“Art in Politics: A Cubist Secretary Might Not Be Out of Place Among Other Squareheads” (E22)

  • Originally printed: Vanity Fair, March 1919
  • First reprinted in: Never reprinted
  • Original Byline: Robert C. Benchley


Taking his cue from a then-current push to create a Federal Department of the Fine Arts, complete with a cabinet level Secretary, the young Benchley takes the reader on a wild ride through the inevitable high culture war implications of such a step. Where would such a creature fit into the line of Presidential succession? And how soon would it be before some southern dominated Senate sub-committee, alerted to the rich possibilities of political conflict beyond the confines of “states’ rights” and the tariff, began shutting down metropolitan museums?

RCB envisions the grim advent of a new rhetorical hybrid plagued by all of the inadequacies of the undergraduate Art History essay and the machine stump speech, while possessing none of their virtues (if they in fact have any virtues). The resultant Fourth Party System, organized around a contest between an airy “Avant-Gardism” and hidebound “Americanism”, actually bears some passing resemblance to the state of affairs one observes in U.S. political discourse today, although, of course, it is not quite as stupid as that.

Favourite Moment:
“Vote for John A. Ossip! He kept us out of post-impressionism!”

“Another Sensational Discovery Shakes the Art World” (E17)

  • Originally printed: The New Yorker, August 16, 1930
  • First reprinted in: Never reprinted
  • Original Byline: Robert Benchley


Here RB intervenes in the fashionable furor over forgery and false fronts in the fine arts, as seen in such keen sociological treatises as Animal Crackers. The piece parses out the purport of an allegorical stag hunt substratum reprieved from obscurity by an overzealous museum cleaner, whose critical scrubbing skills helped put a phony Rembrandt-Romney to rout (and to rinse). Who could have guessed that old George Romney (the portraitist, not his descendant the Mitt-maker) had concealed such medievalist mental states beneath his staid social miming stocks in trade?

Knowing that such flights of feudal fantasy didn’t pay the bills during the Age of Enlightenment, the ambitious Romney apparently thought so little of his creation that he scrupled not at scribbling the odd commercial calculation or dalliance digits across its bestiological bottom half. And leave it to Benchley to get in a cheep cheep cheep shot at his avian enemies along the way!

Favourite Moment:
“To carry the stag-hunt story down into the foreground, where the dolphin and the lion are, would seem to be folly. They seem to be part of another idea entirely.”