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Art Is a Joke

‘[The Goldfinch] can strike the eye […] from afar [as a true-to-life image of a bird]. [But] Fabritius, he’s making a pun on the genre […]  a masterly riposte to the whole idea of trompe l’oeil […] because in other passages of the work – the head? the wing? – not creaturely or literal in the slightest, he takes the image apart very deliberately to show us how he painted it. Daubs and patches, very shaped and hand-worked, the neckline especially, a solid piece of paint, very abstract. […] There’s a doubleness. You see the mark, you see the paint for the paint, and also the living bird. […]

‘It’s a joke, the Fabritius. It has a joke at its heart. And that’s what all the greatest masters do. Rembrandt. Velazquez. Late Titian. They make jokes. They amuse themselves. They build up the illusion, the trick – but, step closer? it falls apart into brushstrokes. Abstract, unearthly. A different and much deeper sort of beauty altogether. The thing and yet not the thing.’

From a monologue by Horst, an art dealer (of sorts) in The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2013.

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