Friday, January 3, 2014


Thugs in Suits
That’s a famous line by the playwright George S. Kaufman. He was talking about theatergoers’ notorious dislike of satire. But he could just as well have been talking about the art world; the only difference is that ‘satire’ (the kind of work I do) never gets a shot at closing on Saturday night; it never opens at all.  On a recent trip to the art galleries in New York City, I didn’t see a single piece that could be considered “satirical.” One of the reasons for this is that satire is not decorative wallpaper like most abstract art and it’s not safe, pseudo radical protest stuff with slogans all over it, and, worst of all - it doesn’t sell. It requires the artist to be a perpetual “outsider,” not a marketable commodity.

Local Politics
So, having properly “vented,” what’s the point of this blog? I’m just saying that satire pokes fun at the establishment and the “establishment” is what pays the bills. The last great satirists were “angry young men” in post World War I Germany where the pillars of society: the church, the government and the financial system had collapsed and pretty pictures were pointless. When Hitler took power, he declared war on modern art in general, and satire in particular. It’s interesting to note that there’s a nascent satire movement in Russia. Last August, officials closed down the “provocative” Museum of Authority in St. Petersburg after confiscating four satirical paintings, including a portrait of Putin in a woman’s nightgown.

When I started to paint full time, I had no idea of what I wanted to do. I knew I wasn’t an abstractionist (I like content too much), and I hate pretty landscapes, so I fell into social commentary. As a newcomer to Stamford - a small, conservative New England city, I found a lot to work with: corrupt politicians, narrow-minded clubwomen, self-satisfied business leaders. An outsider always sees things from a different, more critical perspective. Satire, to my way of thinking, is one of the best weapons a social critic has. Politicians, for example, hate being laughed at more than anything (except maybe being indicted for fraud). Rather than call someone corrupt, venal or stupid  (even if they are), I can always poke fun at them to make my point and, hopefully, there won’t be any reprisals. “Just kidding,” I can always say.

A "virtual" exhibit of Kahn's satirical paintings created by Robert Callahan

Over the years, I have completed several series of satirical paintings and drawings, including one I never show in public. The first was “Local Clubwomen,” based on those silly, staged group photos you see in the newspaper “Society Pages.” Then there was a series of imaginary Mayors, “Thirty Years of Good Government: a Portfolio Suitable for Framing” that poked fun at local politics.  After that came a larger-than-life cast of cardboard “Thugs in Suits” (developers?) and my “Real-Live Women” paper dolls. My “Seven Deadly Sins ” are ongoing, (as in real life) but I also have an x-rated (never to be shown outside my studio) series: “Men’s’ Locker Room,” 24” high cut-outs of “true-to-life” men with removable towels over their middles. Not a pretty sight.

There are practically no satirists around today, at least not in the art world. First of all, everyone is terrified of being politically incorrect; I recently got one of my paper dolls pulled from an exhibit because someone thought she looked “Hispanic.” This means you can only satirize rich white men and women and since they are the likely buyers of art, don't expect to sell a lot.

 I’d like to revisit this topic in the near future, so let me know your thoughts. Perhaps by analyzing the great satirists from the past, from Hieronymus Bosch to George Grosz, I can get more insight into the nature of satire, including who they made fun of and why. Anyhow, it’s a pretty meaty subject and I have barely touched the surface.

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