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TO DEC. 31

In the exhibit “Paint by Number: Accounting for Taste in the 1950s,” the National Museum of American History deconstructs the postwar fad, which entertained bored housewives and pipe-smoking company men alike. With a genial tone that vacillates between ironic and respectful, curator Larry Bird (no, not that one) resurrects an eclipsed pastime and, in the process, uncovers a range of forgotten artworks, some staggeringly bad and some surprisingly good. The exhibit even includes a smattering of paintings by celebrities, including a reasonably attractive mountain scene (pictured) by—no joke—J. Edgar Hoover. Though it’s true that the famed painting kits de-emphasized individuality by requiring consumers to follow rigid instructions, they also tapped into people’s impulse to mount their own snapshots on the living-room wall, as well as their desire for fulfillment through self-expression. The message really wasn’t so different from that of today’s Apple Computer advertisements. Sure, I’d be embarrassed to put one of the exhibit’s paint-by-number flowers or poker-worthy dogs on my wall, but cynics should pause before getting too snooty. Any current work by Thomas Kinkade is surely cheesier than most of its mechanistic cousins-in-kitsch from the ’50s. Bird’s take on paint-by-number is on view from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily, to Monday, Dec. 31, at the National Museum of American History, 14th and Constitution Avenue NW. Free. (202) 357-2700. (Louis Jacobson)