August 6, 2012


I love the TV show, King of the Hill. In high school, sometimes I would catch the episode that aired right before dinner or after the night news at 11. I wasn't devoted enough to it to tape it when I knew I would miss it (much as I was with the latest Buffy) so I've never seen most of the episodes. To my delight, I discovered there was a King of the Hill episode covering matriarch Peggy Hill's first forays into the world of art and gallery sales.

Real artists wear berets.
Even though the show is a cartoon that mostly seems to focus on propane and propane accessories, or the antics of four middle-aged friends who drink beer in the alley, this episode touched on a few truths of the art world. I also always appreciate something that can take a bit of the stuffing out of the seriousness and eliteness of art.

Here is the basic plot. Strickland propane is expanding. In order to counter their expansion, Bud Strickland wants to install a public art piece along the interstate to beautify Arlen, Texas. He enlists Hank to find the art. After some difficult searching with "real artists," he asks Peggy. Her sculpture is rejected by the city board, but embraced by a Dallas art dealer. Then Peggy and Hank begin to learn some things about the art world.

When visiting an art gallery, Hank discovers that contemporary art is very weird, and gets three proposals from the artists.

A life-size portrait of George Washington. It's a hologram. From here, Washington, but from over here, he morphs into Adolph Hitler. Washington, Hitler. Washington, Hitler.

Picture Ronald Reagan squatting over... 

I have just the thing. I'm calling it "Industrial Penis # 5." 

Thank you, King of the Hill, for making fun of contemporary art. More people should. It shouldn't be untouchable because it is in a sacred, white cube. I've watched someone "bathe" in a kiddie pool of Hostess Twinkies before. She definitely got the side eye.

 The episode then addresses the mythologization of the artist. This is something we discussed in my art history classes. But we used Michelangelo, instead of a cartoon. When Georgio Vasari wrote Lives of the Artists, he described Michelangelo as a gift from God. His talent was not a product of his hard work, practice, or his ability to observe nature accurately. He was touched by a freakin' angel.

WHILE industrious and choice spirits, aided by the light afforded by Giotto and his followers, strove to show the world the talent with which their happy stars and well-balanced humours had endowed them, and endeavoured to attain to the height of knowledge by imitating the greatness of Nature in all things, the great Ruler of Heaven looked down and, seeing these vain and fruitless efforts and the presumptuous opinion of man more removed from truth than light from darkness, resolved, in order to rid him of these errors, to send to earth a genius universal in each art, to show single-handed the perfection of line and shadow, and who should give relief to his paintings, show a sound judgment in sculpture, and in architecture should render habitations convenient, safe, healthy, pleasant, well-proportioned, and enriched with various ornaments. He further endowed him with true moral philosophy and a sweet poetic spirit, so that the world should marvel at the singular eminence of his life and works and all his actions, seeming rather divine than earthy. 
In the arts of painting, sculpture and architecture the Tuscans have always been among the best, and Florence was the city in Italy most worthy to be the birthplace of such a citizen to crown her perfections. Thus in 1474 the true and noble wife of Ludovico di Lionardo Buonarotti Simone, said to be of the ancient and noble family of the Counts of Canossa, gave birth to a son in the Casentino, under a lucky star. The son was born on Sunday, 6 March, at eight in the evening, and was called Michelangelo, as being of a divine nature, for Mercury and Venus were in the house of Jove at his birth, showing that his works of art would be stupendous. 

People ate this up. People still eat this up. No one is interested that an artist may have maxed out two credit cards creating a body of work, or that he may be a plumber to pay the bills, or that he watches Sunday Night Football and prefers Quilted Northern toilet paper, just like you. People like stories, and they like their art and their artists to have intrigue. To be different.

When I was in college, I interviewed at a gallery in Atlanta that sold late 18th and early 19th century paintings to decorators. They told me that the most difficult paintings to sell were portraits. People were a little hesitant about acquiring a portrait of a random, dead stranger, but tell them the subject or the artist was a moonshiner / horse thief / famous adulterer / someone wild and shady, and the painting was sold. Apparently folks are OK with the random portrait as long as they can tell house guests the tale of how the artist had an affair with the woman in the painting and she killed herself because the artist would not leave his wife. It's great fodder for conversation.

After Peggy Hill's probots (propane tank robots) get snapped up by a Dallas art dealer, she becomes mythologized herself, but in a much less flattering light that Michelangelo's. Peggy is introduced at her gallery opening:

What a special evening for art. You don't discover a Peggy Hill every day. It's a rare privlege. But then it happens. You find someone the art world has ignored. Here is someone who despite having no formal education has been able to touch us. Her mind lacks the fine tools of the academy, but she hacks and bludgeons with the blunt instruments of her unspoiled, childlike spirit. Since that day she came down from the mountains and became the child bride of a simple laborer, she has been looking for a way to express her anger at the world passing her by. She is angry, she is practically illiterate, but like a wounded animal crying out, she makes herself heard. Bless you, Peggy, for letting us hear you.

Peggy is insulted, and confronts the gallerist for twisting her story and making her out to be a hillbilly halfwit. He has a simple answer for her:

Let's face it, middle class hausfrau stacks a bunch of propane tanks? Even I'm falling asleep. But say it's made by someone straight out of "Deliverance" and kaching!

I'm even guilty of this a little. Here's an excerpt from my latest artist bio.

Sarah McFalls grew up in Memphis, spending her early years sleeping under a comforter printed with Picasso's artwork and taking family vacations strategically planned around museum visits instead of Disneyland. This is probably why she decided to study art history. After graduating in 2008 from the University of the South, she took a fateful, two-day Greyhound bus ride to Central Pennsylvania...

(All completely true facts, but people probably could have lived if I had left out the part about my Picasso blanket and Disneyland. And the bus.)

Honestly, it's difficult to write about yourself and sometimes a little mythologization just sounds better than, "Sometimes I lead a very hermity life where I don't socialize much, and I go through spells of eating rice and beans because I had to spend money on frames."

I really enjoyed this episode. I think it's healthy to recognize that what you chose to participate in is sometimes completely ridiculous. Making a little bit of fun is always a good thing. And, maybe artists should just say, "Hey, I work hard at what I do. And I make sacrifices. Yes, it's fun, but it's also work, and I'm no magical unicorn or backwoods savant."

If you are seeking some other things that poke gentle fun at the seemingly sheer ridiculousness of museums, I recommend this cartoon as well.

The Pinky Show

Also, about that Ronald Reagan artwork...

Komar and Melamid