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Humor blog takes masterpieces down a notch

January 6, 2010 |  5:00 am


A new art-related humor blog is a must-read for anyone tired of the reverence accorded to masterpieces by museums, academics and journalists.

"That Is Priceless" was launched in November by L.A.-based television comedy writer and producer Steve Melcher. Once a day, Melcher spotlights a well-known work of art -- usually a painting -- and gives it an alternate title.

Take for example the above 1896 painting by John William Waterhouse titled "Hylas and the Nymphs." The work depicts a scene from ancient Greek mythology in which Hylas, who is one of Jason's argonauts, encounters a group of the mythical creatures in a sylvan setting.

The blog's alternate title for the piece is -- wait for it -- "Roman Polanski's Version of Events."


Melcher said the idea for the blog came to him while he was visiting the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena. 

"At the time, I was looking to do a blog that wouldn't take up too much time and that would use my joke-writing talent," he said.

While at the museum, he saw a painting and "a caption popped into my head and I thought that would work."

Since November, Melcher has clocked in about one post per day. He said he chooses works that tell a clear story: "I don't do too much abstract or Impressionist art because readers will have to stop to figure out what the painting is showing. I love Dutch art -- they always have silly things going on in their paintings."

Mars The writer said he often tries to tie a painting to recent news, a holiday or a pop culture event. He said he was recently at the Getty Center around New Year's Day looking for inspiration.

"I sent my 11-year-old to find a painting that had someone who looked like Ryan Seacrest but we couldn't find one. We probably were looking in the wrong part of the gallery," he said.

For the New Year's blog post (pictured), Melcher used a painting by Louis Jean Francois Lagrenee titled "Mars and Venus, Allegory of Peace" (1770), which is part of the Getty collection.

His caption: "Morning After the New Year's Eve Party (Trying to Remember Her Name)."

Melcher, who lives with his wife, Amanda Biers-Melcher, and their children in Burbank, said he has written monologues and scripts for television shows featuring Dennis Miller, David Letterman, Bill Maher and others. He and his wife (who is also his writing partner) are currently working on a few television projects.

In choosing paintings to lampoon on his blog, Melcher said he selects those that are in the public domain, usually pulling images from Wikimedia Commons.

He said he is thinking about turning the blog into a coffee-table-type book.

-- David Ng

All the arts, all the time on Twitter @culturemonster.

Image (top): John William Waterhouse's  "Hylas and the Nymphs" (1896).

Image (bottom): Louis Jean Francois Lagrenee's "Mars and Venus, Allegory of Peace" (1770).

Comments () | Archives (14)

The only reason this has cachet is because it has "high art" as an element. The humor portion is the equivalent to Family Circus.

It's kind of funny, done a few times in the past by Harvey Kurtzman, and his rivals, but I think the appeal to the Culture monster is it's mocking a lot of art that is considered trite by the low standards of nothing art today. I imagine they blog would be ignored if it lampooned contemporary art.

Oh and I also think it's a crime that the Waterhouse show ( pictured) that is in Canada, didn't make it to the USA. If you want to get people into museums he would have done it. But the elite thinks this work is junk only worth mocking.

I think this sounds hilarious.

"...I think the appeal to the Culture monster is it's mocking a lot of art that is considered trite by the low standards of nothing art today."

William, I didn't get the impression from Mr. Ng's article that he found it particularly funny. In fact, the tone sounds more like he's lampooning the lampooner, likening him to a bad off-strip Vegas nightclub comedian.

Natalie, making fun of Roman Polanski's "version of events" is not funny in the least to me. Maybe you should wipe up the milk that just sprayed out of your nose and go back and learn the Facts of what happened in Real Life. "Mars and Venus, Allegory of Peace" is at least one artist's beautiful, if unattainable, dream. Someone who has lost a son or daughter at war in Iraq or Afghanistan, or who has helped a victim of abuse, might not be laughing so hard at Melcher's jokes.

JB, please don't insult Bill Keane, whose humor is pure and simple and innocent.

Definition of a slow news day at the LA Times: an article on a blogger who created a blog that "wouldn't take up too much time" and blogs a single, incomplete sentence in the form of an allegedly comic title... which, when you think of it, isn't really a blog at all. PS It also isn't a coffee table book.

Happiness is a blogging puppy.

Cate the point is they CM never covered the Waterhouse show, but is happy to show one of his paintings when it's mocked, but it will cover a show of pieces of cardboard with crude phrases scrawled on them.

So very sad. One cannot profess to know what another finds humorous, yet that is the exceedingly highbrow tone you, Cate, attempt. We are all acutely aware of reality. This blog takes art and separates it from reality, and allows a laugh or two. I don't find them all to be funny, but some have left me giggling for quite a while.
And then you, Cate, bring us all back to reality. Thank you for that. I was almost going to have fun. But now that I am depressed again, I can rejoin you in reality.

Sorry for depressing you, David. The two paintings featured in the article, and the "funny" titles attributed to them touched a raw nerve in me. It was not an "attempt" to be high brow, but a gut reaction. I associated these two examples with some sad facts, but not everyone shares my outrage or my personal experience. Some wounds are difficult to heal.
You are right. I should have kept such an emotional response to myself. To be fair, I did look further into Melcher's "That is Priceless" blog and many of his captions are funny or at least worth a giggle. Maybe someone else would find them offensive. Reality is not always depressing. In fact, sometimes it can be very funny.

William, it seems like the CM blog doesn't take life too seriously all the time, but I do enjoy reading most of the reviews and articles. I particularly enjoyed Suzanne Muchnic's last article, and I'm sad to hear she's retiring.
I visited your art blog, and I like your paintings very much. Why don't you write about Waterhouse? I'd be interested to hear what an artist has to say about his work. Maybe others will too.

In choosing paintings to lampoon on his blog, Melcher said he selects those that are in the public domain, usually pulling images from Wikimedia Commons.

Great idea! I love Dutch art too.
and a quote from Paul Getty
If you can count your money, you don't have a billion dollars.

hahaha... Thanks for this... What is priceless as well are those priceless MasterCard advertisements you can view for example in YouTube! :D

Great site; I especially like the Titian of the ladies' room.

The Shallow Sage (shallowsage.com) is sort of similar but has a little bit tighter focus. To me, it's a lot funnier.

Well some like it and some don't. All the more reason to create more just like this. Melcher is doing it in the name of fun and smiles, not really to mock anyone.
If more people could look at simple things and laugh or smile, the world would be a much happier place.

His site is getting better and better it was just a few months old when this was written. That is why I always allow a little aging to be done before I open my mouth :)

You should do an update to this story and see his progress now nearly a year later.


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