Who is Rodney Munch?By David S. Wills
May 17, 2011
In 2007 I left university. Before founding Beatdom and fleeing Scotland I was suffering a bit of an identity crisis: I defined myself as a student, and yet for the first time in my memory I was about to leave education. I was about to head off into the big bad world and so I went mad. My brain worked too much and made little sense. I wrote thousands of words every day, painted pictures and played guitar on stage – despite having no real talent for any of these things. I was just desperate, I suppose, to find my place in the world.
That first paragraph assumes that the answer to the question posed in the title is me. I am Rodney Munch.
That’s not necessarily true, as you will see. I have called myself Rodney Munch for various reasons at various times, but so have other people. Presumably, there is someone out there who was given this unfortunate title at birth.
There’s a book I wrote back in 2007. The book shares the same title as this essay: Who is Rodney Munch? It’s a non-fiction story that chronicles a short period in my life that was too ridiculous to pass off as fiction, too amazing to forget.
It begins and ends in my local art school – Dundee’s Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design. Although I was a literature student, I spent a lot of my time in the there, drinking and smoking with the art students and having pretentious debates about things I probably didn’t understand.
It was one of these debates that started it all.
We were discussing revolution and someone argued that revolution works best within the confines of democracy – that changing societal norms and power structures is achieved most effectively without bringing down the whole system and starting from scratch.
At some drunken moment this morphed into a debate about art, rather than government or civil liberties. Someone, and it might have been me, complained that an artist needs to come from within the art establishment to be discovered, and that this is unjust. Artists within the establishment will be accepted because what they make is “art”, regardless of how shitty it is.
A ludicrous argument, but one that is typical around student bars. Change “art” for just about anything and you’ll hear a familiar debate.
The idea soon snowballed into a plan:
Assemble a team of completely untrained artists.
Produce a number of pieces of intentionally shitty art.
Smuggle it into an art gallery.
Watch the art critics fawn over the “art”.
Fortunately, Dundee’s art school degree show is one of the biggest in the UK and takes around 10,000 visitors every May. Being friends with so many of the students would make it possible to sneak exhibits in, and expose the fraudulent non-art to the art world.
The result was a week of fun: Drinking and painting, producing deliberately crap art by making it as obtuse as possible. All the time I made notes and wrote the book, chronicling not only the painting, but the nightlife and banter that surrounded what was becoming quite an exciting project.
(It was during this week that the Murder House was discovered. Over this whole period I was working at Poundland.)
The project in my mind also changed to become a study of the nature of art. Our work was ridiculous but some people were beginning to take it seriously. I entered the art school as a journalist and began interviewing the real artists, talking to them about their projects – which had taken years of planning and effort – and comparing their methods and ideas to our own.
The main idea was simple: Would the art world experts be able to tell the difference between our deliberately crap art, and the stuff that represented the culmination of years of study?
The name Rodney Munch has been strangely absent from this essay. That’s because it went unused until the morning of the grand opening of the degree show. This followed a week of painting and a week of scouting the art school galleries for suitable spots and investigating security.
It was that rainy morning when three of us gathered to carry twelve giant oil paintings across the city, when we decided on the name. We’d already made twelve official-looking plaques to accompany the paintings. We just needed a name.
The previous night I’d watched an old episode of Beavis and Butthead, and laughed at their use of the name Rod Munch – a crude oral sex gag.
And so that was the name that accompanied each of the paintings as we made our way across the city, and the name that came to adorn the official plaques we had forged to lend legitimacy to the displays.
We had no intention of stealing limelight from the actual art students, for whom this show was the culmination of four years of study and hard work. We just wanted to occupy the unused space, to trick the experts.
And so, after sneaking into the gallery with the back door code and smuggling the canvases past security, our paintings were placed on radiators, in urinals, on the roof… All pretentious, eye-catching locations. But the best was placed on a window in the main staircase. Where ten thousand passers-by would be forced to see it and judge.
That’s when the fun began.
“Who is this hooligan, Rodney Munch?!?!” bellowed ‘Chris’ – head of security at the art school. It was my own painting of William S. Burroughs that was first caught. I foolishly placed it outside the security office and they noticed immediately. Security guards began charging around the school, tearing down anything by the “hooligan” Rodney Munch. Our official-looking name plaques, designed to lend the paintings some sense of legitimacy, made their job easy.
My co-conspirators fled and returned hours later with different clothes and shaved heads, but I stayed and watched… trying to be a real journalist.
Only four of the paintings remained until the exhibition started. Two of them remained for the first week. One remained for an entire year.
That was the painting that adorned the main staircase.
The one that ten thousand visitors passed.
Rodney Munch outlived the entire degree show.
‘Chris’ burned all of Rodney Munch’s artwork in a dumpster out back of the art school and for weeks people talked about the mysterious guerrilla artist. Fingers were mostly pointed at me, but I tried to explain: Rodney Munch was never a person, it was a group. It was an idea. Rodney Munch was a silly, immature rite of passage for a bunch of wannabe intellectuals struggling to find themselves before being cast into the real world.
[…] at TheNervousBreakdown, I ask and attempt to answer this seemingly simple […]
That’s a great story! You know, I’ve got you tipped for big things in the future. Please take Christopher Hitchens’ present straits to heart, and dial back the boozing, though.
Thanks, Sanity Inspector. I don’t drink nearly as much as I used to. In fact, China has been surprisingly good to my health. Who’d have thought that?
The one with the dot in the middle (is that in a urinal?), how much do you want for that one? I must have it!
What a great experiment. I started off as an art major, so I’ve had similar conversations over plastic cups of wine from a box. I’m just in awe that you took it to another level.
That one was called “2p” as the dot in the middle is a two pence coin. And yes, that was a urinal in the main bathroom. It got urinated on by so many art critics that it was left dripping with praise.
It was really one of those things – common at the time – that just spiralled quickly out of control after few boxes (yeah, we had those too) of wine. It was a fun time and I look back so fondly on it. I’d never dream of doing something like that nowadays. Although I do now live in the same country as Ai Weiwei…
I was really hoping this would end with a bunch of pomp artsy motherfuckers fawning over one of your amateur paintings.
Just as you point out one can, “Change “art” for just about anything and you’ll hear a familiar debate,” I unfortunately sometimes think this about writing as well. Except its not that I think only people from within the “establishment” will continue to successfully put out books. It’s that there’s so many goddamned writers out there that it feels almost impossible sometimes to get a foot hold, and the poor readers out there are similarly inundated, and just end up reading what they know.
But I do sort of take issue with these MFA programs that “make” writers. It seems to me that getting into one of these programs, while not a golden ticket, ensures networking opportunities that other writers just wouldn’t be privy to, and that acceptance into these programs comes down to some type of formula that benefits certain types of people, ergo you end up with writers in MFA programs who are sort of cut from the same mold. It’s sort of like Washington elites, how you have all of these people who are off the charts with their analytical skills, ace the SAT, get into Harvard/Yale, etc., then ace the LSAT, go to law school, then into politics. You end up with a group of individuals who all walk and talk the same way, to the point where an outsider really isn’t taken seriously or given a chance to succeed. Sure, it does happen, but the deck is stacked.
Now, maybe comparing arts and elite politics is unfair…I think something like writing is more egalitarian. But I do have the fear that to actually have success as a writer…financial success…it’s necessary to be embraced by the mainstream. Or maybe mainstream is the wrong word…it can work within a smaller audience as well. Whether or not the popularity of a writer has anything to do with being really good or not I’m dubious about. Here’s an experiment I’d like to see. Take a well-known writer and publish something dreadful under their name, and see the reactions. Hmm…that gives me an idea…
I fear I’m rambling here a bit. I’ll be in China June/July. Maybe we’ll cross paths somehow.
There were many people looking and commenting, but I don’t recall any specific fawning. Certainly they liked the dangerous placement of the paintings, but nothing much was said – within earshot of me – about their actual artistic merit.
Writing and art are definitely impacted by “who you know” just like anything else in life. I think a great artist can come from anywhere and have a shot at getting people’s attention, but definitely you can make friends in high places and do the same with less talent. It’s just a fact of life that I’ve come to realise (and take advantage of) in recent years. I used to talk about it and complain about it, but I really don’t give a fuck these days. Life is life.
On the subject of making money as a writer… Hmm. My goal is to keep writing, and hope that whatever it takes to make enough money to have the time to write doesn’t kill me. That’s about it.
How long are you planning on being in China? I’ll be heading back to Scotland for a bit in July.
I hear you. I’m trying to be less of a bitter bitch about the writing game these days, an effort that has been bolstered by the fact that I have a job I really don’t mind, and which gives me a lot of freedom. My goal is just to write as much as I can, because if I don’t, I just sort of don’t feel like “me.”
My plan is to stay in china at least through the end of July, probably into august a bit. I’ll be based in Beijing for sure until the end of July, subletting my teacher-buddy’s apt. while he’s in India. Depending on what type of Visa the Chinese decide to give me (I applied for 6 months, multiple entry), I may stay into August, or take a trip to another country and come back. It’s quite up in the air. But I do plan on taking a trip down the coast at some time, so Hefei might be a good safe house to have.
Do you feel like you can write as much when you’re content with your job? When I have a shitty job I write more. I feel like writing is an escape, or at the very least a big “fuck you” to the world. When I have a job I like or can tolerate (like now) I find it harder to sit done and it done.
I’m leaving China on July 9th and will probably be back at the end of August. I’ll be in Thailand July 9th-19th, Scotland July 19th to August 2nd and Laos for most of August. But if we’re ever in the same country at the same time, then we should get a beer or something. And if you’re in Hefei (which I don’t recommend for anything except saving money and lying low) then I have a sofa bed in my livingroom.
Well done! What a great prank. I’m stoked that you have pictures to capture the selections- especially the urinal.
It’s too bad they didn’t last longer. You have to assume you could have lured quite a few people into finding meaning from it. Which I suppose brings up the question of how does a piece of art change when it is displayed in a museum? For a savage like me, I presume that when I enter an art museum (and Hell begins to cool) everything I see has been vetted by an unknown committee and that its presence in the building means that it not only has artistic merit, but that it has much more artistic merit than the shit in people’s homes, studios, offices, etc.
Yeah, having written that, it’s safe to say that while I may not have fallen for all of Rodney’s works, you probably would have hooked me for a good 70%.
At that period in my life I was writing about everything and taking a lot of photos. I think I felt that the group of friends I was with were some sort of new Beat Generation and that everything we did would one day be legendary. Hence the photos and endless pages of writing.
You’re right about going into an art gallery. There is that assumption that everything has been pre-approved, that it’s automatically good art. I remember reading about a guy going into an art gallery and staring for ages at a fire extinguisher on a wall. Not sure if that’s a true story or not, but it gets the point across. We go in there and expect to see quality art. I suppose the same is true with literature to some extent. We go into a bookstore and think, “Ok, these books have been approved by agents, editors, publishers, bookstore owners… They must be good.”
this is the funnest thing ever! it’s stuff like this that makes me sad that i didn’t do college at the “normal” time in my life… because i would have been all about doing something like this.
but a 31 year-old waxing poetic about art with a group of 18-22s and then getting all guerrilla about it doesn’t seem to jive. : )
I don’t think I would be able to get away with it even now. I was young and stupid at the time, and it was great fun. But now… no chance. Then again, if I went back to university now I’d probably do less of this and more studying, and maybe get a better degree…
I spent a lot of my time in the there, drinking and smoking with the art students and having pretentious debates about things I probably didn’t understand. See, you were highly educated. That sentence right there show’s two years worth of crap classes morphing into valuable self-awareness.
I recently met a woman who I’d been to college with 20 yrs before. As we reminisced, she told me about an art class we’d taken together where I’d once pissed on pieces of construction paper, sprinkled crumbled pastel on top, and handed them in as my project, where they were critiqued with the typical student mixture of seriousness and meaningless terminology. I honestly had (and still have) no recollection of doing so, to the point that I was sure she was confusing me with someone else. But she convinced me I was indeed the one. Further, she was not exactly admiring of the pretension with which I’d pulled it off. I’m sure I was quite pleased with myself for rocking the art world to its foundation. I can almost see the professor yawning and rolling his eyes.
But, you know, obviously that is a universal compulsion. At least among a certain type of misanthrope. I was Rodney Munch and didn’t even know it. Can I borrow your tattoo?
It’s fun to make fun of art school mostly because the students there take it so damn serious, and as you say, so many of them are pissing on paper and calling it dangerous. It’s universal. At that same art show I saw a girl who had made stuff out of tampons. I read about the year before – there was a girl who’d made stuff out of tampons. And the year before. And the year before. I remember so many great pieces of art from that show, but so many crappy and wannabe dangerous installations. I feel sorry for the tutors. I guess everyone wants to be Rodney Munch.
The writing on my arm was scrawled on after or during the art show, but nowadays it has been replaced with a Hunter S. Thompson Gonzo fist that I had done in Korea.
You are a devil.
This was fun, though,
probably because it was devious.
(How’s your cat?)
Thanks Irene, thought you’d like this one.
The cats are doing well. Berry escaped about two months ago, but we found her. Now she has a boyfriend who lives out back and makes daily booty calls. They just sit and stare at each other, but there’s another girl cat who comes and howls at her. I think that’s her boyfriend’s wife.
Eddie is just fine. She’s a jerk as always, but she hasn’t caused me any lost blood or given me a heart attack just yet.
My oh my, David,
It is hard when your charges start dating,
It is. I hold her over the balcony like Simba in the Lion King, but I don’t let them get at any funny business. Just staring, no petting.
Ah, David. Rad that you did this. I always wanted to pursue the visual arts, but stupid life shit got in the way and then I quit drawing and painting all together. Had I pursued it, I probably would have taken it seriously (like, in an unintentionally pretentious/sanctimonious kind of way) when, really, I would have, in my heart, wanted to go about more like this. My Banksy leanings came too late. Good on you. 🙂
Banksy is fantastic. Strangely, I knew nothing about him until shortly after the Rodney Munch days, when someone said, “Hey, you guys must really love Banksy…”
When I was in high school I loved art more even than English but sadly I had no talent for it. Couldn’t draw or paint to save my life. I still can’t but I find it fun and liberating, so I do a little art from time to time. I don’t take it seriously, thankfully, but like you I wonder what would’ve been…
Well, it appears the comment I left yesterday failed to land. Oh well.
I can’t remember exactly what I said, but I do remember saying that I really enjoyed this piece… and something about how I wish I’d done more stuff like this instead of acting like a square…
Thanks, man. WordPress can be a cunt at times.
David, I swear you have the most radical and awesome stories EVER!
This is my favourite from you so far. I think I’m biased in saying so because I’m an artist. I wish I’d had the balls to pull something like this off!
Well done and thanks for the pics!
Thanks, Simone. Usually I’m just a magnet for weird and crazy stuff, but in this case I suppose I helped push it into the realm of the ridiculous. I saw it coming and that’s why I brought my camera, which was very lucky.
I compliment you, sir, on pulling off such a pure gonzo move. HST would have approved, I think.
I honest miss those smokey, art & lit student bar conversations sometimes. Pretentious though they can be, there’s a sincere interest in culture and the arts to be found there that’s much more difficult to locate in the real world.
It’s hard to guess what dead people would like, but in this case I think you’re right. He would’ve had a good laugh at this one.
Yes, indeed there’s something pure and decent about those pretentious old debates. Certainly in my case I just stopped caring once I left university. I think I moved so far into the realm of cynic that eventually I stopped listening to or participating in arguments. I now just like what I like and leave everything else be.
Or maybe the Wonder Girls have killed my ability to talk about art and literature…
It’s hard sometimes to realize the absolutely impressive strength that comes from institutions and societies, to grasp the amazing force that can result from being “of a school.”
Subjugating your personal will and passion to that seems utterly counter to the very idea of creativity.
But imagine, if you will, that I come forward some day, wearing a black belt and declaring myself to be a high martial arts master. What school or discipline am I from, you ask. None, my own. You summarily assume my “master” status claim invalid, and quite probably you’re absolutely right.
And yet we entertain that notion from painters, writers, actors, dancers. Mostly, they’re just meandering around, smashing into things, but once in a while a Miro, a Campbell, a DeNiro, a Graham, comes out of that hot mess to grace our world.
How you take your schooling is a deeply personal thing. I for one, got more instruction in the practice and potential of painting from one hour standing one foot from a single brush stroke on a Rembrandt self portrait, an absolutely mind-blowing brush stroke, a thick smeary slash of white lead with a coarse boar’s hair brush, that turned into a shape at two feet, a gesture at five feet, an expression at 8 feet, and an emotion at 10.
Likewise, I look back and see myself as tremendously ignorant before university. That’s not to say that I remember much from my classes. I have forgotten a lot of the names and dates from my history classes, and I can’t remember that much about any of the books I read in my literature classes. But what I hope I will never forget, and what has changed me immensely as a human being, are the lessons I learned about how to learn, how to write and how to think. For that I thank two tutors in particular and cannot imagine having developed these skills without them. But who knows? Each to their own.
Interesting point about the martial artist, too. We are indeed dismissive of the self-taught.
There was a case over here a while back where an artist won a prize in the tens of thousands of dollars for his installation: a room with the lights turned off.
He didn’t build the room. He didn’t decorate the room. His only work, literally, was turning the light switch from ‘on’ to ‘off’.
No money for the carpenter, the painter, the plasterer, any of the workmen who had actually built the building years before.
I wish to Christ the money had have gone to Munch instead.
I agree. Munch should definitely have been rewarded for that man’s installation.
There was an article in the Guardian (I think) about a week ago. It bemoaned the fact that artists are these days become simply people with ideas. They say, “Hey! I want a sheep preserved in some kind of way!” and then dozens of other people do it. But it’s the artist who is rewarded…
In Banksy’s new movie, Exit Through the Gift Shop (which is totally fucking awesome) they get at this. The artist who may or may not be a weird French dude comes up with hundreds of ideas and pays people to enact them, thus becoming famous and successful without actually lifting a finger.
Hey I have that! My brother got it for me for Christmas. I should probably watch it.
You should watch it NOW. It’s the second funniest film of last year. The first, of course, was “Four Lions” which unless your brother also gave you, you should buy and watch in the near future. It is priceless.
“Should’ve gone Chicken Cottage” – I couldn’t breathe for a while after that. I’ve also used “I’m as serious as beetroot” on occasion.
I worked at Central St. Martins College in London for four years, in design rather than fine art – but I also saw the same things year after year. Sometimes I had to burst students’ bubbles, when their idea was just too close to something that already existed. I didn’t much like doing that, but it was, y’know, for the best.
Obviously there’s not as much flannel in product design as there is in Art, Darling, but there’s some. And it’s not long before you’ve heard all of it, several times over.