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Everything is a joke

A failed attempt at dialogue with a modern art collector

Everything is a joke

(Krieg Barrie)

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.”


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  •  phillipW's picture
    Posted: Tue, 10/04/2016 08:50 am

    One verse of scripture comes to mind.  "For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength."  That is from memory, so if I am paraphrasing 1 Corinthians 1:25 then I do apologize.

  • socialworker
    Posted: Tue, 10/04/2016 09:45 am

    Most people like art that gives them a good feeling and reminds them of the spiritual things they value (animals running free, people loving each other, the beauty of the ocean, etc) and to certain lost people, their values circle around degrading beautiful things.  They don't really value soup cans and urinals (as Mr. Cash admitted in his first letter to John) but they value the attention and power it gives them to hold themselves superior over naturally beautiful things.   Inside they know they really can't compete but they associate only with people who will pretend with them.

  •  Melissa D's picture
    Melissa D
    Posted: Tue, 10/04/2016 12:42 pm

    Good, pointed article. Money and fame might make people feel like they can talk nonsense and still look cool, but we all have to face facts. Part of being human and made in God's image is that we can reason. Animals can't reason. The fact that he was unwilling to reason with you showed he was denying something fundamental at his core. Maybe that made the later scandal not so surprising.

  •  BosLarJazz's picture
    Posted: Tue, 10/04/2016 01:48 pm

    Thanks for the insightful article. Mr. Cash will one day realize - either before death (one hopes), or after death, that his very existence, which could have been so much more meaningful, was in essence the biggest joke of all. He was given a gift of life and he lived it playing a game in which he held everyone around him in contempt. His social status in the art world and his money to throw around on contemptuous art is a flimsy wall to hide a lonely flat 2 D representation of a man made in the image of God , but disconnected and lacking in the 3rd dimension. He epitomizes Solomon's pursuit of folly without the having the insight to see his need for something more. Sad to think someone can think themselves as standing so high and yet really be crawling and groping about so abismally low.

  • Nat Manzanita
    Posted: Tue, 10/04/2016 05:07 pm

    Fascinating article -- I've often wondered how people who like modern art really think. Thanks for writing both this article and your original letters to 'Mr. Cash'.

  •  William Peck 1958's picture
    William Peck 1958
    Posted: Tue, 10/04/2016 05:57 pm

    yet those are the people who run Hollywood and Washington DC.

  • Karen for Life
    Posted: Wed, 10/05/2016 09:31 am

    Beauty and wonder are tied together with revealing the nature of God.  No wonder some rebell against all of it in the most absurd ways.

  • LAB
    Posted: Wed, 10/05/2016 02:52 pm

    We need more Classical Christian Education. 

  • KI
    Posted: Sat, 10/22/2016 10:51 am

    I must say I find it very disappointing to see this article in your magazine. You so seldom give us arts writing, and this was quite negative against contemporary art. I look forward to art articles that elevate art before Christians instead of tearing it down. Many Christians write off contemporary art because they don’t understand it and they obviously don’t need to take time to learn about it if magazines like yours and Mr Erickson imply that it is obviously just a joke.


    Mr Erickson isn’t that interested in art and you gave him a full page to write about it. He admits he likes very tasteful work that is easy to like. I applaud his choices and enjoy the same. Indeed many of us find these enjoyable and quite easy to like. But then he lumps contemporary works together into a giant joke pile because some collector sees it that way, and further was arrested for sexual assault years later. He seems to imply that contemporary art (that he admits he doesn’t like) is somehow guilty by association. He doesn’t seem to appreciate that contemporary work is often about ideas instead of just copying what you see and storytelling. Sure, there are lots of dogs in the art world, artists who make stupid, bad, or even offensive work, but there’s a lot of really great work too. Taking the time to learn about the ideas behind contemporary work might help any of us to understand and enjoy it better. We still may not like the message, but there is an intellectual aspect to the work that makes it more satisfying. 


    My complaint is that the article seems more intent on keeping Christians in the dark by continuing the uneducated view that contemporary art is bad and we should just keep liking the easy beautiful work from dead artists. WORLD seems to be much more open to contemporary music and film. Why the hole in your heart for contemporary art? What real purpose does this article serve? I think it is careless. As an artist who subscribes, I must say it was a disappointment.