The Artist As a Funny Guy

Sculpture with a Wink and a Grin

Lights went on in the showroom and the sculpture gleamed on pedestals.  It was marble sculpture, rare nowadays when most experiments are in iron or synthetic materials.  The artist’s latest production was a series of pieces in which geometrical shapes were fused in curious ways.  Cubes seemed to be pregnant with spheres; spheres were transfixed by pyramids.  They were pleasantly curious, sometimes reminiscent of those wooden puzzles you used to spend Christmas afternoons putting together.  One perfect ball, mounted on a marble wedge or inclined plane, seemed unexplicably not to roll off.

The visitor walked around the figures.  He felt watched.

“Would you like to see a program?”   A well-dressed lady, probably the gallery owner, believed he needed help.

The program had photographs of some of the works on exhibit, plus excerpts from critiques that  used terms from geometery, architecture, and philosophy.   On the back was a long, triumphant list of the artist’s exhibitions and prizes.   The visitor looked through the program but showed no enlightenment.  The lady seemed to understand.

“Do you know Ingorance?” she asked.  “He’s so funny.”  And recalling his funniness she smiled.  “This one”—she pointed to a stone pyramid with little half-spheres seeming to flow out of it like soap bubbles—“is my favorite.  Ingorance calls it ‘Pharoah’s Bath’”.

With funny names Ingorance had given his works another, a conceptual, dimension.  Even without their titles there was something comic about many of them: the pregnant cube seemed tired with its load; the peak of a pyramid had apparently been bitten off, just as that occasionally happens to a loaf of bread on the way home from the bakery.

The visitor smiled to show the lady that he found the works clever.

He had never heard of Ingorance, which ignorance she seemed to pardon.  Apparently she believed that on their own the statues couldn’t be rightly understood.  The key was the artist’s ingenious explanations and clever stories.  The key was the artist himself.

The visitor didn’t know any artists personally so this way of understanding their works was new to him.  All the great painters and sculptors he knew were long dead and anyway their work seemed to speak completely for itself—or rather to show itself just as it wanted to—no more, no less.  You wouldn’t have wanted to hear that loud Cellini praise his own things.  And it would have been embarrassing to have Michelangelo in the room while you contemplated his work because you could feel he didn’t want to be there.

The visitor had seen his art in museums, not galleries; and museums were places of silence and respect, like churches.  The fact that the works were by the hand of men who had died gave them special dignity and even impeded fair criticism out of piety.
In a museum a work sits by and waits to be admired because the artist’s reputation was long ago established and it is up to the viewer to discover for himself what the whole world already knows.

But a gallery is not like a museum.

In a gallery the works have to come towards you a little and, as it were, introduce themselves.  Long titles help orient the possible buyer: captions, philosophical reflections, quotations of praise from a published critique.  The living artist seems to stand, often literally does stand, beside his work.  He explains it and brings it to life.  Many buyers welcome the explanations, as well as the curiosity or prestige of acquaintance with the artist himself, because the work which they are buying, perhaps as an investment, is as dumb and mysterious as the Sphinx.

“If you like, you can meet the artist tonight.  He’s coming here to talk with one of the buyers at seven.”
“Thanks.  I’ll try to make it.”

But the visitor didn’t go to meet Ingorance, though the program said he was a real character.  He dressed in black and carried a silver cane and was known to behave like a clown at his exhibitions. To the visitor his works were entertaining but their incongruities and little ironies seemed a meagre meal.   True, they tickled the mind and here and there skimmed the heart (a smile, a groan, a cringe); but they kept closed the door to the world inside him—the world of memory, of joy, of hope.  He had been looking a long time for a work that would do that.

[Note: As far as I know, there is no such sculptor as Ingorance and none of the works of sculpture described here actually exist.]


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14 Responses to The Artist As a Funny Guy

  1. ivdanu says:

    Almost get me fooled, swallows! although Ingorance seemed a bit too close to ignorance…

    One day, maybe you`ll write also about the really «funny» artists, those who touched or even get over the fine line which separes normal from crazy… You have to be at least a bit crazy to be an artist… I think…

  2. erikatakacs says:

    Ok, very clever writing, but I don’t quite get the point. Maybe it’s just for fun kinda exercise. Or is it poking fun at today’s cliché “artist” (that was the funniest part, the description of his appearance) and his ideas?

    What caught my eye: “The visitor had seen his art in museums, not galleries; and museums were places of silence and respect, like churches. The fact that the works were by the hand of men who had died gave them special dignity and even impeded fair criticism out of piety.
    In a museum a work sits by and waits to be admired because the artist’s reputation was long ago established and it is up to the viewer to discover for himself what the whole world already knows.”
    But weren’t those dead artists, now considered classics, in their day silly just like Ingorance? Didn’t they stand next to their work in galleries and explained their work? But now they’re respected, because they’re dead, and they’re in museums that feel like churches. Isn’t that funny too?

  3. rich says:

    I sympathize with you, Swallows, I’d also prefer the silent admiration of works in a museum to a gallery “vernissage”…
    And isn’t time a good art critic, separating the wheat from the chaff over the centuries?

    Someone told me about Josef Beuys. The one who would display all kinds of objects covered with a thick layer of grease – he had kind of an intimate relation to grease and has become accomplished and popular enough to be displayed with those things in museums.

    Now in one museum an old bath tub of his was exhibited, inside it a few streaks of grease. In the evening, after closing time, the museums cleaning lady arrived. She saw that greasy bath tub and cleansed it.

    Next day it was the time for the insurance agents and lawyers to specify the extent of damage in the following law suit…

  4. Ken Januski says:

    Hi 100swallows,

    An enjoyable and thoughtful post, again. I also have to admit I’m biased. I think that I understand very clearly what you’re saying and I completely agree with it. Perhaps if I didn’t agree I wouldn’t say it was enjoyable and thoughtful. But probably not. Even if I disagreed I think I’d still enjoy it.

    Rich mentions ‘vernissage’, a word I was unfamiliar with until I just looked it up. I thought it might actually mean something it does not, something like figurative ‘varnishing’ of a painting. And I actually would have preferred that. Galleries, and I’m sad to day museums as well at least in the US today, do a great deal of ‘varnishing’ of the work. The last thing you find today at a museum show is quiet. Outside of the Barnes Museum a few miles from where I live, and which will soon in my opinion be destroyed by its move to the center of Philadelphia, museums are no longer places for quiet contemplation of art.

    One of my best friends when I was in graduate school, and who is a fairly well-known American artist today, was very talented but always included lengthy verbal descriptions when her work was exhibited. Even 30 years ago I told her, that much as I liked her and her work, I didn’t understand the need to accompany it with all the verbiage. I think that even more today for all art.

    So to me, if ‘vernissage’ had actually meant ‘varnishing’ it would have been perfect for a new word: ‘vernbiage’. ‘Vernbiage’ is the use of many words(verbiage) to attempt to varnish(vernissage) a work of art that really doesn’t stand on its own. Or maybe really does stand on its own, but which the artist, dealer, museum don’t believe stands on its own visual merits. So a lot of verbiage accompanies it.

    Perhaps Erika is correct and artists have always wanted to stand next to their work and explain it but I don’t think so. I do know that I went to an opening of a juried show at a museum in Rochester, NY many years ago. Two of my abstract paintings were in it. Unfortunately as soon as I walked in to the museum I saw that they were hung upside down. I asked to have them fixed but was told it couldn’t be done that night. That was okay. But then I saw two people in front of my paintings: they were really studying it intently. At that time I really did want to walk up to them and say ‘Don’t bother. They’re hung upside down!’ But I didn’t. That really was the only time I wanted to explain my art to someone.

    I think artists hope that their art will be understood and appreciated. But I think they also know that it has to stand on its own. Going up and explaining it to viewers I don’t think will make them appreciate it any more. Anyway that is my thought on it.

    You’re probably familiar with the financial crisis that has swept through most of the world. Much of it I think stemmed from a thorough distancing from reality in investing and a lot of reckless speculation. One day I think we’ll find that something similar will happen to the art world. If and when that happens ‘vernbiage’ will disappear, like reckless speculation, at least for awhile.

  5. 100swallows says:

    Thanks, Rich: That’s a story I will remember. I bet the artist hadn’t just greased over his works but considered the grease or dirt as part of his subject. So what the cleaning-lady removed from the bathtub was a gray, sudsy ring. I can really start to imagine it and that specialist in Filth Art. The floor of the exhibition room would be full of dust-mice, there would be imitations of all kinds of crud and muck on things; portraits of people with dirty fingernails and stains on their clothes. “Stains and filth are part of life,” the artist would philosophize. “It has a beauty of its own, too.” Etc.

  6. 100swallows says:

    Thanks, Ken, for your own thoughtful comment. I had never heard of “vernissage” before going to one in Switzerland either. Funny that the term isn’t known in America. Your guess at its meaning and your coinage is also funny. Artists’ talk about their own work threatens to spoil it. They often seem to have gotten their ideas from someone else’s silly praise. I know artists who not only hate to talk about their work; they hate to hear others on the subject. Don’t you find it hard to write for a program or brochure what your stuff “is about”? “Here it is!” you might be tempted to say. “It is what you see. It is NOT writing. It is NOT music.”
    But I bet it was very hard not to tell those puzzled people that your painting was upside down.
    Oh, I agree that the art world is covered over with varnbull (my coinage)and I hope a quiet recession comes. Too bad it will come too late for some.

  7. erikatakacs says:

    Ken, I didn’t say artists wanted to stand next to the work and explain. I’m sure many don’t enjoy it at all, but they’re expected to make themselves available. There are a few exceptions. I remember reading about Beryl Cook, one of the most successful British painters, who died recently. She enjoyed wide success with the public, yet the critics hated her. She never attended her opening receptions or publicity events, because was extremely shy and had a phobia of formal social situations.

  8. wrjones says:

    Very very well written and I do get the point.

    Your posts are entertaining and enlightening.

  9. 100swallows says:

    Erika: You were right to wonder what the hell the post was really saying. It wasn’t clear and I like to make a clear point. It’s always easier to wink and make allusions than to decide what you really mean and to say it. At first this was only going to be a visit to a gallery. Then it became a punch at a certain kind of art (but I got carried away inventing Ingorance’s figures). And finally it made fun of the artist who clowns and helps explain and sell his work with antics and other self-promotion.
    I don’t think most of the great artists were showmen, though many, maybe most, had a reputation for being eccentric. In our time many dress up as geniuses. I have known at least three Spanish artists who walked around dressed in black or strange clothes and carried a silver cane and pretended at times to be megalomaniacs: Dalí, Luis Sanguino (a sculptor), and a man named…Mingorance.

  10. 100swallows says:

    Thanks, Bill. These posts will never be as funny as yours.

  11. Ken says:

    Could you please contact

  12. erikatakacs says:

    Carry away, Swallows. :) That’s what writers do. It made me smile in the other post when you were weighing which words to use where. You’re turning into a pretty darn good writer.

  13. Ken Januski says:


    My apologies for misunderstanding what you were saying. I hate it when someone does that to something I said. I debated whether or not to refer to what you or Rich said but since it seemed pertinent to what I was thinking I thought it was a good idea to refer to both of you in my comment. I just wanted to expand my response to indicate that I was reading and enjoying the comments as well as what 100swallows originally said.

    All in all I think it is a very thoughtful post with thoughtful responses, which of course is part of the fun.

  14. erikatakacs says:

    No problem, Ken. Your comments are always interesting to read.

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