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.


  1. The same might apply to words in literature. Fantastic. Thanks for the post

  2. See what I mean.

  3. Excellent novel; it’s clear why she won the Pulitzer for it.

    Still, the ending was unsettling in a way that makes it difficult to distinguish personae from auctor.

    I’ve not had the nerve to go back to it – but it remains with me nonetheless…


    • Didn’t it make a fantastic Christmas gift, though? I don’t know if I can top it this year….

      • Babsy,

        I had not read a book cover to cover with such intensity in a long time. It was a very fine gift.

        Now, look busy, sweetheart, and get back to your homework.


      • Angelico Nguyen, Esq., OP says


        Thinking ahead to Christmas 2014? You can’t go wrong with a title from Korrektiv Press! Give your old man the latest from our ever-growing catalog and — who knows? — the book he gets may be his own!

    • Angelico Nguyen, Esq., OP says

      I think I know what you mean about the ending — if you’re referring to Theo’s concluding ruminations, and particularly to his professed (and professedly unshakeable) belief that caring for beautiful art-objects helps to mitigate the — !!!SPOILER ALERT!!! — cosmic horror of living and dying in a universe into which it would be better never to have been born.

      Though that is a disturbing ending, I also think there are good reasons to believe it does not constitute the author’s own manifesto — that Theo Decker’s worldview here is likely different from Donna Tartt’s. We can dig in to textual specifics later, but just initially, I find it hard to imagine that someone who really shares Theo’s preference for never having existed would have the will and the ability to create a work of art as ambitiously large-scale, as demanding of time and craft, and as frequently gorgeous as this novel. Someone like Theo might well read and value such a novel; someone like Theo might even create less ambitious, less demanding, and/or less gorgeous art; but I have a very hard time imagining someone like Theo spending a decade of his life to create something so big and beautiful, and succeeding so well. Granted, though, this may say much more about the limits of my own imagination than about Ms Tartt or anyone or anything else that really does, or really could, exist. Perhaps it is worth going to the text?

      • Should one read Tartt in a particular order?

        • Angelico Nguyen, Esq., OP says

          I’d recommend starting with the leftmost word of the topmost line of text. Then, try proceeding to the word immediately to its right. Continue in this ‘left-to-right’ manner until you reach the end of the line. Then locate the leftmost word of the next line down, and repeat the process for each subsequent line.

          Anyway, that worked for me, though others may advise you differently.

          • Matthew Lickona says

            Just start with The Secret History the way the rest of us did. So much liberal arts fun. Then maybe I’ll post my outline for a TAC version. JOB always did fancy himself a Character.

            • Angelico Nguyen, Esq., OP says

              I didn’t get this memo. The Goldfinch is the only Tartt book I’ve read so far; oops.

            • despite my preferntial option for books made of paper glue I just bought The Secret History for 80% off on Amazon as an ebook. The first chapter has been addicting and I expect this purchase will play havoc with my studies.
              prepare yourself master barker, I’ll be looking for that TAC outline before long!

              and Angelico, contrary to my previous prediliction for skimming, eyes darting about, the combination of the small amount of words per ebook page (on my laptop screen) and the pleasure the words bring me means I’ve been reading *every* word.

              • Angelico Nguyen, Esq., OP says

                I’ll be very interested in your impressions.

                Eight months on, I still remember with pleasure the gorgeousness of the prose and the vividness of certain characters, settings, and incidents. I’m a plot fiend, and The Goldfinch didn’t have a sufficiently well-constructed plot to satisfy me on that front, but Tartt’s strengths were strong enough to overcome my general distaste for the picaresque, and make me glad I’d spent those hours exploring the world with Theo.

                Do let us know what you think — but not at the expense of your studies!

          • Matthew Lickona says

            Angelico: really? Reading every letter of every word? Clearly, you have not been initiated into the Mysteries. What part of the title The Secret History did not tip you off?

            • Angelico Nguyen, Esq., OP says

              I thought I wasn’t supposed to read documents marked ‘secret’ until Southern Expat reached a decision regarding my security clearance.

              • Matthew Lickona says

                Yes, well, as a matter of fact, we had wanted to speak to you about that. It seems that old SE has, well, turned up missing. We rather thought perhaps you might be able to shed some light on that…situation.

          • Oh Dear. It would seem I’ve been doing it All Wrong. I have a tendency to speed-flow (zip, skim, whathaveyou…) across lines of text, stopping every so often to soak in a particularly well done paragraph or turn of phrase.
            I shall experiment with your recommended method in the new Dappled Things, which just arrived today!

            • Angelico Nguyen, Esq., OP says

              Fret not, Paul: I now see that, if you take my proffered advice literally, it does amount to a recommendation to read every single word. But that’s carelessness on my part, and was not what I meant to convey. I only meant to recommend that you read Tartt’s prose from left to right (on the assumption that you’d be reading her in the English original, and specifically not in an Arabic, Hebrew, or Classical Chinese translation), starting at the top of the page rather than the bottom; I have no settled opinion on the question of skimming or skipping in good prose fiction.

              Come to think of it, though, I’m not really qualified to offer the advice I meant to offer, in that I lack experience, having never read a page of Tartt’s prose: I listened to The Goldfinch audiobook. For all I know, the narrator in his studio was reading the book from right to left!

              Hope this helps.

    • Angelico Nguyen, Esq., OP says

      Also, I have to ask: Is Hobie some more-or-less distant relative of the O’Briens?

  4. Quin Finnegan says

    I haven’t read it (yet), but the word for joke in Czech is Žert.

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