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The oldmaster's test

by our editor

What is Joke Art?

I know it's difficult to believe but we were all there, all the great old masters, assembled under the one roof, and brought back especially to decide on which paintings of the 20th century should be kept and which should be let slide into obscurity. We were using one of Watteau's old palaces as agreed.

How come I was in such august company I hear you ask. Well you all know I was JMWTurner's plein air apprentice before things got too frozen and I had to work inside. Anyway, I just happened to have passed the guild test for old masters. But that's another matter for at the moment I was just daydreaming and mainly thinking about my tough childhood. Never remembering a time when I woke other then being wet and hungry ... weaned much to early and obsessed ever since.

"Well, what shall we do with this fellow Picasso?" asked Michelangelo simultaneously pointing with his outstretched arm and turning toward Rembrant, who just happened at that same instant to be appraising the ample charms of the plumpish countess seated on his left.
"Whaa...t, where, quite a handful I'd hazard," Rembrant replied instantly.
"A pale naples yellow with a smidgin of madder on the secondaries. Maybe a little umber in the shadows."
"Not that! Over here you old fool." Again Michelangelo pointed at the Picasso painting of the double imaged bull's head, the candle and what to him looked like a book. Rembrant sighed deeply and somewhat ruefully as he turned to the bearded blond sculptor whose impatience was legendary since he received that knock in the head playing fullback for Milan. Everyone agreed it was accidental though I had my doubts as Michaeangelo had enemies aplenty.
"As an example of joke art it is one of the best I suppose."
"What's this 'joke art' you keep mentioning?" I asked, suddenly awake and leaning over Rembrant's shoulder to get a better look.
Rembrant looked up, "Humph" I don't know how you ever passed the guild test Hagan. "What answer did you give when you were asked to name two days of the week starting with 'T'.
"Today and tomorrow of course," I replied still amazed they would have such an easy question in a test for 'oldmastership'.
"Well I guess you got that right at least," the old fraud acknowledged, then he shouted out to Rubens who was supposed to be chairman of the twentieth century sub-committee but as usual seemed to be jetlagged, or as we say here, 'windbagged'. "Hey Rube', could you come over here and explain to Hagan what 'joke art' is."
We watched as the preening friend of kings and courtiers brushed invisible specks from his multicoloured vest and strode over.

"Well Hagan," Rubens quickly assumed his usual lecturing mode, "In literature we have humour, in plays we have comedy and in painting we have joke art. Twentieth century art is largely based on the premise of comedy. Those who don't 'get it' - miss the joke ... they miss all the fun. "But most of the artists couldn't draw a bucket from a well or paint a rocking horse red. They painted shallow, flat on flat."
"Listen here my boy, when you realize comedy is literature then you will read some of the best literature you will ever read on the back of toilet doors. Was Bill Cosby not a literary giant, didn't Gerry Seinfield rival TS Elliot. Who says art must be deep and meaningful?"
"What about those people who wrote volumes to explain the essence of a Rothko or the meaning of a Pollock? Some were scholars with degrees in fine art".
"That's their problem, anyway, they probably think 'Flying High' was an apercu of Gothe's theory of transparent color. If they miss the joke I can't help them".
"Can you give me an example of this joke art ... say from a conceptual artists point of view".
Suddenly Rembrant interrupted. "What did you answer Hagan, when you were asked to name two African wild cats?"
"The oldmaster test again?"
"Two lions".
"Damn! You even got that right".
Rubens was growing impatient at the interruptions "You asked about an example of conceptual art Hagan?" he snapped. "Well the conceptualist will propose a cow has teats. Then might say the same for a woman. Viola, the artist will paint a woman with four breasts. A equals B, B equals C, therefore A equals C ... Capice?"
"I still don't get it".
"What, the joke?"
"Yes, it doesn't seem very deep".
"You fool ... see you are still looking for depth when you should be looking for the joke".
"But surely there are clever jokes and just ...."
"...and just cows in formaldehyde sure, but there you go getting elitist again"....
Rembrant interrupted. "Aw, give up Rube, I really don't know how the dolt ever got in the guild in the first place".
"I was made a consultant," I retorted. "You said when you wanted my opinion you would ask for it".
But Rubens was on a roll and hadn't taken a breath. "The artist was saying that his last blind date was a metaphor for a cow in formaldehyde. Don't you see, that's a joke?".
"What about the minimalists?" I asked.
"Watch my lips move".
"They didn't".
He slapped his thigh. "SEE ... that's art!"
"Expressionists then?"
"Again, watch my lips move".
"I saw them move but you didn't say anything".
"Get it?"
"But Rothko committed suicide Polock drank himself to death, not very funny ...?"
"So did Peter Sellers, Dean Martin and Tony Handcock, Lenny Bruce ..."
"Picasso got top prices".
"Letterman got as much".
"Are you saying that the whole art scene of the twentieth century was a joke.?" I asked undaunted.
"Name me one famous artist who got publicity at that time who wasn't? Look you young fool ... it wasn't 'a joke' it is 'the joke'. Up here we know that certain corrupt angels refer to the kickbacks they get as 'the joke'. What do you think they mean when they said 'everyone is in on the joke'? They meant the heavenly officials, the brothel owners, the developers, the writers of environmental impact statements .. they meant everyone up here in art heaven gets part of the action. Well it was the same with the art world in the twentieth century. You were either into comedy or not. Not only is it art ... it is an art form. Remember, the most expensive art piece of the whole century was a photo of a Kelvin Kline model in Monica's blue dress. If that is not a joke what is? But still ... if you happen to be one of those humourless clowns who missed the boat ... bad luck".
"What about the General?" said Rembrant in the pause. "Did you get that one?"
Everyone sighed and knew he referred to the oldmaster test that involved finding the name of a famous General and the clue was supposed to be in a room with bottle of brandy inside a refrigerator. The contestant was to enter the room, open the refrigerator door and search the for the clue.
"Yep," I said. "General Electric".
"Damn, didn't you paint in the twentieth century Hagan. Where's all your stuff?"
"Didn't make the cut, I'm afraid."