A Boon or a Boondoggle: Jim Kempner’s Comic Take on the World of Art

New York City gallery owner Jim Kempner plays himself in a hilarious video web series that provides an irreverent take on the world of gallerists, collectors, and artists. Try as he might to radiate class and close a deal, his video alter ego in The Madness of Art wades through an endless mire of backstabbing colleagues, irascible and eccentric clients, clumsy art handlers, and inept personal assistants. Although the business communications of the “real” Jim Kempner have always appeared to me to be immaculate, the comic Kempner (and he’s a very good comic) suffers from a continual case of bad karma when it comes to any written or printed communication. A never-ending succession of linguistically challenged personal assistants commit one error after another; in one video, an assistant orders a window sign for a Yoko Ono exhibition that reads “make peas” instead of “make peace.”

In a recent episode posted on Vimeo, gallery director and good-humored accomplice Dru Arstark describes a potential opportunity as a boondoggle. When Kempner asks if she knows what boondoggle means, she replies, “boon.” Unfortunately, she’s wrong. Boon springs from “bone,” a Middle English word that described a prayer for a request or favor that has since evolved to connote a blessing, or anything beneficial that materializes at the precise moment it can serve one’s needs or desires.

So what does “boondoggle” really mean and how and when did it enter the English language? I must admit that when I looked this up I was in for a surprise. The Merriam Webster Dictionary’s first definition of the word is “a braided cord worn by Boy Scouts as a neckerchief slide, hatband, or ornament.” The term was apparently invented by an American eagle scout named Robert H. Link back in the 1920s. This leaves one wondering where the second definition, “a wasteful or impractical project or activity often involving graft,” came from and how it rose in popularity to eclipse the word’s connection with handcrafted lanyards. The Online Etymology Dictionary claims that boondoggle is an American term “popularized during the New Deal as a contemptuous word for make-work projects for the unemployed.” Wiktionary specifically credits an April 1935 New York Times article that decried a make-work program designed to train unemployed people to braid boondoggles with its popularization as a description of an unnecessary and extravagant activity or project.

The playfulness of the word may have facilitated the adoption of a second meaning. It’s so fun to insert it in a phrase that it must have seemed a shame to restrict its use to the description of an object that one might refer to only a dozen times or so during an entire lifetime. Michael Quinion backs up that theory with a quote from an article that appeared in the British magazine Punch the year that the object, along with its name, was introduced to Great Britain:

The chief scout has recently been presented by the University of Liverpool with a Degree, and by the scouts of America with a boondoggle. Of the two, I think I should prefer the boondoggle. Great as is the honor conferred by the Seat of Learning, there is a homely flavor about the other gift which touches the heart even more. ‘Boondoggle’. It is a word to conjure with, to roll around the tongue; an expressive word to set the fancy moving in strange and comforting channels; and it rhymes with ‘goggle’, ‘boggle’, and ‘woggle’, three of the most lighthearted words in the English language.

Coincidentally, wobble is another name for the thingamajig used to gather a scout neckerchief that Robert Link dubbed a boondoggle. According to a Wiki article devoted to this very subject, this item is also called a ring and a knot and Americans tend to refer to it as a neckerchief slide. Very charming illustrations of handmade scout woggles originally published in Boy’s Life magazine, are reproduced on the Woggle World website. If Jim Kempner ever decides to sell folk art and collectibles as a sideline, vintage woggles might be a good place to start.

Kempner’s brilliant lampoon of the gallery world makes one stop and think: would a bride and groom consider a wedding present like a Jeff Koons plate bearing a shiny red balloon doggie a boon or a boondoggle? Even if you’ve only got fifteen minutes and a budget of a thousand dollars to buy that special something, Jim Kempner Fine Art may be the place to shop. Boondoggles and jokes aside, Jim Kempner and Dru Arstark preside over a very serious art gallery specializing in contemporary master prints located in a striking Cor-ten steel and glass building designed by Smith & Thompson Architects in the heart of New York City’s Chelsea district.