humorist and storyteller who performs regularly throughout
New England. Contact John at or 899-1868.
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