Abstract Art: A Product of the Untalented, Sold by the Unprincipled to the Utterly Bewildered

Al Capp? Apocryphal?

alcappabstract02Dear Quote Investigator: The cartoonist Al Capp was famous for creating the long-running comic strip Li’l Abner. During the 1960s he reportedly described abstract art with the following amusing and acerbic phrase:

A product of the untalented sold by the unprincipled to the utterly bewildered.

Today this description could be applied to several products. Is this quotation accurate?

Quote Investigator: Al Capp did make more than one comment of this type. The earliest evidence located by QI was printed in a 1961 newspaper column by Capp who presented a comedic conception of a “Library of Creative Art” in the year 2000, i.e., thirty-nine years in the future.

Capp indicated that contemporary TV commercials would be preserved in the future museum because they embodied “man’s supreme achievement in the realm of wild, impossible fantasy.” However, abstract art works were labeled “incomprehensible messes”, and they would not be present in the museum. The fictional curator stated the following. Boldface has been added to passages below: 1

By excluding their messes from the library the place will look cleaner, and maybe our time will be forgotten as one when the creations of the untalented, the unhealthy, and the unhousebroken were praised by the unearthly and sold by the unprincipled to the totally bewildered.

We’ll all look better in the year 2000 if we retain only the work of artists now called hacks, but who stubbornly kept alive the traditions of Michaelangelo, da Vinci, and Rembrandt.

Although, the museum and its curator were exaggerated satirical devices they did reflect some of the opinions held by Capp.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In June 1963 an Associated Press story that appeared in multiple newspapers printed the words spoken by Capp during a television colloquy. This version of the statement was more concise: 2

Cartoonist Al Capp was asked on a recorded television program yesterday to discuss abstract art.

His evaluation: “A product of the untalented, sold by the unprincipled to the utterly bewildered.”

The creator of ‘Lil Abner” gave his view while being interviewed by teenagers on a program called “Youth Wants to Know.”

In 1966 Capp used a version of the expression again while presenting a talk at the Smithsonian in Washington: 3

Cartoonist Al Capp, not one to burden his judgments with qualifications, let loose at abstract art yesterday. “The product of diseased minds,” he termed it during a chalk talk given at the Smithsonian Institution as part of Cavalcade of American Comics series.

So that no one might miss the point, the creator of “L’il Abner” offered a further definition. “Abstract art is a product of the untalented, sold by the unprincipled to the totally bewildered,” he declared with a demonic grin.

Writer and quotation maven Robert Deis kindly pointed out Capp’s saying to QI when he was commenting on another statement that has an entry on this website. In 1977 famed rocker Frank Zappa said:

Most rock journalism is people who can’t write interviewing people who can’t talk for people who can’t read.

This corrosive remark was expressed with a similar syntactical style, and it was examined in this entry. Robert Deis is the proprietor of the wonderfully entertaining websites: Quote/Counterquote and This Day In Quotes.

In conclusion, in the 1960s Al Capp did employ multiple versions of the statement given by the questioner. The earliest located by QI was written in 1961.

(Thanks to Bob Deis for visiting the website and telling QI about this saying.)

Notes:

  1. 1961 May 4, Boston Globe, Slim Pickin’s in an Art Library: A Sad Commentary On Sick Century by Al Capp, Quote Page 7, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest)
  2. 1963 June 25, Washington Post, Al Capp Frames Abstract Art, (Associated Press), Quote Page A1, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest)
  3. 1966 June 12, Washington Post, Abstract Art Is Merely a Product Of Diseased Minds, Al Capp Asserts, Quote Page D1, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest)