By general consent, the sculptor Robert Arneson (1930-1992) was one of the deans of the Bay Area "Funk" movement of the 1960s. If Robert Rauschenberg declared his intention to work in the "gap" between art and life, Arneson worked in life itself, in particular, the life of American mass culture. In choosing the subject of his sculptures, Arneson tended towards the lowbrow: beer bottles, trophies, and toilets, objects that the artist once described as "neglected images" (T. Albright,Art in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945-1980 Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985, p. 121).
Allan Stone gave Robert Arneson not only his first one man exhibition in New York, it was also Arneson's very first exposure to the New York art world. The rebellious spirit of Arneson's sculptures exemplified the character of the "Funk" art movement. In particular, the artist's participation in the landmark "Funk" exhibition organized by Peter Selz at the University Art Museum in Berkley in 1967, began the roll call that would include artists as diverse as William T. Wiley, David Gilhooly, Richard Shaw, and Roy de Forest. Described by Selz as "hot rather than cool, committed rather than disengaged, sensuous and frequently quite ugly," the "Funk" artists of the 1960s were less aligned by a single "look" than a shared anti-formalist feeling--Dada spoken in a California drawl ("Up with Funk," Time, May 5, 1967). The "crudeness" of Arneson's sculpture was, in part, a reaction against the designation of "craft" which ceramics were commonly given in the fine arts hierarchy. The outrageousness of Arneson's humor including his penchant for outrageous phallic puns, however, could not obscure his technical mastery of the medium. In the 1960s, Arneson did more than any artist before or since to endow ceramic art with a range of feeling that the medium had not previously claimed, from pathos to narrative howl.
During the mid-1960s Arneson experienced a breakthrough, creating a series of works that were raucous ceramic interpretations of household objects, including a toilet, telephone and the present trophy. In each, he delighted in integrating sexual and scatological imagery, proud of his incursions onto the sacred ground of high art. The 1963 sculpture Funk John was the catalyst for these works, as Arneson chose its subject of the toilet as a representation of the ultimate ceramic object in Western culture. It provoked so much controversy when it was installed in the "California Sculpture" exhibition in Oakland that it had to be removed. Arneson's trophy masterfully exhibits the defiant spirit in which he continued to work. As Arneson recalled, he created "maybe about twenty ceramic trophies, dealing with certain aspects of our culture, epitomized graphically. For example, a trophy to my finger, a trophy to my foot, a trophy to my hand, and then they got scatological, a trophy to sex" (Robert Arneson, interview with Madie Jones, August 8, 1981, Archives of American Art). The present work, Arneson's trophy dedicated to his middle finger, subverts the conventions of the genre in a succinctly rebellious gesture.