The Asshole and the Proto-Emoji: The Visual Artwork of Kurt Vonnegut

Written by Caleb Weintraub


In 1973, the year Vonnegut published Breakfast of Champions, Michael Craig-Martin exhibited An Oak Tree at a London gallery. This was a conceptual work of art that consisted of a glass of water on a glass shelf on metal brackets 253 centimeters above the ground with text mounted on the wall proclaiming that the display was, in fact, an oak tree. The artist explained that the actual oak tree had, by his authority (and not unlike transubstantiation) metamorphosed into a glass of water, but was, in fact, still essentially an oak. By his account, art hinged on belief, the belief of “the artist in his capacity to speak and the willing faith of the viewer in accepting what he has to say.”1

Marcel Duchamp and Laurence Sterne had said just as much many years (and in the case of Sterne, centuries) before. But in 1973, distrust, disdain, and irreverence were very much in the air.

To that end, it is difficult to look at Vonnegut’s drawings in Breakfast of Champions and say with any certainty that they are or are not as artistically valid as any other efforts of the time. And, if inspiration and legacy are any gauges of value, one could argue with some assurance that Vonnegut’s humble doodles have had far more impact on culture than the glass of water that was a tree.

In fact, his brand of cynicism and satire have become a veritable institution in contemporary art and culture. In his overarching attitude as prankster and provocateur, he recalls artists like Maurizio Cattelan and Tom Friedman, artists whose work has been known to ridicule institutions and engage in those employing art against art. Artists such as Margaret Kilgallen (1967–2001) and Turner Prize recipients Grayson Perry (1960–) and David Shrigley (1968–), fixtures in the contemporary art world, made and make 2D images that are in no small way connected to the project with which Vonnegut, in his drawings, was engaged. Filmmakers such as Wes Anderson, comedians including Kids in the Hall and Stephen Colbert might not have had nearly the purchase they have had were it not for Vonnegut and his acerbic pen. His artwork was not without precedent either. In his lyrical mark-making, one can detect the imprint of Picasso, Miro, Dali, and Philip Guston (or at least the more roguish aspects of their DNA) just as one will hear echoes of Twain, Brecht, and Breton in his turning of phrases and weaving of words.

I have heard it said that everyone has only one thing to say—that there is really only one thesis in every one of us, one idea worth sharing. A hobbyhorse for some, a genuine insight for others. And everything we do and say is just another iteration of that same idea. I think this is the case for Vonnegut as well, but he employed such a hefty apparatus of humor and narrative contrivance to make his point that one could easily miss that point in the fallout from all that disaffection.

Vonnegut once said that “we are healthy only to the extent that our ideas are humane.”

All of his jabbing and satirizing of capitalism, religion, governmental and corporate responsibility, the validity of historical records, sexism, racism, the notion of free will, artistic convention, even science—it was all in service of a belief in the relativism of a kind. It was in service of a denial of accepted norms, of ‘best practices,’ of preconception. But Vonnegut’s departure from grand ideologies was different from the quasi-spiritual-seeker brand practiced by the recently expired beatniks and the starry-eyed idealism of the hippie generation. His brand of reactionism was a tired and disaffected one. His was an acknowledgment that no one is any better than anyone else and that there is a lot of chaos mixed in with a lot of bad judgment and bad actors (actions?) that result in the shambles of the world we know and have to navigate.

Of course, the Beatniks and the Hippies had been shouting about the same sort of stuff for a decade-plus, but in the end they came off as windbags and buffoons and all their earnest searching and naive hopefulness was looking like it might not amount to anything much (at least that’s how it may have seemed to Vonnegut by the early ’70s). And he, Vonnegut, would represent a voice of reason . . . one that would refrain from sentimentalism and that would not come off as drug-addled or unglued. His was a voice of exasperation and submission. He wasn’t buying snake oil, and he wasn’t selling snake oil. He promised to tell it like it is, to leave off the wishful thinking, to eschew formality, and not even to begin to console. For his generation, that candor was just what the doctor ordered. He, at least, was not trafficking in pseudo-intellectualism or flower power, nor would he resort to Brady-Bunch remedies or Hollywood endings.

If everyone has something to say, it may also be true that everyone has one way to say it. And Vonnegut’s way was penetrating and cheeky and without embellishment.

This economy of means is most on display in his drawings. They are clever and poker-faced, stupid and stiff. And they are relentlessly blunt. By blunt, I mean that they are abrupt in their meaning, but also that they are abrupt in their delivery. On a formal level too, they are blunt. The drawings are made with an elementary school felt-tipped pen, they are rounded, cartoony, not geometric, imprecise. Because of their bluntness and their deadpan character, they are severe, caustic, and often quite beautiful.

The quality of incisiveness present in the drawings is satisfyingly echoed in the sentiments recorded in following passage from Breakfast of Champions:

Most white people in Midland City were insecure when they spoke, so they kept their sentences short and their words simple, in order to keep embarrassing mistakes to a minimum. Dwayne certainly did that. Patty certainly did that. This was because their English teachers would wince and cover their ears and give them flunking grades and so on whenever they failed to speak like English aristocrats before the First World War. Also: they were told that they were unworthy to speak or write their language if they couldn’t love or understand incomprehensible novels and poems and plays about people long ago and far away, such as Ivanhoe. The black people would not put up with this. They went on talking English every which way. They refused to read books they couldn’t understand—on the grounds they couldn’t understand them. They would ask such impudent questions as, “Whuffo I want to read no Tale of Two Cities? Whuffo?” (142)

This sense of irreverence and a call for straightforwardness is again on display when he characterizes the “Star-Spangled Banner” as “gibberish sprinkled with question marks” and in a later passage referencing Rabo Karabekian’s $50,000 minimalist painting:

“I had no respect whatsoever for the creative works of either the painter or the novelist. I thought Karabekian with his meaningless pictures had entered into a conspiracy with millionaires to make poor people feel stupid. I thought Beatrice Keedsler had joined hands with other old-fashioned storytellers to make people believe that life had leading characters, minor characters, significant details, insignificant details, that it had lessons to be learned, tests to be passed, and a beginning, a middle, and an end” (213).

It is all very funny, but it can become grating at times too. And even though I like to read his quotes, I consider them a guilty pleasure because their tone is so much the tone of proclamations people make when they are high, and that other people repeat when they are higher and unable to remember that someone else has already made that observation. But, of course, there is a difference: Vonnegut’s observations do resonate.

One more example: “1492—The teachers told the children that this was when their continent was discovered by human beings. Actually, millions of human beings were already living full and imaginative lives on the continent in 1492. That was simply the year in which sea pirates began to cheat and rob and kill them” (10).

The first time I read that line, I was barely fazed. I had taken this fact for granted; it was not a revelation to me. By the time I was in elementary school this and several other stories had been revised and reintroduced into the educational system. The whitewash had begun to fade, at least where I lived. So when I first came across this line, I did not fully appreciate its power. Now, I have a greater capacity to consider context and connect artworks to the times and places in which they were conceived. From that perspective, these lines are shocking and illuminating. It is important to note that even if the cultural elites were well aware of the biases in American history books, Vonnegut’s novels were most widely read by a generation and demographic that might not otherwise have been exposed to this type of shrewd cultural introspection. And though his lines would become the stuff of cliché, before they were cliché, they were bold words and big ideas.

There have been three recent instances during which I have felt keenly connected to Vonnegut, or at least that I was experiencing the world, even his work in a peculiarly Vonnegut sort of way.

Here’s one. Like everyone else, I have known about emojis for a pretty long time. But it was not until I finally got a proper smartphone a few years ago that I had a chance to see what those things were all about. They were not nearly as offensive as they had been made out to be. I suppose that if my colleagues were to send me messages riddled with winkies, I might have felt differently, but as things stood, the emojis did not seem terribly vulgar. I was not nervous that they would savagely and perniciously eat up all known conventions of grammar and human expression (at least not yet). All the same, I did not have a use for them either. I would leave them for the post-verbals, the middle-schoolers who were not equipped with the terminology to boast or flirt without coming off as taking themselves too seriously or suffering actual emotion. And there really is nothing like a little devil face or a pile of poo to crystallize a thought when the words just won’t come or when one is trying to maintain equilibrium in a digital exchange. In spite of my disregard for emojis, on occasion, my thumb would slip and open the folder of a thousand of them, and, without meaning to, invoke them. A question-mark-sized dragon or barbell would appear where I had meant to type an “A” or a “C.” The absurdity of the bungled note would sometimes get the better of me, and I would just send the text as-is, and not bother to explain it to the recipient. That always felt a little Vonnegut-y. These days I am a more regular offender. I sometimes pop open the emoji window deliberately to fling random icons at my children and my wife—I take care that the accumulations do not amount to anything sensible, to any legitimate signification. There are times though when something uncanny will result from these deliveries, and the message will seem like a surrealist poem, chaotic and improbable, but somehow brimming with mystery and potential meaning. This is when it seems Vonnegut is close by.

I do not actually know too many people who use emojis on purpose other than my nine-year-old, who will occasionally send me a thumbs up when I ask him if he has finished his homework or brushed his teeth. Of course, one cannot trust an emoji. His thumbs up may as well be an asterisk. His toothbrush is not even wet.

Kurt Vonnegut drew fairly regularly. And while he was sometimes dismissive of his drawings, calling them “doodles,” and talking about them as if they were a kind of callisthenic exorcism, he also admitted that they were honest and unaffected. This self-awareness and lack of presumption are what allow Vonnegut’s sketches, anemic as they are, to have the unlikely effect of coming across as more spirited and dead-on than a good deal of contemporaneous and mannered High Art.

A few weeks ago I sat in the reading room of the Lilly Library and looked through all of the original drawings from Breakfast of Champions. Working my way through his drawings, I couldn’t help but feel vindicated for my misuse of emojis. I think he might have approved.

Until a couple of months earlier, I had not read Vonnegut in twenty years. Returning to his work, I decided against the logical thing, against reading his books in the order in which they were written. Instead, I bopped around from title to title—from early work to some of his later efforts and not always for any particular reason. Once I was just curious enough about Kilgore Trout to track him down in another book, just to see what he was up to. I nearly had to abandon a different book because the copy I had was so old and brittle that the pages kept breaking off. It was actually a satisfying, if sacrilegious, way to read a book . . . and one that is only possible in this age of digital reproduction, when the value of a thing, of anything, is in so much doubt. To read a page, turn it, read the back side of it, and then have it separate from the binding like a petal off the stem of a dying flower and then to put it aside, is far more reassuringly final than simply turning pages. It practically felt like I was consuming them. After first piling the pages in a neat stack by my bedside with the vague notion that I might at some future date suture it all back together, after about forty pages I had to disabuse myself of those lofty intentions and just abandon myself to the process of reading and tearing, reading and tearing . . . and then a little later, reading, tearing, crumpling and tossing. It was pretty fabulous. Highly recommended. . . . Maybe don’t do this with Bronte or Faulkner. Again, Vonnegut felt close by, though he would probably have preferred it if I would have rolled cigarettes with those pages.

I started with Slaughterhouse-Five, then went back in time to Player Piano. I hit a lot of the major stops but saved Breakfast for the week just before heading to the Lilly reading room. I wanted the book to be fresh in my mind.

It is probably only fair to preface these comments with the confession that I have never been a huge Vonnegut fan. I was raised on the classics and have always suffered from a bad case of judgmentalism and injury when faced with books that aim to topple—even if begging pardon in the process—the project of arts and letters. After my first introduction to Vonnegut, I came away feeling underwhelmed. I might add that I had a similar response to Kerouac, Hunter S. Thompson, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and a number of other written works that had the cachet of cool. They were all exceptionally quotable but ultimately a little try-hard.

Then again, I never really got into the Simpsons or Kids in the Hall while all of my friends practically shaped their entire adolescence, their patterns of conversation, and their attitudes on those cultural fixtures of the ’90s.

All that is to say that either I was missing something or all of my friends were just suckers with low standards who needed snarky twenty-somethings or beady-eyed cartoon characters to unpack their world for them, whereas I was happy enough to leave all that shit alone. I felt that there were too many people doing cartwheels trying to pick up where Thomas Wolfe left off, not knowing what to do to come out of the shadows of Mailer (in his time). It would be best for me to claim that it turns out that I was, in fact, the sucker after all . . . that I had been entirely over-serious, too attached to dusty old things, incapable of appreciating works of staggering genius by these artists who were not merely rattling sabers at everything serious and self-important but were, in fact, giving culture a much-needed realignment. That would be the humble and right way to end this paragraph and start another one, but in the end, the jury is still out for me. A lot of those works are just so full of studied irony, so on the nose and self-conscious. Who knows? I do miss a lot, I was and will always be a little out of touch, but I can’t help but feel that a lot of these creators were selling us all short, and selling themselves short. I held out. And now there are plenty of artists who are dishing it up without the air quotes and cartoon angst. I recently finished watching the final season of Girls and feel that that show is a fine example of self-aware art as opposed to self-conscious art.

I had hoped that my return to Vonnegut would prove me wrong, that the pages would turn out to be masterful, packed with finely diced sarcasm and not the looping punches of satire I remember that made me cringe. As it turned out, a few of the books I read recently were exactly the way I had remembered, riddled with acrobatic attempts at minting new and unlikely metaphors. But then there was Breakfast. The book, although famous, and something of a cult favorite, was pretty much dismissed by critics, and even some Vonnegut die-hards I know and respect, feel that it is not one of his shining achievements. But I like this book. As far as I am concerned, it stands out from the rest as the most definitive encapsulation of what Vonnegut stood for and the legacy he left.

I can buy into the brand of humor here. In my head, the narrator is exhausted, he’s a slow and dawdling deliverer. He practically whispers the story. There is a confessional quality to the tone of the writing; I feel that I have been taken into his confidence. There is a kind of older-brother wisdom that runs through the book. I am instructed to “listen.” The pretext that this work is a science fiction novel and that therefore every element must be itemized and defined to introduce me to this strange world and the curiosities of its inhabitants is a convenient device for Vonnegut to dish out some of his most crushing lines. In the role of this visitor from another planet or a future time, I am treated as a child; everything is explained to me, the meaning of a handshake, the signification of a lemon when used as a metaphor for a car that will not work, what exactly is a “greeting card.” But then, of course, there is a great deal of editorializing, and this is where the slippage occurs. This is where the art happens. My confidant outlines the shape of a thirty-eight caliber revolver, its cheerful depiction designedly at odds with its description as “a tool whose only purpose was to make holes in human beings.”

In another passage about guns, Dwayne Hoover, the deranged car dealer, tells us that “there were neat little metal packages containing charcoal, potassium nitrate and sulfur only inches from his brains. He had only to trip a lever, and the powder would turn to gas. The gas would blow a chunk of lead down a tube and through Dwayne’s brains” (49–52).

Just opposite that paragraph is a picture of a flamingo. After overcoming his impulse to commit suicide, Hoover takes out his anger by shooting up his bathroom including a flamingo that had been sandblasted into his bathroom enclosure. The absurd pairing of desperate human emotion and the banal imagery of the flamingo is what gives the book and the tone of the narrator/author its particular salty charm.

As enlightening as it may be to look into which objects Vonnegut chose to draw, it is also interesting to consider the opportunities he passed up.

And here’s the thing: In a narrative that drifts from character to character and in and out of linear continuity, and skirts the edge of carelessness in construction at every turn, the drawings function as a constant and reassuring presence. Their recurrence and their coherence are a signal that things are on track. The hand that has inked them is playful no doubt, but that hand when putting the tip to page is surprisingly consistent and assured. The marks are sturdy, and the image has been holistically produced. There is no sign of struggle, no evidence of process; they may as well have materialized from the author’s brain. There are no scratch marks, no erasures, no indefinite strokes; this is a hand, a mind, that is in the moment, not hesitating.

One of the reasons that the drawings have a sense of completeness in spite of the apparent ease of their construction is that they so clearly match the intention of the artist. I have discovered a certain degree of consensus does exist when people assess artworks even across a range of seemingly incommensurate an incomparable styles. The characteristic that distinguishes a work as a success does not hinge upon how beautiful are its colors, or how deft its brushwork, or how well-synthesized the patina, or how impressive the composition, or how realistic or abstract or whatever the artificial measure may be projected upon a work of art and assumed to be the litmus of its valuation. The actual evaluation of the effectiveness of an artwork is in fact based upon how well and to what degree it appears to meet the expectations the maker has set out for it to achieve. So, for instance, if a realist painter botches an arm or mismatches the scale and location of an eye, the perceptive viewer will detect this as an error. If another artist who has deliberately rearranged the limbs and features of a figure in a drawing (and assuming that deliberateness is readily apparent) then completes a passage in the drawing that appears to be naturalistic, this otherwise skillful display of rendering will appear at odds with the presumed ambition to distort and will go down as a flaw.

Typically, this type of appraisal occurs unconsciously. We make these kinds of assessments all the time. It is one of the reasons why we do and do not like the look of any person-made thing. And just to bring the point to a finer head, the notion of finish is likewise relative and dependent upon the equation set forth by a given work of art. Upon encountering a piece, we may make an immediate assessment that begins with the question “What is this thing getting at?” We look to the visual vocabulary presented by the work to get clues to its intention. So, even though I have referred to Vonnegut’s confident mark as an indication of the seeming rightness of those drawings, it is because that peremptory bluntness of line and the stark force of the design are in agreement with what I have understood to be the intentions of the artist. In the case of another artist whose project may be composed of the very same material but who slashes and stabs with the tool, we may deduce an entirely different framework for expectation, and the conditions for success will have to be adapted. If that drawing then appears to match the perceived intentions of its maker, and its content can, therefore, be discerned, then it too would be a success in spite its disproportion to the formula we had so recently engineered for the previously scrutinized artwork.

The drawings in Breakfast have an effect not unlike a reverb trail or the pause a comedian will take after delivering a sharp line that requires some puzzling-out. She may make the remark, bump the mic and step away for a minute as if a firework had been shot up into the sky and now must wait for the words to float down and be apprehended by the listeners at so many unequal rates. Vonnegut’s pictures underscore the thoughts and flatten them out so that they may be better and more baldly admired. Without the drawings, one might overlook a jab or fail to internalize the scope of some raillery. They allow one to dwell on a recent passage or remark, to replay it as it were, see it in slow motion, appreciate it for all of its shining frankness.

There are many instances in which I imagine drawings could have served the text well but are absent. Here are three examples that seemed ripe for a doodle when I was reading this time around, and that had me wondering if there was a logic to Vonnegut’s choices of where and when a drawing would appear. (Spoiler alert: I have no idea).

“I sat in a Plymouth Duster I had rented from Avis with my Diners’ Club card, I had a paper tube in my mouth. It was stuffed with leaves. I set it on fire. It was a soigné thing to do.”

A limp looking cigarette sloppily and pathetically jammed with tobacco might have served nicely there.

And a picture of a hula doll might have done the trick for the following passage:

“A lot of people in Midland City put useless objects from Hawaii or Mexico or someplace like that on their coffee tables or their living room end tables or on what-not shelves—and such an object was called a conversation piece.” (268)

And for this one: maybe a martini glass with a lemon peel:

“Like everybody else in the cocktail lounge, he was softening his brain with alcohol. This was a substance produced by a tiny creature called yeast. Yeast organisms ate sugar and excreted alcohol. They killed themselves by destroying their own environment with yeast shit” (214).

Vonnegut does not spare anyone his contempt. He will have a go at the absurd state of race relations, the machinery of political power, provincialism, chauvinism, and colonialism, but will then turn around and fire shots off at the tastes of the bourgeoisie and then at his own tendency to be complacent and open to being blindsided. No one is safe. This calls to mind David Foster Wallace’s vitriolic outburst against cruise vacations and supermarket shopping.

Who knows why Vonnegut chose to draw some things and not others. Maybe he did not want the gimmick to get old—though of course, it would, and it did. So why not just a few more drawings here and there? Why not a few more pages? Because one has to stop somewhere, I guess. He says just as much in the final pages of the book when he explains that he is refraining from elaborating on the backstory of other people in the ambulance because “what good is more information?”

Like much of what he did, Vonnegut’s rationale as an editor was equivalent to his rationale as a writer and illustrator. Some combination of pacing, instinct, and whim. He is not the most musical writer, but his pages have a pleasant pacing, and I suspect that this had as much to do with the location and amount of images as any other reason.

I have seen people with Vonnegut asterisk tattoos. There is a restaurant with the symbol as its name, and there have been bands named after it too. I doubt Vonnegut knew quite the extent to which his drawing of an asshole that appears at the beginning of Breakfast of Champions would tunnel its way into the culture. But this drawing is a good example of how his images embodied more than what they appeared to represent.

As an image, that asshole drawing was not lewd or provocative, and it was not meant to offend or excite. It was matter-of-fact. On the other hand, as a gesture, its aims were less than charitable. The asterisk in the novel had the effect of undercutting literary hubris, and by unleashing it in the text toward the close of the preface as an example of what is likely to come, he drew a line in the sand. With it, he was announcing, “If you are too squeamish or too sophisticated to stomach this asshole-in-the-abstract, then leave off here, worse barbs lie ahead, and if you go any further, deeper cuts would no doubt be in store for the likes of you.” In the late ’60s, members of the band the Sex Pistols swore on live TV and sent half of the UK into uproar. If viewers were shocked by a handful of expletives, there would be no point in them listening to that band’s music or any other punk music for that matter. It would only get more real from there on in. That instance of profanity during the moment of the band’s introduction to the world stage also served as a line in the sand, and like the asterisk, hovered like a warning to all ye who may come.

The ridicule encapsulated in that flake of punctuation speaks volumes. This brings me back to emojis. While emojis can certainly be nothing at all, a well-aimed emoji will have the power to intrigue, bewilder, and entertain. Vonnegut’s familiar and irreverent mark with its ability to communicate distrust of tradition and disdain for solemnity seems like the ultimate emoji, its apotheosis if not its prefiguration.

Were his drawings to be any more factual, any more realistic or refined, they would certainly fail in their purpose. When one encounters Vonnegut’s image of a serpent eating its tail (one of my children has told me that there is a name for that symbol. It is called an ouroboros. Greek by way of Egyptian. I think), does it not immediately conjure the image of Vonnegut himself seated at a table in the cocktail lounge where he waited toward the end of that book, drawing shapes on the tabletop with a moist finger? And does it not then recall the events preceding that moment and those that would come after? And how the entire narrative was doomed to happen and happen again. The serpent eating its tail after all was a statement about time, infinity, and feedback loops, about assimilating opposites, right? (G.R.S. Mead? Jung?—can’t recall). A total disregard or unfaith in linear time. . . . It channels Nietzsche’s notion of eternal recurrence. It was an explanation for the persistence of Kilgore Trout’s trials.

Like all of his symbols, the serpent is more than it seems. As the adage goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” And I think the more unrefined, the more ordinary the picture, the greater may be the rate of its endurance. By using the vernacular—the plain hand—ideologies, relationships, and memories might be recalled intact. Were the same images to be reproduced in a more delicate way, they would lack immediacy and poetry. After all, a more painstaking or refined illustration would surely have toppled the thesis at hand. If we were compelled to marvel at marks and trip over skillful showmanship, we might end up back where we started, and like the black inhabitants of Midland County who refused to read books they could not understand, we would be left wondering “What for?”, “What for?”

As a painter and an art history enthusiast, I had a particularly fun time being reacquainted with the painter Rabo Karabekian. This character is familiar to many who have studied American painting in the middle of the 20th century. He may have been modeled directly on the painter Barnett Newman, an artist who was considered a member of the abstract expressionist movement but might more accurately be described as the progenitor of minimalism and color-field painters. His work, which often consisted of single vertical bands painted on otherwise unmodulated fields of color, is conspicuously similar to the painting described in Breakfast as having been made by the fictional character Rabo Karabekian. And like Karabekian, Newman was known to propound voluminously on the significance of the stripes, or “zips” as he called them, as signifiers of the spark of life existent in every individual. He considered himself and others in his generation as embodying a continuation of romantic ideals associated with an emphasis on experience and emotion over analysis, realism, and articulation.

I remember watching footage of Barnett Newman lecturing about spiritualism and the sublime in his artwork. I found his arguments about the possibility of art to supplant external and artificial constructs of spiritual expression with emblems of spirituality generated from within oneself. This all sounded fine and in league enough with other thinkers of his generation that it seemed a plausible pretext for making art in that way. But then I had the opportunity to see a retrospective of his work in one of my college art classes, and my opinion changed. The show had been highly recommended and critically acclaimed. It was endorsed by my peers and promoted by instructors. I was primed to have an emotional and spiritual response to this artist’s paintings akin to seeing a Rothko painting (a contemporary of Newman, whose work I find genuinely sublime.)

Anyway, I braced myself for something transcendent, and when we arrived at the museum, I watched more footage of Newman waxing philosophic about auras and spiritualism and how his paintings were after capturing essences. But when I visited the gallery and tried to enter into his paintings, I could not help but be obstructed at every turn by the appearance of his twelve-inch cursive autograph across the bottom of all of his canvases. To me, it was like someone honking a horn during a Brian Eno song. It made no sense. He had taken for granted that artists sign their paintings, must sign their paintings. He entirely overlooked the fact that our eyes are trained to immediately take in text and not to ignore it. If it had been a gesture made in full knowledge like a Vonnegut asterisk, it might have been funny, but for me, it was an irredeemable blunder and a telltale clue that the artist was not a true believer. Everything I had heard him say and hoped to see manifested in his work now echoed in my head as untruths and just so much hot air. His signature, neat as it was, sitting there in that otherwise pristine sea of color seemed like a logo, an admission, no, an emblem of egotism . . . or at least egoism.

Partly for this reason and for the fact that I was already pretty much on board with the narrator’s disdain for pomp and celebrity, Vonnegut’s three-inch duplicate of a twenty-foot Karabekian painting was a satisfying sendup. And in spite of the fact, the character in the novel goes on to redeem himself to a great degree by delivering a speech in which he describes the value of his painting in sympathetic terms, the immediacy and contrast of Vonnegut’s striped rectangle is a pithy slap in the face of grandiosity.

Vonnegut’s drawings in Breakfast of Champions are not unlike the main characters in the book. They are clownish. They are not champions. They are shallow and insipid. But they are that way knowingly. And in that way, they are also gestures of restraint. The constant resurfacing of the drawings is a reminder that Vonnegut is keeping up with the arrangement to tell it like it is.

I am not a smoker, but I know that Vonnegut smoked Pall Mall cigarettes. According to friends who do or have smoked, Pall Malls are sort of the poor student’s cigarette. This consistency is reassuring. Just as Vonnegut did not try to dazzle us with pyrotechnics on the page neither was he particularly ostentatious in his life. The choice to stick to those harsh unfiltered dclassé smokes is pleasingly in accord with his pull-no-punches wit and his matter-of-fact art. His argument, his thesis, was against all pedantry.

I am pretty certain that Vonnegut could not have drawn those pictures any more convincingly than he did, but even if he had the skill of a Michelangelo, chances are high that he would have avoided flashing it and would have been content to make pictures just the way he made them in this novel. Who needs grand gestures and virtuosic display when everything can be so crisply and neatly packed into the six lines of an asterisk.


A few weeks after completing Breakfast of Champions and a few hours after shutting the screen on these pages, I entered into an unsuccessful dialogue with a customer service agent. Following that exchange, I was solicited via email to rate my experience. For whatever reason, I opened the email. I was greeted with the options to click “x” for poor support, a check mark for satisfactory support, and, to my surprise and delight, a third option with which to grade my agent was: “*.”


1. Michael Craig-Martin: Landscapes, exhibition catalogue, Douglas Hyde Gallery, Dublin 2001, 20.


Caleb Weintraub is the current area head of Painting at Indiana University Bloomington. In his recent work, he integrates digital processes with traditional painting techniques to evoke hypothetical realities.

Weintraub earned a BFA from Boston University and an MFA from The University of Pennsylvania. Weintraub has eight solo shows in the past ten years including shows in New York, Philadelphia and Chicago. His paintings and sculptures have appeared in art fairs in Miami, London, and Zurich. Caleb Weintraub has been an artist-in-residence at Redux Art Center in South Carolina and the Santa Fe Art Institute. Significant group shows include exhibitions at the Chicago Cultural Center, the Hyde Park Art Center, and Scion Art Space in Los Angeles. Two of his paintings were featured in the book, “Signs of the Apocalypse/ Rapture” published by Front Forty press, distributed by University of Chicago Press. Caleb is Represented by Projects Gallery in Miami, FL. 

Caleb Weintraub makes paintings, installations, and digital prints that integrate digital  and traditional painting techniques to evoke hypothetical realities, dreamscape interpretations of our own fragmented, puzzling, and sometimes senseless world.