Kurt Vonnegut’s satirical novel Breakfast of Champions follows Kilgore Trout, a little-known writer on his way to an arts festival in the American Midwest. The novel is best described as a form of anti-art, a creative expression that questions and rejects the traditional form and function of art. While the role of art and artists is often the topic of hot debate, art is generally understood as something beautiful or otherwise impactful that imparts a basic truth. In theory, art endows patrons with a deeper understanding of the world and society, which in turn brings “order to chaos.” Vonnegut, however, argues “that there is no order in the world around us.” Instead, he seeks to “bring chaos to order.” Through the ironic, and often ridiculous, depiction of art and artists within Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut explores art’s inherent value—or lack thereof—and effectively argues that art is subjective and often arbitrary.
Vonnegut’s protagonist, Kilgore Trout, is anything but a typical artist. He values his privacy and cares very little if his writing is ever read. As such, when he is invited to speak at an arts festival in Midland City, he is convinced there must be some mistake. After all, no one has ever heard of Kilgore Trout. Despite being a prolific writer, Kilgore makes exactly “doodley-squat”—essentially nothing—from his art. Instead, he earns his living installing aluminum storm windows. He has written hundreds of novels and thousands of short stories, but he never tells his boss or coworkers that he is a writer. It seems that even Kilgore doesn’t label himself as a real writer; he doesn’t keep copies of any of his novels and stories, most of which are published in works of “hard-core pornography” in order “to give bulk to books and magazines of salacious pictures.” When Kilgore wants to read one of his stories, he must comb through pornographic bookstores in New York to find one. Very few people have ever read Kilgore’s work, and the pornographic pictures published next to his unrelated stories ensure that most people never will.
Kilgore and the masses both seem indifferent to his work, which begins to flesh out Vonnegut’s idea that art isn’t imbued with inherent value. Even though his art is worth very little to the masses, Kilgore is invited to the Arts Festival because his one and only fan—a millionaire named Eliot Rosewater—makes a sizable donation to the Festival in exchange for Kilgore’s invite. Not only that, but Rosewater must hire a private investigator to find Kilgore in the first place. Kilgore is “so invisible that the search cost eighteen thousand dollars.” In sharp contrast from the masses’ indifference or complete ignorance of Kilgore’s art, and the fact that Kilgore makes “doodley-squat” from his artistic efforts, Rosewater sees Kilgore’s art as so valuable that it’s worth an eighteen-thousand-dollar search and a hearty donation. Rosewater’s towering devotion to Kilgore’s art further emphasizes that art’s value is neither inherent nor universal. Instead, art is subjective: while some people find no meaning in Kilgore’s written works, Rosewater finds masterpieces.
Although Rosewater’s willingness to spend a small fortune on Kilgore’s art may seem silly at best and terribly misguided at worst, Vonnegut suggests that such a situation is actually fairly common. Breakfast of Champions removes art from its pedestal to show that art is often absurd and meaningless, and arbitrarily assigned value by anyone with the status or money to do so. One of Kilgore’s books, This Year’s Masterpiece, takes place on a planet named Bagnialto where the worth of art is determined by spinning a wheel of chance. In the novel, a cobbler named Gooz paints a picture of his cat, and after “an unprecedented gush of luck on the wheel,” the painting is deemed to be worth “the equivalent of one billion dollars on Earth.”
Far from being a thoughtful consideration of the painting, the spinning wheel of chance is an absurd way to assign value to art, as it could not be any more random or hands off. Plus, the painting is implied to lack serious meaning—it’s just a picture someone casually painted of their pet—and yet it’s suddenly determined to be worth billions of dollars (far more than what even the most expensive works of art would ever sell for in real life). The wheel thus symbolizes and caricatures authority figures who have the power or money to declare what art is worth.
Back in the “real” world of Breakfast of Champions, when the Mildred Barry Memorial Center for the Arts purchases a painting from minimal artist Rabo Karabekian for fifty thousand dollars, it causes a scandal in town. Midland City is “outraged,” Vonnegut writes, adding, “So am I.” The painting is a large swath of green paint with a single stripe of orange reflective tape. “I’ve seen better pictures done by a five-year-old,” says Bonnie MacMahon of Midland City. The residents of Midland City can’t believe the center has paid so much for such a simple, and even juvenile, painting. Here, art is not only depicted as lacking inherent value—it’s depicted as outright absurd. Vonnegut himself claims to have “no respect whatsoever for the creative works” of Karabekian and believes that the artist has “entered into a conspiracy with millionaires to make poor people feel stupid.” To Vonnegut and the citizens of Midland City, Karabekian’s “incomprehensible” art is about making money, not revealing truth or beauty or accomplishing any deeper purpose, which speaks to the broader idea that art is often meaningless and assigned value in an equally absurd way.
Ultimately, Vonnegut implies that art’s meaning is completely subjective—open to interpretation and experience, that is—and its value is usually assigned in an arbitrary way. It’s interesting that Vonnegut uses a literary art form (the novel) and an artistic movement (anti-art) to voice his critique of art. As the novel comes to a close, Vonnegut also voices his intentions to give up his art—fiction writing—as a means of “cleansing and renewing [him]self for the very different sorts of years to come.” As Vonnegut “somersault[s] lazily and pleasantly though the void” after this startling admission, it seems to be his way of saying that art is perhaps not just arbitrary and subjective but also in need of reimagining for it to thrive in “the very different sorts of years to come.”
Art, Subjectivity, and Absurdity ThemeTracker
Art, Subjectivity, and Absurdity Quotes in Breakfast of Champions
I think I am trying to clear my head of all the junk in there—the assholes, the flags, the underpants. Yes—there is a picture in this book of underpants. I’m throwing out characters from my other books, too. I’m not going to put on any more puppet shows.
I think I am trying to make my head as empty as it was when I was born onto this damaged planet fifty years ago.
I suspect that this is something most white Americans, and nonwhite Americans who imitate white Americans, should do. The things other people have put into my head, at any rate, do not fit together nicely, are often useless and ugly, are out of proportion with one another, are out of proportion with life as it really is outside my head.
The motto of Dwayne Hoover’s and Kilgore Trout’s nation was this, which meant in a language nobody spoke anymore, Out of Many, One: “E pluribus unum.”
The undippable flag was a beauty, and the anthem and the vacant motto might not have mattered much, if it weren’t for this: a lot of citizens were so ignored and cheated and insulted that they thought they might be in the wrong country, or even on the wrong planet, that some terrible mistake had been made. It might have comforted them some if their anthem and their motto had mentioned fairness or brotherhood or hope or happiness, had somehow welcomed them to the society and its real estate.
It shook up Trout to realize that even he could bring evil into the world—in the form of bad ideas. And, after Dwayne was carted off to a lunatic asylum in a canvas camisole, Trout became a fanatic on the importance of ideas as causes and cures for diseases.
But nobody would listen to him. He was a dirty old man in the wilderness, crying out among the trees and underbrush, “Ideas or the lack of them can cause disease!”
“They don’t want anything but smilers out there,” Trout said to his parakeet. “Unhappy failures need not apply.” But his mind wouldn’t leave it alone at that. He got an idea which he found very tangy: “But maybe an unhappy failure is exactly what they need to see.”
He became energetic after that. “Bill, Bill—” he said, “listen, I’m leaving the cage, but I’m coming back. I’m going out there to show them what nobody has ever seen at an arts festival before: a representative of all the thousands of artists who devoted their entire lives to a search for truth and beauty—and didn’t find doodley-squat!”
“That was the last story I ever read,” said the driver. “My God—that must be all of fifteen years ago. The story was about another planet. It was a crazy story. They had museums full of paintings all over the place, and the government used a kind of roulette wheel to decide what to put in the museums, and what to throw out.”
Dwayne was hoping that some of the distinguished visitors to the Arts Festival, who were all staying at the Inn, would come into the cocktail lounge. He wanted to talk to them, if he could, to discover whether they had truths about life which he had never heard before. Here is what he hoped new truths might do for him: enable him to laugh at his troubles, to go on living, and to keep out of the North Wing of the Midland County General Hospital, which was for lunatics.
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.
“I now give you my word of honor,” he went on, “that the picture your city owns shows everything about life which truly matters, with nothing left out. It is a picture of the awareness of every animal. It is the immaterial core of every animal—the ‘I am’ to which all messages are sent. It is all that is alive in any of us—in a mouse, in a deer, in a cocktail waitress. It is unwavering and pure, no matter what preposterous adventure may befall us. A sacred picture of Saint Anthony alone is one vertical, unwavering band of light. If a cockroach were near him, or a cocktail waitress, the picture would show two such bands of light. Our awareness is all that is alive and maybe sacred in any of us. Everything else about us is dead machinery.”
“I am approaching my fiftieth birthday, Mr. Trout,” I said. “I am cleansing and renewing myself for the very different sorts of years to come. Under similar spiritual conditions, Count Tolstoy freed his serfs. Thomas Jefferson freed his slaves. I am going to set at liberty all the literary characters who have served me so loyally during my writing career.”
“You are the only one I am telling. For the others, tonight will be a night like any other night. Arise, Mr. Trout, you are free, you are free.”