The best definition of high art I have heard yet.

Kurt Vonnegut can take a bite out of you in such a hilarious way that it is possible to not notice that you are missing a limb for laughing so hard. Bizarre and unpretentious and dark and comical: It’s all so terrible but it doesn’t really matter and isn’t it actually rather funny? Oh ho ho.

Yesterday I bought a used copy of one of my favourites: Hocus Pocus. I’ve recommended it to many people who say, okay fine, so lend it to me and I’ll read it. And I’d say, well I don’t own it; go to the library! And they don’t. So I bought this mostly so that I can lend it to others, thereby encouraging the reading of this book directly.

The first section I flipped to after making this exciting purchase was his description of fine art: it is perhaps my favourite part of the book and I would like to share it with you:

Chapter 3 (that is, the first 2 pages thereof):

Elias Tarkington, the severely wounded Abraham Lincoln look-alike, was brought home in 1 of his own wagons to Scipio, to his estate overlooking the town and lake.

He was not well educated, and was more a mechanic than a scientist, and so spent his last 3 years trying to invent what anyone familiar with Newton’s Laws would have known was an impossibility, a perpetual-motion machine. He had no fewer than 27 contraptions built, which he foolishly expected to go on running, after he had given them an initial spin or whack, until Judgment Day.

I found 19 of those stubborn, mocking machines in the attic of what used to be their inventor’s mansion, which in my time was the home of the College President, about a year after I came to work at Tarkington. I brought them back downstairs and into the 20th Century. Some of my students and I cleaned them up and restored any parts that had deteriorated during the intervening 100 years. At the least they were exquisite jewelry, with garnets and amethysts for bearings, with arms and legs of exotic woods, with tumbling balls of ivory, with chutes and counterweights of silver. It was as though dying Elias hoped to overwhelm science with the magic of precious materials.

The longest my students and I could get the best of them to run was 51 seconds. Some eternity!

To me, and I passed this on to my students, the restored devices demonstrated not only how quickly anything on Earth runs down without steady infusions of energy. They reminded us, too, of the craftsmanship no longer practiced in the town below. Nobody down there in our time could make things that cunning and beautiful.

Yes, and we took the 10 machines we agreed were the most beguiling, and we put them on permanent exhibit in the foyer of this library underneath a sign whose words can surely be applied to this whole ruined planet nowadays:


I have discovered from reading old newspapers and letters and diaries from back then that the men who built the machines for Elias Tarkington knew from the first that they would never work, whatever the reason. Yet what love they lavished on the materials that comprised them! How is this for a definition of high art: “Making the most of the raw materials of futility”?

-Kurt Vonnegut, Hocus Pocus, 1990


There it is. Perfect and beautiful and mocking and accepting of things-as-is. We’re just here for a while and there’s so much to be dazzled by. I want to look and keep looking. Today I picked up pretty flowers with snapped stems off the ground and put them in a little glass maple syrup jar, sans the syrup (and with the addition of water) and they are sitting next to me now as I type. Isn’t that nice? Hello, pretty flowers; let’s be alive together for a little while. If that’s the best we can do, I’ll take it.

When in doubt, laugh. Laugh like hell. Read on, daydreamers.


4 thoughts on “The best definition of high art I have heard yet.

  1. As I’m sitting at work, chugging away, I took a look at this, and it cheered me up! It’s not so futile when there’s beauty and life to be had!

    • Hooray! I’m so glad. 🙂

      To me futility makes the flowers more beautiful – they beam bright colours to no ultimate goal other than existing in the sun another day. Here we are and why not? If we’re going to go out, we might as well spark toward flame while we can.

    • Yes yes yes! I also really enjoy Breakfast of Champions, and how he takes nothing for granted, for example: our understanding of what an apple is, in case we don’t have those any more by the time we read the story.

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