Conversations with a Clown by Michael Welzenbach

Picasso, Les Saltimbanques (source: Wikipedia, AgnosticPreachersKid)

Picasso, Les Saltimbanques (source: Wikipedia, AgnosticPreachersKid)

Conversations with a Clown, published in 1991, is the only novel by art critic Michael Welzanbach who died far too young in 2001. The novel concerns art critic Corry Peters who lives in Washington D.C., has profoundly ambivalent feelings about the state of the art world in December of 1999, and can’t stop thinking about his estranged wife. Seeking refuge from a horde of relatives who descend upon him for the holidays, Peters escapes to the National Gallery of Art to visit his favorite painting, Picasso’s Les Saltimbanques. While the previous galleries had been deserted, due to the time of year, the critic is distressed to find that not only is his favorite occupied, but that a man—a tall man in a worn out cream colored suit—is planted directly in front of the Picasso. Thinking to encourage the man to move on, Peters edges closer, but rather than it having the intended effect, the man turns to Peters and regales him with a tale so strange, indeed so insane, that it can barely be grasped. In short, he suggests that he was the model for the standing figure on the left side of the painting, which would of course be impossible since the work was completed in 1905. In a theatrical manner that doesn’t fail to amuse Peters, the peculiar fellow introduces himself as Pierrot. And it hits the critic like a cannon shot: this Pierrot bears an uncanny resemblance to the harlequin in Les Saltimbanques.

Letting curiosity get the better of him, and wanting to put off the dreaded end of the millennium wrap-up he must write, Peters follows Pierrot to a bar and the two have the first of the conversations that comprise a good part of the book. These conversations range from historical anecdotes (the clown claims to have hung out with Watteau, Goya, Hokusai and others), to the state of American art in the late 20th century (bad, very bad), to philosophical speculations on the nature of magic and reality, and how this relates to the social significance and meaning of art. Peters is not only estranged from his wife, he is also estranged from the art of his time, disliking nearly everything he sees—everything, that is, that his job requires him to comment on. The artists he likes are either not so well known or dead. He shares this view with the clown, who marks Andy Warhol as the precise point when American art achieved an advanced state of decay. One of the evil words in their lexicon is “post-modernism”, which in their canon is practically synonymous with chaos.

© Cindy Sherman, Untitled #415 (source: Wikiart)

If I have painted a rather cartoonish portrait of their relationship, it is nevertheless accurate, although incomplete. If I didn’t like Welzenbach so much, I would argue that he has written a post-modern novel despite his stand-in Corry Peters, pointing out that the novel functions as Pierrot to its reader who is skeptical nearly every step of the way and then, in the end, is won over—not to its point of view, perhaps, but to its charms. It is a mash-up of art theory, history, social criticism, magical realism and situation comedy. One might say that such a hybrid deserves to be described as post-modern. But I won’t say it, not only because I like Welzenbach, but more importantly because it isn’t true.

Jean-Léon Gérôme, The Duel After the Masquerade (source: Wikipedia)

Jean-Léon Gérôme, The Duel After the Masquerade (source: Wikipedia)

Conversations with a Clown is an old-fashioned novel of ideas, a Dickensian tale with an array of literary parlor tricks. And that is the basis of its integrity. Welzenbach practices, as a novelist, what he preaches. The novel demonstrates handsomely the traits admired so much by the clown in works of visual art: passion, earthiness, a harmony between emotion and intellect, and a sprinkling of magic to add color and charm.

Picasso, Acrobat on a Ball (source; Wikipedia)

Picasso, Acrobat on a Ball (source: Wikipedia)

In one of their first conversations, Pierrot gives an example of magic in painting by describing Anselm Kiefer’s Parsifal III, a crude attic scene of rough-hewn wood with an arrow smack in its center. Pointing out the cartoonish manner of its execution and the incongruity of the arrow’s appearance in such a place, Pierrot asks the art critic to recognize the special function of arrows—that they point to things, they are “symbols of direction”, and in this painting, the clown argues, the arrow points to disorder, decay and chaos, “perhaps the greatest enemy recognized by civilization.” He continues:

By the use of this one universal symbol driven into the calm and complacent dark of an old and venerable attic, Kiefer reminds us that time recognizes no civilization; no creed, no philosophy….It is the ultimate paradox of the nature of art: a refined human artifice informing us of the innate futility of itself….Kiefer’s arrow….digs into the ancient wood as surely as grooves of laughter and sorrow will score all of our faces….the impulse to make [art] is timeless. But the process by which that knowledge is conveyed is often a matter of devices—parlor tricks, if you like. [p34]

Antoine Watteau, Gilles (source: WikiArt)

Antoine Watteau, Gilles (source: WikiArt)

Pierrot argues that the ancient painters of the Lascaux caves were great, accomplished artists, fundamentally no different than artists who came generations afterward. Art will survive the deplorable state of decay that both he and Peters see in the late twentieth century. Basically they see that art as a deafening, colossal joke synonymous with marketing. It is soulless, utterly devoid of craft or magic, intended only to market personalities and make huge profits for private collectors, and its effect on the viewer is either bewilderment or intimidation or both. Andy Warhol is singled out as an object of ridicule, being the prime representative of art as money and death. The long description of Mr. Peters’ nightmare in which this is all laid out is a very good read. The fact that Warhol had been dead for four years when Conversations with a Clown was published makes the bitterness of Welzenbach’s point of view all the more pungent. Warhol appears in the nightmare waving a dildo, asking for a can opener and informing Peters that there’s no such thing as magic, reality, love or god. Sex and money are all.

Pierrot explains, in their post-nightmare conversation, that magic is not gone, but in hiding. Artists, he says, “have lost their sense of reality. And how can one possibly dabble in magic if one doesn’t understand the nature of reality?” What follows is a long monologue on the relationship between reality and magic, with a preamble on Baudrillard and Derrida, and illustrated with some of the best painters in history.

At a time when the internet was just in its infancy, Welzenbach’s Pierrot claims that “our experience of the world is so completely governed by mass manipulation that we have lost the ability to discern what is truly real”, even though any child knows what reality is. Reality is magic. And the artist’s true work is grounded in reality. Reality (a partial list): love, lust, a toothache, a cardinal’s nest, stars, a new leaf, earthquakes, a newborn baby, a stone.

The nature of reality is for everyone such that even the dumbest person in the United States knows full well the difference between the antiseptic life he sees giggling on the television sitcom, and the stains on his trousers or the dust balls under his bed….the artist, of all people, has a special relationship to reality….the bite of the saw, the buttery consistency of paint, the rasp of a file on metal….Of the arts, music is perhaps….the most abstract….Yet it exists when it is being played, and it can be crudely written down on paper, and perfectly captured in the memory. At the same time painting is possibly the most complex. And the painter is a person who in many respects must be the most deeply connected to the reality of his materials and methods than any other artist. Because he must be competent to make of them an illusion, and that illusion must say something of reality. [p89]

James Ensor, Masks Mocking Death (source: WikiArt)

James Ensor, Masks Mocking Death (source: WikiArt)

I disagree with Pierrot. It is the artist of prose fiction who has the most complex job, and Conversations with a Clown is an example of that. Prose fiction is the most complex of the arts, because its medium—ordinary language—is the one we use every day. You don’t need a concert hall or a museum to encounter this art; indeed, it depends on the intimacy of one’s private moments. Like Paul Auster said, it’s always just two people involved, every time: the writer and the reader. Through the parlor tricks of a thousand year old clown, Welzenbach has an intimate conversation with his readers, one at a time. I haven’t even tried to convey a sense of the novel’s magic, haven’t so much as hinted at its surprises. But since I’ve touched on its ideas, one might ask, if magic and reality are in hiding, where might we look to find them again? At the end of the novel, Pierrot states that Europe is the place to begin the twenty-first century. She will reclaim her role in the arts. America is played out. Welzenbach did not live to see For the Love of God and the rise of White Cube. For me, his argument is rooted in the idea that the American avant-garde was never a true avant-garde in the first place, but simply carried the flag while Europe floundered in war. This idea is based on a misunderstanding of Warhol, but that’s a topic for another day.

A version of this review first appeared on The Bricoleur

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3 Responses to Conversations with a Clown by Michael Welzenbach

  1. Susan Scheid says:

    The book sounds intriguing. It’s interesting to me that you say the artist of prose fiction, as opposed to a visual artist, has the most complex job. I’m taking it that this is because the writer must move beyond common use of language to make art out of it, which would make sense to me. I’m reading right now another book by Antonio Antunes, and I’m amazed by the poetry of his language. I can’t fathom how he sustains this feat throughout the book. It’s dizzying to read it–I often get lost and have to retrace my steps–but gratifying.

    • I think all of the arts are as complex as you want them to be. But I have a special sympathy for the difficulty of prose fiction because the medium is everyday language. There are so many more tools in the toolbox for the other arts, even poetry, because in poetry you have all that experimental language to play with (I’m disregarding somewhat very formally or discursively adventurous novels because in my opinion they are comparatively less successful than those that use everyday language). Some may think all of those tools mean more complexity, but understanding everyday language as an artistic medium is a very tricky business, very elusive, very slippery. I feel this requires another essay…. Anyway, it may be that I feel this way only because I’m better at poetry and visual art than I am at prose fiction.

      • Susan Scheid says:

        What you say makes a lot of sense to me–and your parenthetical on “adventurous” novels is particularly intriguing. I hope you will write more on this. You’re tremendously thoughtful and have keen insights on any topic you decide to embrace.

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