Mary insists I name my paintings, so I call this one “Hopping Home.” While we were living in Manhattan we occasionally came across chalked hopscotch diagrams in Riverside Park or even on the sidewalks of side streets. I never saw one in front of a department store, but it could happen. What intrigued me was the way a hopscotch diagram left on the sidewalk tempted grown women to revisit their childhoods by hopping a square or two. (I have seen this happen.) I put mannequins in the display windows to emphasize the physical reality of the woman to the artificiality of the mannequins who know nothing of childhood or of the passage of time.
Abstract expressionism is the visual equivalent of Pentecostalism, which is the most successful form of Christianity since early Methodism. Both Ab-ex paintings and Pentacostalism are 20th century forms of Primitivism—efforts to get back to the basics. Pentacostalism stems from an event described in Acts, 2:3 in which the holy Spirit descended upon a group of Christians and they began speaking in “tongues.” Nobody could understand them. Some witnesses said they were drunk, but Peter denied this, pointing out it was only nine o’clock in the morning!
I don’t know of any ab-ex painters who were conventionally religious, but they all seem to have believed their paintings hint at some ineffable meaning of awesome importance. It was a lost cause. Before long, abstraction expressionism lost its position as king of the hill to the comic book clarity of Pop art and the pretentious obscurity of conceptualism, minimalism and all the other isms.
But I keep going back to the abstract-expressionists. I keep thinking some of their scribbles and blobs are better than others, though I can’t tell you why. In any case, I decided to put something understandable into the pentecostal babble of an abstract expressionist painting. Using black enamel, I dripped Jonathan Edwards assertion:“The being of society, as such, is conversation” across my canvas, and then I turned the canvas and dripped Nietzsche’s apposite lament, “I fear we will never get rid of God because we still believe in grammar” across it the other way. I added color and called it Palimpset. I painted it on the kitchen floor of our apartment shortly after we moved to Manhattan in 1990.
In 2018, I belatedly learned I am not the first to insert words into an abstract painting. In 1943, Jackson Pollock wrote his name in big letters on the abstract mural he did for Peggy Guggenheim’s apartment. Then he obscured the letters with swirls and slashes. You can make them out, but it isn’t easy. This was obviously a passive-aggressive advertisement for himself—a message to the world that hadn’t yet recognized that he was a major artist. But I think it was also a message to himself from himself asserting that Jackson Pollock, a boy from a dysfunctional family “out west” was still alive and kicking amid the “blooming, buzzing confusion” of arty New York.
Not long ago Christies sold this three and a half foot stainless steel rabbit by Jeff Koons for 91 million dollars. It joins a long list of oddities that have been sold as art for astronomical prices. What are the buyers paying for? Writing in The Federalist (May 23, 2019), the art critic, David Marcus, assures us that Koons rabbit is worth the the money because 20th and 21st century art is not about “the adoration of beauty,” but about “the wry smile.” “It’s about being in on the joke. Getting it.”
The joke seems to be that life is a joke—an ultimately pointless shaggy dog story. Those who are in on the joke smile wryly—ironically. And according to Marcus, in 500 years we will all admire Koons rabbit because we will all see the joke. I don’t believe that. I do not think a wry smile can last 500 years. The ironic secularism of our elites is already under attack from very unironic Muslims, eager to wipe our wry smiles off our faces, and also—though you would never know it from watching the media—from a resurgent Christianity in the world outside an enervated Europe and a confused United States. So how does a sensible person account for the phenomenal prices apparently sane “art collectors” will pay for a dead shark, or a can of an artist’s poop, or a stainless steel rabbit?
Matthew Bown points out that long before people collected art, they collected relics—the physical remains or personal effects of saints. It was a big business and thousands of faux relics were sold to the faithful for astronomical prices. Because so many Medieval relics were counterfeits, the Protestant reformers referred to them as “precious rubbish.” It is a label that also fits much contemporary art.
Medieval relics were symbols of a culture’s faith. The urinals, bicycle wheels, stuffed sharks, and stainless steel bunnies that pass for art today are relics of our culture’s lack of faith, They are intended to elicit wry smiles from sophisticated unbelievers.
Which brings us back to the 91 million dollar rabbit. It’s not a rabbit. Look again. It’s an Easter bunny. Koons says he has always loved Surrealism, Dada, and Pop. All three are aggressively anti-religious art movements, reflecting the smug conviction of our elites that religion is the opiate of the masses, and that mankind is the result of a purposeless natural process. Along with this conviction goes a contempt for anyone who believes otherwise.
Thus we have the comic spectacle of bidders at an art auction competing to invest an artistically worthless stainless steel cartoon bunny with value—the only value a secular materialist can understand: money.
This is one of Mary’s favorite paintings. I painted it from memory years after I saw a little girl having fun at night all by herself in the dilapidated area around the old Kansas City Public Library on Ninth Street.
Two readers responded to an earlier post by saying they write poems for fun. So do I, and so did W. H. Auden and Osip Mandelstam. But “fun” is hard to define. Somebody running a marathon is, strangely enough, having fun. And I have a son-in-law who has fun cooking dinner! “Fun” is simply what is not work. Work bores us. It wears us out. We need the money it brings in, but unless our work happens to be something we would do for nothing, it is a waste of good play time.
You may have fun while being instructed, but only if you consent to being instructed. Generally speaking, fun is something you choose to do, not something you are coerced into doing. Auden died before political correctness became “a thing,” but it was what he had in mind when he said that making a poem was in itself a way of defying The Management: “So long as artists exist, making what they please and think they ought to make, even when it’s not terribly good, even if it appeals to only a handful of people, they remind the Management of something managers need to be reminded of, namely that the managed are people with faces, not anonymous members, that Homo Luborans [“working man”] is also Homo Ludens [“playing man”]. Among the half dozen or so things a man of honor should be prepared, if necessary, to die for, the right to play, the right to frivolity, is not the least.”
Ossip Mandelstam did die for it. He wrote a funny, sarcastic poem about an unnamed Manager (Stalin) who recognized himself. Mandelstam was seriously playful. He said he thought of art as a “joyous communion with God, like some game played by the Father with his children, some blind man’s bluff or hide and seek of the spirit.”
Almost 50 years ago, Mary and I wrote a book about the importance of children’s traditional fun—i.e. free play—which is still in print (see sidebar). Today, the importance of free play is recognized by child psychologists and many educators. See Peter Gray, Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life.