In Pamela Hansford-Johnson’s Cork St Next To The Hatters a young man goes to a play called Good For A Giggle, which involves three psychopathic siblings with a deaf and dumb wheelchair-bound mother who is beaten to death by their lesbian lodger:
….the audience, which had a large admixture of clergymen and elderly ladies, was laughing obediently away with a puzzled expression on its collective face.
He wonders if it would be possible to write a play so disgusting that it could never be staged.
You guessed it, his play is a hit.
I thought of him when I read about Pavel Jerdanowitch, an avant-garde Russian artist who invented the school of Disumbrationism in 1924. In reality he was an American literary scholar called Paul Jordan-Smith, propelled by a dyspeptic rage at the art of Picasso, Duchamp and Hopper, works in which he saw “nothing but confusion and ugliness, bare of either reality or romance.” He was particularly miffed that his own wife’s realist landscapes and portraits were dissed as “old school”. Modern critics, he thought, were cowards too frightened to say what they really thought.
Jordan-Smith set out to paint as clumsily and derivatively as he could, aping what he saw as modernist style and slapping on arbitrary titles like Yes, We have No Bananas. And he attracted a lot of interest and praise:
Pavel Jerdanowitch is not satisfied to follow the beaten paths of art. He prefers to discover new lands, explore the heights, and peer into the abysses. His spirit delights in intoxication, and he is a prey to aesthetic agonies which are not experienced without suffering.
Le Comte Chabrier, Revue du Vrai et du Beau
Even when he confessed to the hoax, people insisted that he just didn’t recognise his own artistic talent, or that his lack of training and freedom from artistic ego had liberated a naïve genius. Who knows? Five of his seven paintings are still on display in the UCLA Library of Special Collections, so if you live in that part of the world you can make up your own mind.
And speaking of naïve genius, I then came across a story about an elephant, Siri, whose keeper sent her drawings to William de Kooning. “That’s a damned talented elephant,” said de Kooning. I’m a great fan of elephants so maybe I’m prejudiced, but they look pretty good to me too. I’m voting for Siri.
To Whom It May Concern: An Investigation Of The Art Of Elephants (David Gucwa and James Ehrman).