Chuckling from the Balcony
Over ten years ago, I had a small business doing velvet paintings of Nazis and serial killers. It was all very crass. I painted some “sad eyes” Hitlers, in the style of Margaret Keane. I have to admit, I still think that’s kinda funny.
Using velvet painting as a medium was itself an ironic choice. Velvet paintings are generally considered “low class,” “white trash,” “kitsch” art, as in their heydey they were predominantly found in flea markets and swap meets and trailer parks. They glorified pop singers like Elvis, movie stars like John Wayne, and exotic booby ladies. Using velvet to glorify reviled characters like Nazis and serial killers poked fun at modern taboos.
Some of my paintings were showcased by the now defunct “UnPop” art movement’s web site, founded in 2004 by Partridge Family Temple leader Shaun Partridge, Brian M. Clark, and musical provocateur Boyd Rice. Unpop artists used accessible — one could even say “charming” — pop art forms to “trigger” social justice warriors, back before people said “trigger” or “social justice warrior.” As I was explaining my paintings and the Unpop movement to a brother who was eight years old during my “velvet period,” I realized that the people involved were basically making proto-memes. Little chuckle-worthy middle fingers at political correctness. Pop culture turned against popular politics.
Yes, I’m being a hipster right now. I was memelording before memes were cool.
Over the years, I’ve been tempted to break out the oil paints again. I could sell the shit out of velvet Putins and Trumps and Keks. I could demand five times whatever I charged back in the day. I could probably even go full Warhol and pay someone else to paint them for me.
I’ve been tempted, but it always feels like it would be an empty enterprise.
When I die, I don’t want to be known as “that guy who was really crass.”
Chuckling from your own balcony is fun. Most people are creatures of hypocrisy. Most interesting people are made of humorous contradictions, waiting to be framed in a joke and laughed at.
I like jokes. Tell me one in person. I’ll laugh with you. I’ll laugh at someone with you. I’ll even laugh at myself. I know myself. I can be described in ridiculous sentences. I get all the jokes.
Throwing rotten tomatoes is fun. It’s cathartic.
Making a good joke about someone else or about a cultural phenomenon requires creativity, but it’s not creative. It’s not a creative act, at least by itself. A joke is a critique, and it can only contribute to a “culture of critique.” It is negative culture, not positive culture.
We live in an exhausted age of irony and cowardice. Of remakes and sequels. Of retro music and meta-humor.
If all the world is a stage, I want to be the guy who gives the heartfelt monologue, not the snarky aside.
Chuckling from the balcony is safe. Criticism is safe. Irony is safe.
I want to go out on a limb and stand for something. I want to spend my life making something beautiful that I really believe in. I want to inspire people — not just make them giggle. I want to challenge them to become superior versions of themselves — instead of just feeling superior. It’s important to recognize what is wrong with the world around you, but until you transcend that dissatisfaction and begin working to create something that you think is right, you are merely a spectator, not a creator.
I only kept one velvet portrait. It’s a painting of Yukio Mishima. I don’t keep it because it is cute or ironic. I keep it because I actually admire Mishima. He was a creator who brought his body into consonance with his mind. He literally gave his life for his art, for what he sincerely believed in, and he gave his life in the way that satisfied his ultimate ideal of beauty and spiritual courage. He went all the way. I love people who go all the way, wherever that way takes them
Mishima committed hara-kiri in 1970, four years before I was born. He still inspires people today. He inspires me.
A lot of people made fun of Mishima while he was alive. No one remembers them.