The Emperor Has No Clothes

If you follow modern art, you will likely come across the term: “The Emperor has no clothes”. Where does it come from? What does it mean? I recently found out.


ABOVE: Joe Sixpack, Swimming Pool, 2015, acrylic on canvas, 36.9 x 30 inches, sale price: $15,000

The Emperor has no clothes.

The above expression comes from Hans Christian Anderson’s short tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and is used to describe the belief in something that is not true.

In the tale, a vain Emperor – who is obsessed with clothes – is conned by two swindlers into spending a ridiculous amount of money on outfits so extraordinary, they are invisible to those who are incompetent or stupid. In reality of course, there are no such clothes.

Foolishly, the Emperor sees this as an opportunity to purge his court of undesirables, and he sends his top advisers to observe the swindlers at work on his new wardrobe. Fearing that they’ll be deemed unfit, the advisers inform him that the cloth is magnificent.

Once ‘finished’, the Emperor is dressed by the swindlers – who rave about how great he looks – and a procession is arranged where he can show-off his new clothes to the entire city.

Not wanting to be seen as stupid, the townspeople greet the naked Emperor with thunderous applause, but while they are expressing their admiration, a small boy cries out… “But the Emperor has no clothes.”

The moral of the story: pretension not supported by reality will always seem foolish to those who see the world for what it is, rather than what they’ve been told (i.e. children).

In a modern art context, the term could be used to describe anyone who spends a ridiculous amount of money on a blank canvas, pile of bricks, or Instagram screen shot – or anyone too afraid to call them out for it.

One response to “The Emperor Has No Clothes

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