Episode 26: C.M. Coolidge's Dogs Playing Poker (1903)
BART SIMPSON: We come now to the final and most terrifying painting of the evening. To even gaze upon it is to go mad.
HOMER SIMPSON: [screams] They’re DOGS. And they’re PLAYING POKER! [freaks out; runs away]
VOICE 1: It’s dogs. And they’re playing poker. Come on. I mean, it’s… [snorts] Alright. There’s a lot to unpack here.
VOICE 2: What can one say about something this frivolous?
VOICE 3: Oh my God. Okay. [laughs] So I’m looking at a realistic painting of seven dogs sitting around a table, anthropomorphized as human poker players.
VOICE 4: I don’t know, what [laughs]… it kind of cracks me up. They’re obviously very human…ish.
VOICE 5: But you wonder how are they holding those cards, ‘cause they have paws –
VOICE 6: Without their opposable thumbs.
VOICE 5: Yeah.
VOICE 7: And honestly, it’s just… what if… men playing poker… but dogs.
VOICE 8: The atmosphere of the painting is kind of tired, like it’s the end of the night, and uh…these dogs have been playing for a long time, they look a little drunk, heavy-lidded…
VOICE 6: And what that says about these dogs’ owners and whether the owners know that they have escaped and are playing poker…
VOICE 5: Mmmhmm.
VOICE 4: [laughs] There’s a lot of anticipation in this picture, it’s like they’re waiting for someone to go.
VOICE 1: What I suspect to be a border collie is over on the left…
VOICE 9: The dog to the left… [laughs]
VOICE 1: …boy, does he not have a poker face.
VOICE 10: Leaning back with this sort of self-satisfied look, uh, like he’s got an ace up his sleeve. Or up his paw. As the case may be.
VOICE 3: And I think there’s a little cheating going on in the foreground as a bulldog slips an ace under the table to his pal.
VOICE 10: If you look at the chips, it looks like it’s the two bulldogs who are winning the game, uh, maybe because they’re cheating.
VOICE 1: I don’t trust any of these dogs. I think they are all cheaters.
VOICE 10: When I look at this painting, of course I think of the Cezanne card player paintings, but then the sort of art critic in me falls away and I just look at the dogs. Um, I love dogs, and I think that everyone probably goes to the breed that appeals to them first or they have some life or childhood connection to.
VOICE 4: It sort of reminds me of like what I would imagine my grandfather’s poker table might look like, with like the paintings of sailboats in the background that kind of look the same color as the walls, and that like bright red lamp that reminds me of what you’d see over a pool table, and that old clock in the background. It’s kind of funny. Especially the little dog in the front with his tail sticking out of the bottom of the chair. [laughs]
VOICE 3: The piece is total kitsch. And it’s also kind of funny, but …I don’t know what makes it so perfectly awful.
VOICE 4: And at the same time, though, kind of, like, pretty beautifully painted. The composition is beautiful, like the textures stand out, you can tell that the chairs are wood, and the dogs seem furry.
VOICE 11: This is a work of art, absolutely. This is… you know, as absurd and ridiculous as it is, it’s a portrait on human behavior, uh…portrayed by dogs.
VOICE 3: You have to ask yourself, what is art altogether? And then, what makes something good art? And then you might get to what makes something bad art.
VOICE 1: I mean, this is the pinnacle of Western art, isn’t it? Like, I don’t… there is nothing wrong with this picture.
Let me set the scene: It’s summer 2017, and we’re on our back porch enjoying a pleasant evening, sipping beer and eating cheese, when the conversation turns towards my recent Patreon launch. My friend Andrew is thoughtful. I wish I could afford the $100 per episode tier, he says, the one that lets me pick what the episode is about. Because I would totally make you do an episode on Dogs Playing Poker.
As it turns out, he wasn’t the only person who wanted me to do this, which was confirmed when I created a listener Patreon challenge, and you responded. Like, a lot of you. And so now here we are, at the inside joke that became an episode, and you all have Andrew to thank. And he can thank you, because this episode didn’t cost him anything. So to kick things off, I have two words for you. Sam and Diane.
If you’re from a certain generation, then you’ll hear those names and know exactly why they are the perfect point of entry into this painting. And if you’re not, here’s a primer: Sam Malone and Diane Chambers are characters from the sitcom Cheers, and one of primetime’s greatest will-they-or-won’t-they couples. He was a blue-collar bar-owner; she was a pretentious literary grad student forced to work as a waitress after getting abandoned by her professor fiancé. The tension between their backgrounds – sk8r boy meets uptown girl – was the foundation for their relationship, for their multiple break-ups, and for some of the best odd couple humor in the show. And nothing more perfectly encapsulates their dynamic than this scene, where they’ve just bought a house together on a whim and are walking into the empty living room for the first time. Sam has a canvas under his arm:
SAM: You know, I never feel at home until I hang this little baby up.
DIANE: God, Sam.
DIANE: Oh…not where people can see it!
SAM: You know, I’ve never understood your attitude about this painting. I mean, it’s a classic! Dogs Playing Blackjack! [looks at it, starts to laugh] …I can never look at this without cracking up.
DIANE: Well, that’s the purpose of great art.
SAM: You know, I think you’re missing the subtle humor here. I mean, see this guy right here, he’s cheating! [laughs]
Of course Sam loves this painting. And of course that makes Diane shudder, not just because she’s stuck with this kitschy nightmare in her home, but because he actually loves it, which is so much worse. And with this, we have our set-up. The proudly anti-intellectual clod is pitted against the proudly intellectual snob over a picture of gambling dogs.
So let’s first define our terms. What is kitsch? Its easiest definition is art that is popular, commercial, mass-produced, cheesy, the kind of art you find in hotels or buy at Ikea. Kitsch goes back a long way – as long as there’s been fine art, there’s been its sellable, popular counterpart. In 1961, the art theorist Clement Greenberg wrote the seminal essay on kitsch, called “Kitsch and the Avant Garde”. In it he described kitsch as “operating by formulas. It is vicarious experience and faked sensations. It changes according to style, but always remains the same. It asks nothing of its customers except their money.” It is, in other words, the artistic equivalent of a Twinkie: empty calories that are tasty in the short-term, devoid of nutrients in the long-term, and completely shelf-stable. It can withstand the fact that it’s been around forever. And it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.
So back to Sam and Diane. As an art historian, and, I’d like to think, someone with taste, it’s of course tempting to side with Diane on this one. We’re supposed to. After all, Dogs Playing Poker—and specifically “A Friend in Need”, the most famous picture in the series that we all conjure up when we hear Dogs Playing Poker—is a punchline. It’s a shorthand for the art that people who know nothing about art enjoy, and they’re proud of it – like Sam, they don’t want to have to decipher your fancypants Picassos, they just knows what they likes. Why can’t art be a sugar rush, something that cracks you up, something that can be easily experienced and easily forgotten? What’s so bad about Twinkies anyway? And we, of course, are put in the position of defending a grapefruit sprinkled with wheat germ, of being that guy – cajoling you to sit with it longer, learn some of the history it’s referencing, do the work in your head, it’s good for you, trust me. And so much of the humor of Cheers came from Diane being that guy, and how annoying she was. So how can we just write off Sam’s response? What do we really accomplish by dismissing kitsch?
Because think about what we stand to lose. Kitsch is fun; anthropomorphized dogs are really cute, even the most intellectual among us have to admit that. My buddy Wade has both PhD from MIT and a new Australian shepherd puppy, and he’s certainly not above wistfully commenting that if there had been an Aussie at the poker table, you know he would have cleaned up. And moreover, it’s incredibly valuable to understand just what makes something widely appealing. Yes, kitsch tends to be the art that self-professed “people who don’t get art” enjoy, but to just dismiss it, and them, staunches an important conversation about the disconnect between the art we prop up in museums and the art we hang over our couches; between the objects that require our downloading audio guides on our iPhones at museums to even begin to understand, and the art we use as our lock screen. Between our appetite for a grapefruit sprinkled with wheat germ or a Twinkie. Between, in Greenberg’s words, the “artist’s art” and the “people’s art.”
And if you’re a regular listener to this podcast, then you’ll know that the “artist’s art” is pretty much our exclusive focus. So let’s take a moment and talk about the “people’s art.” It seems like an oxymoron. We think about art as something that is so subjective, so wedded to the soul of the artist, that asking the people to call the shots seems counter-intuitive to the whole process. But it’s an interesting thought experiment. What if art was dictated by the masses, if they were asked what they want to see, rather than what an artist decided to create? It turns out that in 1994, a duo of artists took this experiment on.
Their names were Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid—whom you might remember from a particularly delightful episode of This American Life about numbers—and they embarked on art history’s first ever professional market research survey about the public’s aesthetic preferences in art. Both were Russian ex-pats living in the U.S., newly sprung from a country where a government designed itself to be in the “people’s” interest, yet had done so without ever actually asking the “people’s” opinion, and so they were particularly sensitive to the value of voices being heard. Why not attempt to act as a mediator in the subjective conversation about art, where, by the end of the 20th century, what artists liked creating and what audiences liked consuming had so talked past each other?
Their project, then, was a cheeky exercise in seeing what would happen if taste itself could be quantified, if, purely on the basis of raw data and market research, it could be possible to engineer the world’s most desirable artwork. “We believe in numbers,” Melamid wrote in the project’s statement, “and numbers never lie.” So over the course of the next two years, they polled over 3000 participants about what, if it were up to them, they wanted to see in a painting.
And, drumroll, here are the results: when it came to color preference, 44% preferred blue; a piddling 2% who preferred maroon. 64% preferred traditional; 25% modern, although the distinction between the two isn’t really clarified; I would imagine people just tend to recoil at the word “modern.” There was a strong preference for Western art, that is, American and European, as opposed to non-Western, although, of course, few knew how much non-Western is folded into Western. But anyway. 51% like to see wild animals in their art, like lions and giraffes, while 30% preferred domestic animals, like dogs and cats, and…put a pin in that. 7% wanted both, which seems to me like it might be asking for trouble from a narrative perspective, but never mind. A whopping 88% wanted an outdoor scene, as opposed to 5% preferring the indoors. 49% want water scenes - lakes, rivers, and oceans. Fall is the winner in terms of the time of year depicted, with spring as a close second. If a painting is painted indoors, there had better be people in it, and also flowers. Non-religious art rules; religious art drools. Soft curves are preferred over sharp angles. The closer a painting resembles the realism of a photograph, the better, but go ahead and show those brushstrokes, because people like those too. Blend your colors, paint happy scenes, keep it simple, work on a canvas that’s big but not too big, no larger than a dishwasher. Add a historical figure if you can, but only as part of a group of other people. And fully clothed, if you please.
So Komar and Melamid then took this information and painted the “Most Wanted Painting.” And, I don’t want to poison the well for you if you haven’t seen it yet, but it’s a real snooze. It’s a landscape, the bank of a calm blue river against the soft curves of distant mountains, under a gentle blue sky, streaked with cottony clouds. The foreground is dotted with lush, early autumnal greenery, the leaves just starting to turn. Two wild deer frolic in the water, while nearby, a small pack of onlookers are placed just slightly apart from George Washington, who stands majestically in his uniform. And…that’s it. There’s not really much more to say than that. Because, minus the George Washington part, you’ve this painting like this before. It’s totally superfluous. It contributes absolutely nothing to the artistic canon. It moves no needles. It’s shelf stable. It’s ostensibly the most wanted, the painting painted by our own numbers, and yet it’s a completely inconsequential Twinkie.
And it’s all the more jarring in its mediocrity when you compare it to the Komar and Melamid’s “Least Wanted Painting”, which basically looks like a Mondrian threw up a Rothko. It’s all bright, slightly discordant yellows, reds, and grays, arranged as if by Jean Arp, according to the Dadaist laws of chance.
And I should preface, of course, that it’s clearly not meant to be an authentic Rothko – it’s got none of Rothko’s layered intentionality, none of Mondrian’s dynamic equilibrium. Instead, it’s like someone’s idea of what that weird “artist’s art” is supposed to be, someone resentful that abstraction gets to be called art at all. But it’s significant in that it’s loudly and clearly an illustration of what people don’t want to see in a painting, which means that they probably don’t want to see an authentic Rothko either. In maybe the most telling question of the whole survey, people were asked which of the following two philosophies are closest to [their] own view: 1) Paintings should ideally serve some higher goal, such as challenging their viewers to think about art or life in a different way than they normally do. Or, 2) paintings don’t necessarily have to teach us any lessons, but can just be something a person likes to look at. 19% agree with the first statement. 75% agree with the second. The Dianes are painfully outnumbered by the Sams. And I’m out of a job.
But here’s the thing. I’m an art historian, and I don’t mind saying that the place where we art historians get into trouble is that we jump to say that kitsch has no value. Because of course it does. There’s value purely in the fact that this is what people want to see. And furthermore, the art of the artist and the art of the people still have something in common: they are both art. And something else we art historians don’t always like to acknowledge is that the definition of art has an incredible stretchiness to it, that its elasticity can encompass the entire spectrum of avant garde to kitsch, of Mark Rothko to Norman Rockwell, of the painting by Braque to the Saturday Evening Post cover. All of these, Clement Greenberg writes, “are products of the same society.” One is just at a frequency that’s low enough for us all to hear.
And so, these dogs. As I said, the Dogs Playing Poker we know and love is specifically “A Friend in Need”, the title of the most familiar painting in what was actually a much larger series. In it, a group of dogs of various breeds – three St. Bernards, two English bulldogs, a Great Dane and a Collie – sit around a green felt poker table, beneath a red glass light fixture. The grandfather clock on the right hand side tells us they’ve been at it for a while. The St. Bernard in the center of the frame sits under a seascape – a painting some might argue is a little Shakespearian kitsch within the kitsch. We’re in what’s known as the pregnant part of the narrative, the moment just before the action, because, as we can see, the friend in need is one of the bulldogs in the foreground, whose bulldog buddy is slipping him an ace, about to guarantee a big win. The Great Dane is puffing a pipe, suspicious. The Collie is about to get that smug smile wiped off his muzzle. You can almost hear the metronome of the ticking clock about to be shattered by incensed reverberating barking as the bulldog’s paw sweeps the pile of chips into his furry little chest.
This canine drama was conceived by the mind of Cassius Marcellus Coolidge, known to all as Cash, who painted the original for this series of anthropomorphized dogs in 1894. Coolidge was born in 1844 in upstate New York to an abolitionist Quaker family, who named him after Cassius Marcellus Clay, an eloquent anti-slavery senator from Kentucky. As a young artist, Coolidge had no formal art education, but had sketched for his local newspaper, eventually becoming an accomplished cartoonist in the midst of pursuing a number of other careers, including banking, education, and journalism, and even inventing the Comic Foreground, you know, those one-dimensional, propped-up walls painted with muscle-bound weightlifters and ladies in bikinis and the holes for faces that you stick your own face through and get your photo taken. In 1903, the promotional company Brown and Bigelow commissioned Coolidge to paint a series of anthropomorphized dogs to use in their cigar ads. And thus, Dogs Playing Poker—and doing a lot of other things too, I should add—was born.
The ads were a runaway hit, with 16 paintings commissioned in all, and Brown and Bigelow even printing copies to use as giveaways. The series then had a winking second life when, in the 1970s, they were reproduced endlessly for living rooms and tee-shirts and calendars simply because there was a run on kitsch—people knew these paintings were ridiculous and wanted them because of that. And this was the moment when you could say Dogs Playing Poker became the Mona Lisa of kitsch, deliberately sought out because it was an icon. And all this happened while Coolidge remained relatively anonymous. He’s the most famous American artist you’ve never heard of, the artist who never came close to the kind of fame that his work enjoyed. You could argue that he never really deserved much fame as an artist – the few brave art historians who have dug into him have remarked that his paintings of people were never very good, that he kind of made everyone look like dogs. But still, he’s brought enjoyment to an awful lot of people, and is responsible for an indelible cultural meme, and even though he was never the “Michelangelo of the dog world” that he should have been, according to his town historian Gwen Atcheson, you have to think that he deserved an obituary, when he died at the age of 89, that said something more than “he painted many pictures of dogs in his lifetime.”
But there’s of course a bigger question here: why were these paintings of dogs so appealing in the first place? Here’s what I think. I think there was actually some wheat germ snuck into the Twinkie. I don’t think it could have been as famous as it was otherwise. Because what Dogs Playing Poker does to be so digestible isn’t all that different from what Hopper did, or Cezanne, or the Impressionists: they borrow scenes from ordinary life. They show us ourselves. The fact that these dogs are so closely mirroring the actions of humans – the helping hand between the bulldogs, the watchful skepticism of the Great Dane, the cocky obliviousness of the Collie, one of the St. Bernards so vexed by his own hand that he’s not even paying attention – speaks to Coolidge’s power of observation, close attention to detail, his empathy. What is really so different between these dogs and Cezanne’s early 1890s painting series of taut, tense card players, or Caravaggio’s Cardsharps from 1594, where someone is clearly about to be called out for cheating? It’s all an observation of human dynamics, and does it really matter if it’s acted out by dogs? Fine art is founded on a rich history of allusions and metaphors anyway: think about how many French Revolution paintings featured people in togas. Also, any dog-owner will tell you that not just every breed but every individual dog will have his or her own almost human-like personality, more so than any other domesticated animal. To wit, Coolidge’s wife and daughter, like I am, happened to be cat lovers, but conceded that cats playing poker, what would almost certainly amount to a bunch of kitties asleep on a knocked-over pile of poker chips, “didn’t seem to go.”
What’s more, we also live in a world where the influence of advertising on the art world is already well-established. Andy Warhol didn’t come up with the Campbell’s soup logo, all he did was change its context, thereby drawing our attention to its clean design and bright colors. And he wouldn’t even have done that if Marcel Duchamp hadn’t once taken a mass-produced urinal and placed it inside a museum. In other words, high art and low art are symbiotically dependent on one another, especially from the late 19th century onwards, it’s just the way it is. In the words of Clement Greenberg again, “where there is an avant garde, we also find a rear garde.” It’s just the way it is. Dogs Playing Poker contains elements of Cezanne, Warhol embraces elements of advertisements, Gauguin integrated Tahitian folk art into his canvases, and abstraction was developed as a language to reach the masses who wouldn’t understand the obscure literary references usually found in fine art. The point is, with all respect to Komar and Melamid, attempting to divorce the people’s art from the artist’s art is a futile task. Because artists are people. And we are all a product of our society, which is comprised of us. And reflecting this, you could argue, is pretty much the point of art.
So are we done here? Kitsch is art because art is life and art historians should stop trying to convert the Sams of the world into Dianes? No, we are not done. Because even as we explain the origins for kitsch’s attractiveness, there’s something we haven’t talked about yet. We haven’t talked about the consequences of legitimizing kitsch as though it is capable of being an end in itself. As though it has value if there’s no one to buy it. If it’s only created to be received, rather than because the creator was compelled by something powerful in him or herself to create it. Immanuel Kant once wrote that the relative worth of an object, something whose value we can only assess because someone has paid for it, is distinct from the inner worth of an object, which simply has dignity. It doesn’t need to be purchased to be valuable. It is, properly, an end in itself. And sure, dignity is a subjective and somewhat highfalutin term in the hands of a German philosopher, but still, it’s an elegant way to frame how we think about what separates kitsch from fine art.
Because remember too what Greenberg said about kitsch at the top of the episode: “kitsch demands nothing of its customers except their money.” The very definition of kitsch is that it was created for us, and yet demands absolutely nothing of us except to purchase it. It demands no effort, no strain, no digestion of whole grains. It’s utterly processed, it lets us sit back and not burn a single calorie as we enjoy it. And to reinforce his point, Greenberg tells an anecdote of the experience of looking at a painting by Picasso and a painting by a kitschy Russian artist, who, for our purposes, we’ll sub in Cash Coolidge. Greenberg describes the Coolidges of the world as telling us an easy story, without needing to turn everything into a teachable moment about the human condition. But with Picasso “there is nothing immediately present in his painting, but must be projected into it by a spectator sensitive enough to react and reflect.” In Dogs Playing Poker, then, he continues, “the ‘reflected’ effort has already been included in a picture ready for the spectator’s unreflective enjoyment. Where Picasso paints cause, Coolidge paints effect.” In other words, kitsch has already done the work for us, while fine art requires our involvement, our active effort. And learning to engage with fine art takes time and energy, it’s a muscle that’s easily atrophied without proper nourishment. Left to a diet of Twinkies, your system loses the ability to digest.
And make no mistake, there are consequences to this. It’s an incredibly dangerous thing when we’re told that it’s fine, we don’t need to put any effort in, we have permission to remain passive and spoonfed. Fascist art, for example, has a long history of legitimizing kitsch. It’s disturbing and calculated, this campaign to, in Greenberg’s words, “flatter the masses by bringing culture down to their level.” A populist dictator ingratiates himself to the people by showing them what he wants them to see, all the while pretending they’re the ones calling the shots. After all, what is populism if not the validation that what we see is what we want to see? Greenberg describes fascism as using “up-to-dateness as a means of concealing its retrogression,” with the disturbing consequence that when artists then offer their art – a soulful, complex carbohydrate that is maybe a little too close for comfort – they are the ones dismissed by the people as out of touch. They’re written off as a small bunch of elitists trying to make everyone work too hard, snobbishly thumbing their noses at what the majority already has permission to enjoy. Maybe this sounds familiar.
But before you get too depressed, remember that this kind of kitsch really only gets you so far. We talked about this in episode 9, when we looked at the Nazi art exhibitions in 1937. Effective though Nazi propagandists were at turning Germans against their artistic heritage, they didn’t do it because their own kitsch was so effective, but because they harnessed and subverted the tremendous power of the Expressionist art they plundered. They took art with history, with aura, with authentic ties to the past, art that demanded something powerful from its audience, the grapefruits swimming in wheat germ, and flipped the script on it, used its power against itself. It was tragic, and disturbing, but remember that the art they sought to replace it with, the godawful kitsch that they created for the Great German Art exhibition, the art that people thought they wanted to see, was a dud.
Maybe we feel comfortable around kitsch because we can understand it, because we feel like it’s mirroring our lived experiences. But I’ll be honest. There are plenty of experiences I haven’t had, experiences that good art can pull me into if I simply make the effort to extend my hand, experiences of other people that I can learn something from. Experiences that exist more deeply in myself that I’ve never accessed, that a Rothko helped to unlock.It’s the difference between approaching an artwork as though it’s a question, rather than an answer, a cause, rather than an effect.And so, if it’s all the same to you, I’ll choose to follow Diane’s lead on this one.But not because I’m that guy, and not because I have to as an art historian, and not because the occasional Twinkie isn’t delicious. Because, with all due respect, I prefer my art to serve some higher goal, such as challenging their viewers to think about art or life in a different way than they normally do. With some dogs. And even more dignity.
WOODY: This is great! I got the one where they’re on the train!
SAM: Yeah, not now, Woody, they… [laughs] lookit that, I’ve never noticed that, the bloodhound’s doubling down, look at that!
Special thanks to Andrew Galante, to whom I say, challenge accepted, and to the many Patreon supporters who made this episode possible. Thank you as well to the friends and family members whom I wrangled into recording observations at the top of the episode, who are, in alphabetical order, Adrianne, Andrew, Bob, Ellie, Evan, Jamie and Mike, Mom, Matt, Nick, and Wade. You guys are the greatest.
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The Lonely Palette is a proud member of Hub & Spoke, a new collective of idea-driven podcasts. And, I should mention that our latest addition to the fold, Hi-Phi Nation, is currently duking it out in Discover Pod’s Podcast Madness, so head on over to discoverpods.com and help a philosophy podcast out. Also listen to their most recent episode, Freedom and Hostile Design, which explores the difference between acts of expression in public spaces. I feel like Richard Serra just felt a warm breeze on his neck. So. Check it out at hiphination.org.