The Coolest People in Art: 250 Anecdotes


  • During the Holocaust, many works of art were looted from Jewish art dealers, and some of those works of art have recently been returned to their true owners. However, not every case of unethical transfer of possession of works of art is as clear-cut as looting. For example, in 1935 the Nazis ordered Dusseldorf art gallerist Max Stern to get rid of his business. He fought the order for two years, but eventually he sold his works of art at cheap — very cheap — prices in order to get money to get himself and his mother out of Nazi Germany. Given that he was forced to sell his works of art against his will and at cheap — very cheap — prices, should a fair price for these works of art be given to his descendants as restitution? A 2007 exhibition at the Ben Uri Gallery in London made a forceful comment on this question. The Ben Uri Gallery gave an exhibition of the works of art the Nazis forced Mr. Stern to sell; the exhibition is titled Auktion 392, which was the title given to the forced sale. Well, the works of art were sort of exhibited. Instead of the original works of art, which are missing, the gallery exhibited black-and-white illustrations of the works of art from the original auction catalog.[1]
  • British graffiti artist Banksy is quite the social satirist. When Paris Hilton came out with her debut CD of music, Banksy created his own version of the cover of her album. Banksy’s version featured a topless photo of Paris and the slogans “What Am I For?” and “Why Am I Famous?” He made 500 copies of the satiric work of art, and then he sneaked them into United Kingdom record stores and left them. Other targets of his satire are less deserving. One of his works of art is a large portrait of an elderly and very wrinkled Mother Teresa along with the words, “I learnt a valuable lesson from this woman. Moisturise everyday.” Perhaps Banksy’s fans are also social satirists. While in Los Angeles to set up an art exhibit, Banksy ordered and ate a pizza, and then he threw the pizza box in a Dumpster. The empty pizza box ended up on eBay, earning the seller $102. What are the goals of such a social satirist as Banksy? Banksy says, “I originally set out to try and save the world, but now I’m not sure I like it enough.”[2]
  • Activism can be an art form. The Radical Cheerleaders are a group — or groups — of activists who have as their goals “to eliminate patriarchy, capitalism, inequality and poverty and to live happily ever after.” As their name implies, they perform cheers in support of their agenda. For example: “Throw those arms up in the air / Let me see that armpit hair / We don’t shave or use that Nair / Sleek and chic, we do not care.”[3]
  • Francisco Goya etched a series of works of art titled Disasters of War, which depicted atrocities committed during warfare. One of the series shows a Spaniard tied by his neck to a tree as some French soldiers torture him. Goya’s caption reads simply, “Why?” One of his servants once asked him, “Why do you paint these barbarities that men commit?” Goya replied, “To tell men forever that they should not be barbarians.”[4]
  • Can part of a dilapidated house be a work of art? Yes. In North Kensington, London, author Germaine Greer once bought a dilapidated house in part because one of its walls had a graffito that she calls “magnificent.” In foot-high block letters, the graffito read, “Boredom is counter-revolutionary.” In addition to its being magnificent, Ms. Greer says that the graffito also states “an undeniable truth.”[5]


  • Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, delivered the Commencement address at Stanford University on 17 June 2007. He deplored the coarsening of culture in the United States, pointing out that so much of what is valued there is celebrity rather than culture. He pointed out that much of what Americans see on TV talk shows consists basically of people flogging products, whether CDs, live performances, movies, or books. Creating a memorable image, he said, “I have a recurring nightmare. I am in Rome visiting the Sistine Chapel. I look up at Michelangelo’s incomparable fresco of the ‘Creation of Man.’ I see God stretching out his arm to touch the reclining Adam’s finger. And then I notice in the other hand Adam is holding a Diet Pepsi.”[6]
  • Celebrity photographer Richard Young once shot an advertisement for Olympus Cameras. The advertisement was supposed to show that the cameras were waterproof and could survive being doused with water, so in the ad Ivana Trump threw a glass of champagne over Mr. Young. His shot caught the champagne in flight. By the time he was done shooting, he was soaked in champagne, but the ad was a great success. A couple of weeks later, he saw Ivana Trump backstage at the Royal Festival Hall. She was drinking champagne, and with great glee, she threw it on him. Ever the professional, Mr. Young had his camera with him and he managed to get a great shot.[7]
  • As a legitimate author of children’s books, Hugh Troy was annoyed by “as told to” books and other books that are written by ghostwriters. To satirize the use of ghostwriters, Mr. Troy published an advertisement for ghost painters, pretending to be an artist who was willing to paint an art work, then allow someone with money to sign it and claim the credit for it: “We Paint It—You Sign It.” The idea, however, backfired. He was besieged by people who wanted to hire him as a ghost painter, and soon copycat ghost painters started advertising for real.[8]
  • Portrait painters of society women — and men — sometimes find a good way to advertise their work. In France in the 18th century, Louise Élisabeth Vigée-Le Brun painted many, many flattering self-portraits. People in society looked at the portraits, saw how the artist had flattered herself, and realized that she would also similarly flatter them if they commissioned a portrait. Many people did exactly that.[9]


  • Musician Laurie Anderson and comedian Andy Kaufman seem like an unlikely team, but they used to do put-ons together. They would go to a place that had a Test-Your-Strength machine. Mr. Kaufman would try but fail to win a stuffed rabbit for Ms. Anderson. Then Mr. Kaufman would angrily denounce the machine, yelling that it was rigged, and Ms. Anderson would angrily demand the stuffed rabbit that Mr. Kaufman would have won for her if the machine had not been rigged. By the way, Ms. Anderson has some advice for people who would like to be creative: “My approach as an artist has been to always remember that I’m free. That’s what I tell young artists. You hear them say, ‘I can’t be an artist! Michelangelo was an artist! What would people say?’ Well, most people don’t care about what you do. So knock yourself out. You’re free.”[10]

[1] Source: Jonathan Jones, “A gallery of ghosts.” The Guardian. 25 October 2007 <,,2198435,00.html>.

[2] Source: Lauren Collins, “Banksy Was Here: The invisible man of graffiti art.” The New Yorker. 14 May 2007 <;.

[3] Source: Simon Doonan, Wacky Chicks, p. 218.

[4] Source: Martha Richardson, Francisco Goya, pp. 16, 83.

[5] Source: Germaine Greer, “Instead of spending a fortune getting rid of graffiti, why don’t we just give it marks out of 10?” The Guardian. 24 September 2007 <,,2175701,00.html>.

[6] Source: “Gioia to graduates: ‘Trade easy pleasures for more complex and challenging ones.’” Stanford Report. 17 June 2007 <;.

[7] Source: Richard Young, Shooting Stars, pp. 162-163.

[8] Source: Con Troy, Laugh with Hugh Troy, pp. 149-153.

[9] Source: Germaine Greer, “Why do so many female artists put themselves in their work? — often with no clothes on?” The Guardian. 28 January 2008 <,,2247942,00.html>.

[10] Source: David Patrick Stearns, “Laurie Anderson: Eclectic storyteller who keeps her cool.” The Philadelphia Inquirer. 14 July 2010 <>.


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