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He was an eccentric millionaire and well-known in the art world a generation ago. He didn’t paint or sculpt or write books. He bought and collected modern art and commissioned large outdoor “art” projects that many citizens considered ugly and offensive.
I’ll call him Mr. Cash. He had inflamed so many people, with such glee, that big media loved him. Every eruption produced an interview and a juicy story about brave artists struggling against the lowbrow taste of bourgeois America.
Mr. Cash became a go-to expert for articles on modern art. That’s how he turned up in a Newsweek cover story that left me smoldering. I admit to being traditional in my taste. I’m one of those people they ridicule in art circles, the guy who says, “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like.”
I’ve never understood why some regard that statement as evidence of stupidity. I don’t know much about banana genetics, but that doesn’t prevent me at the grocery store from choosing yellow bananas instead of black ones that are mushy and too sweet.
I’m one of those people they ridicule in art circles, the guy who says, ‘I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like.’
I don’t buy art, but I see it in books, magazines, parks, and buildings. Some of it appeals to me and some doesn’t. I like art of the American West with images and backgrounds I can recognize. I admire the work of the Renaissance and the Flemish painters. I like the French impressionists.
I don’t like Campbell soup cans, urinals, blobs of paint thrown or dripped on a canvas, brightly painted squares and triangles, or Christian symbols in a jar of urine. I don’t like art that flips me the bird, and most of the art in the Newsweek article did, with a wink and a smirk from Mr. Cash.
I couldn’t resist writing a letter to the editor. It took me three drafts, but finally I succeeded in composing a brief statement on why I don’t like middle-finger modern art. It appeared in the next issue of the magazine. Several days later a surprise came: a letter from Mr. Cash.
It came in an envelope 10 times the size of a normal business envelope, and the text had been written on a typewriter of matching scale. Both the envelope and stationery bore his name in large print. The text seemed almost incoherent, but its underlying tone of mockery was clear. On the fourth reading, I began to understand his message. Maybe. Let me paraphrase:
“People like you are a joke. Your letter to Newsweek was a joke. The article was a joke. Newsweek is a joke. Traditional art is a joke. Modern art is a joke. People who buy paintings are a joke. People who run galleries and sell art are a joke. Museums that display it are a joke. People who go to museums are a joke. Let’s start a club and invite everyone who’s a joke. It will be a joke. This letter is a joke. Don’t you get it? EVERYTHING IS A JOKE!”
I should have left it there, but he had taken the time to write, which I appreciated, so I wrote him back in a normal tone, as though he and I were more than a joke. Maybe we could even carry on a discussion.
His reply came a few days later, again in an oversized envelope that barely fit into our rural mailbox. The mocking tone was still there (heavy, dripping), but his words seemed little more than a cackle in the darkness. I didn’t know what he was trying to say.
Our conversation on art ended there, before it ever got started. Years later, I read another article that involved Mr. Cash. This time, he had been charged with felony sexual abuse, and apparently it had been going on for a long time. His money and power had kept it quiet.
I studied his mug shot, a sad figure with a blank goggle-eyed stare. If that picture had been hanging in an art museum, the title might have been, “Not Everything Is a Joke.”