One of TV's legends has passed. On Thursday, longtime CBS News correspondent Morley Safer died at 84 in his home in New York City. Safer had just retired last week after over 50 years, 46 seasons, and 919 reports as the most celebrated contributor on 60 Minutes. His stories ranged from war reporting to cultural criticism — the latter for which he became especially known for, thanks to his infamous 1993 story "Yes ... But Is It Art?"
In the story, Safer skewers the contemporary art world with a gusto that's delightful to watch. He questions artists Jeff Koons, Jeffrey Deitch, and Hilton Kramer with the true skepticism of someone told that a vacuum cleaner had indeed been sold for $100,000. "It may make you believe in the wisdom of P.T. Barnum that there's a sucker born every minute," Safer says. Later in the segment, Jeff Koons defends his sculptures of basketballs suspended in fish tanks by saying, using what Safer called "art speak," “I was giving a definition of life and death. This is the eternal. This is what life is like after death.”
The story created an uproar in the art world and more viewer reaction than any other Safer segment at the time. Safer returned to the art world in 2012 during a segment on Miami's Art Basel, the country's premier art fair, with the same dubious opinion on contemporary art's aesthetic and financial value. Art collectors Donald and Mera Rubell toured Safer through their personal collection with unsuccessful attempts to sway him on the works shown. On an exhibit of honey dripping from the ceiling into jars held by spectators, he said with one of his signature gleeful barbs, "I think if they were all eight-year-olds, it would have been fun."
The reporter claimed his criticism was a form of tough love: "I claim no expertise, but I claim a lifetime commitment to the appreciation of art." Whether you agree with Safer's stance on contemporary art, the original report encapsulates the sort of reporting for which he was beloved: uncompromising, hardball, and truly entertaining.