When I graduated from UC Santa Barbara in 1978 I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area. Within 3 months of my arrival the Mayor of San Francisco, George Moscone, and City Supervisor Harvey Milk were assassinated by former Supervisor Dan White.
Three years later a bust honoring Mayor Moscone, created by the artist I am highlighting today, was unveiled. Here it is.
The artist is Robert Arneson. Take a close look at the detail picture. Can you see the ‘Twinkie’ and the ‘bang, bang, bang, bang,; on the pedestal? Those referred directly to the assassination, along with the imprint of a gun on the backside. As a result, the bust was rejected by the City Council and not put in City Hall as expected. The other result was Robert Arneson and his art became known throughout California and the nation.
I was at the start of graduate school at San Jose State University and learning about the fantastic artists that practiced in Northern California. There are already two of them in this series, Wayne Thiebaud and Richard Diebenkorn. And another was Robert Arneson.
Arneson was a co-founder of the california ‘Funk Art’ movement of the 60s and 70s. He was not a painter but a sculptor using ceramics combined with non-traditional objects. He was breaking the mold of what ceramics should be by moving away from functionality and creating political, social, artistic and personal statements driven by his personality, aesthetics and beliefs.
I thought about not putting a photograph of him in the article because, well, here… take a look at who his subject matter most often is.
Humor as Social Commentary
Obviously you can see he is very funny and works that humor into his art. But it’s more than just silly humor. It’s using humor as satire, and farce to make a statement about the social and moral issues of his time. He is in that long tradition in art that reaches all the way back to Honore Daumier in France, through to William Hogarth in Britain and on to Thomas Nast in America to name a few. Satirical art that pushed the powers that be by lampooning them has continued into the present day of course, with it’s most tragic manifestation being in the murders of the staff of Charlie Hebdo by Islamic terrorists in France in January, 2015.
It takes courage to make fun of people for a reason, and Arneson didn’t shy away from it. But, as with the great satirical artists before him, he often wasn’t pointing so much at a particular person as he was using that person as an example of a larger corruption, a more widespread idiocy in society or morals.
Upending the Classical
He also liked upending the aesthetics of the classical. To do this he literally just did it. He took something classical, a column. And upended it by adding a head on top, on bottom, falling off, etc. Of course the head in all these cases was his own.
Towards the end of his life Arneson started doing a series that seemed more melancholy and universal, the ‘egg head’ series. They are more of a meditation on life and death than anything else, and it makes sense that they would be as Arneson was by this time diagnosed with cancer and was struggling with these monumental issues.
As with any prolific artist there are a lot more pieces you won’t ever see than that you will see. Here are some others I thought worthy of your attention.
Courage of the Artist
What I appreciated about Arneson more than anything else was his determination from early on to be truly himself. What I mean is he withstood pressure to be a classic ceramic artist, to be serious, to be socially active the way others had been before him. But those things weren’t him and he knew it. He stated in his life and in his work, ‘This is who I am and what I do. These are my creations done as I see fit.’ Which is, after all, the essential job description of an artist.
To learn more about Arneson and his art world, you can use these resources:
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art – Interview and interactive show
UC Davis – ‘Serious Idea Behind That Humor‘
You can read about the other artists by clicking on my ‘Artists I Love‘ series at the top of the page on the list below.
- Week #2 – Ed Ruscha
- Week #1 – Robert Arneson
Writing by Marty Coleman
Artwork by Robert Arneson
Some artwork photographed by Rob Corder. You can see a much larger collection of Arneson’s work at Corder’s flickr page as well as extensive photographs from many art museums.