Philistinism by Moonlight on the Potomac

11/17/2011 09:02 am ET

I don't know much about art, so I can't always speak very intelligently about it, but I know what I like.

I've always loved "Truisms" by pioneering word artist Jenny Holzer. It's a series of declarations, some of which are mildly disturbing although (because?) part of you "agrees" with them (e.g., "Timidity is laughable"), some of which are uncontroversial ("You are guileless in your dreams"), many of which stick with you.

So, Saturday evening my friend Dana and I headed over to Foggy Bottom to experience "For the Capital," Holzer's three-nights-only work in which quotations from Theodore Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy were projected spectacularly from the terrace of the Kennedy Center onto the Potomac River and up to the trees facing us across the water on Roosevelt Island.

(I'm sure in 50 or 100 years the many great sayings of George W. Bush will be projected somewhere in a similar fashion.)

It was a cool, almost chilly moonlit evening. As we shivered on the terrace, we had to concentrate to follow each quote from beginning to end as they slowly scrolled. It was challenging.

The quotes, about diplomacy, peace and preserving the environment, could be interpreted as a message of reproach to the current administration. Holzer told the Washington Post, "it wouldn't be bad if some of the deciders see it." Maybe Condoleezza Rice watched from her apartment next door in the Watergate and shed a tear.

Some kind of dressy cocktail reception was going on inside the Kennedy Center adjacent to the terrace, plus the usual busloads of tourists were being dropped off out front (at 8 PM? Do those tours ever end for the night?) and making their way around, so lots of people were coming outside who apparently didn't know about the Holzer installation. It being outdoors and dark and with the projections lasting for five hours, most everyone was just moving about freely, talking about whatever.

Behind us, some touristy types were trying to figure out what these big words scrolling across the water and trees were. "It can't be coming from the Kennedy Center," one said confidently, despite the presence of a giant projector about 20 feet away with light beaming out of it. "I think it's an advertisement," said another. My friend advised me to ignore them and not to make eye contact.

"Ha ha, look at the boats down there getting beamed!" I couldn't stand it anymore so I turned around and politely but firmly explained that it was coming from the Kennedy Center, and it was the work of an artist named Jenny Holzer.

Then one woman made a connection between the words scrolling upward and disappearing into the dark and the opening moments of a film she'd seen: "It's just like 'Spaceballs'!"

Not "Star Wars," even, but "Spaceballs."

(I do think I read somewhere that Jenny Holzer has been heavily influenced by the work of Mel Brooks, particularly "Spaceballs.")

I officially don't feel like a Philistine anymore!

Thanks, "Spaceballs"!

The scene of the crime