I first met Josiah Tell in the Spring of 1999, when he tapped me to ghost write his autobiography Josiah Tells All!: Notes from America’s Answer to Theodore Roosevelt. His erratic behavior—and his frequent absences due to the many arraignments he was required to attend over the years—made progress slow. The book was finally published on Tell’s GeoCities site last month, three days before Yahoo shut down the web hosting service permanently. Tell, who has claimed that backing up data is “for girls,” was left with nothing.
Tell has been known as the bad boy of the art historical world since 1985, when he provoked a fist fight at Pomona College’s annual Renaissance Art Symposium. (He repeatedly interrupted the keynote speaker by shouting from his seat in the audience that Leonardo da Vinci “was a big old Scientologist,” a claim that he stands by.) Since then, he’s traveled from museum to museum, shoplifting from gift stores and subsisting mostly on the free cru d’été served at exhibition openings.
In short, Josiah Tell is an abrasive outcast who only stays relevant by occasionally producing groundbreaking research. ArtForum calls his mode of scholarship the Stopped Clock method: unlike his peers, Tell doesn’t mind having his theories proved completely wrong. And because he’s never shy about sharing his libelous and paranoid theories, the law of averages states that eventually, a few of them will be correct—and fewer still, brilliant.
When he arrived at the Swedish Consulate General in New York, (where he’d demanded we hold this interview, since “The Swedes have never—and I do mean never—successfully prosecuted a submarine robbery”) Tell reeked of gasoline. “It’s Friday,” he shrugged, by way of explanation (It was a Tuesday). Tell grabbed the elbow of a passer-by and ordered “a piping-hot mug of crème de menthe.” Miraculously, the man, who I later learned was a senior diplomat, returned a few short minutes later with a steaming cup of liqueur, and nervously apologized for the wait. Call it the Tell Effect.
Tell wanted to speak about his recent visit to the Arms and Armor Court at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but, being intensely suspicious of journalists, he refused to answer anything I asked. Instead, he conducted the entire interview himself, posing his own questions and pausing thoughtfully before responding.
Q: Are Arms awesome?
A: They are.
Q: How about Armor?
A: You bet!
Q: I was told you were a liberal elitist, and a socialist besides. Shouldn’t you hate guns?
A: Well, look: you can’t spell “Red State” without “Red.” So there’s something to think about. Plus, these weapons are all from Olden Times, before we had nations to protect us from Visigoths and bears and whatnot. Not to mention the constant threat of defenestration, which my research suggests killed more Europeans in the Premodern period than any other cause except witchcraft. So, sure, if I were living in Olden Times, you can bet I would have had as many muskets as I could fit in my castle. I would have worn a suit of armor, codpiece and all, in my sleep. Would have been crazy not to.
Q: That’s a really good point.
A: Thank you.
Q: Speaking of codpieces, if Prince were alive back in Arms and Armor days, what kind of codpiece would he wear?
A: You wouldn’t believe how often I get asked that question. He’d wear this one:
A: I know, right?
Q: It assumes the wearer has an erection at all times!
A: Yeah, it’s pretty hilarious. I had to be escorted from the gallery the first time I went because I was laughing so hard.
Q: So what was your favorite piece there?
A: Definitely the seven-foot-tall suit of German fluted armor (below left). Look at it—the center suit’s a full head taller than the other two! Think how big the guy who wore that must have been. And this was back when everyone else was all atrophied and hunchbacked from gout and a diet of hardtack and dirt, so this two-metre Teuton would have been huge.
Q: Well, the Days of Yore were some rough times, but I’m pretty sure people weren’t literally eating dirt.
A: Lots of people assume that. I actually was joking when I first said it, but apparently it’s a real thing called geophagy.
A: Totally weird! Eating dirt! But so anyway, you can imagine how terrifying this brute must have seemed in 1500, what with everyone else so malnourished and withered from eating rocks. If this ogre had started lumbering towards you in battle—
Q: Jesus Christ, I’d have pissed myself!
A: Precisely, you’d have pissed yourself. And suit of armor, remember, is impermeable, so it’s not like it would eventually have evaporated like that time you wet yourself after drinking a pint of ethanol that you stole from the the Rutgers Chem lab that caused you to pass out in a rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike, and when you woke up your cargo shorts smelled like frat bathroom but at least they were dry.
Q: I beg your pardon—I’m sure I don’t know what you’re referring to. And it was a tollbooth.
A: Yes, that’s right. You know, I haven’t been able to listen to Prairie Home Companion since that night. Who would have guessed that Garrison Keeler was such an adept cage fighter?
Q: He literally bent that guy’s arm backwards! Like with the elbow all going the wrong way! That’s a nice segue, actually, let’s move on to Arms. Were any of the handguns displayed in such a way that they appeared to be floating?
A: Yes. This revolver, manufactured by Samuel Colt, was displayed in exactly that manner:
Q: Super cool! That’s some nice curatorial work.
A: It is.
Q: Well, this has been a wonderful. Thanks for your time.
A: The pleasure was mine.
At this point, Tell lurched out of his seat and asked to use the phone at the receptionist’s desk. He dialed 411, and after politely requesting the operator’s name and social security number, made his query. “New York City, The Internet. Yes. I need the number for The Internet. You can just put me through directly (pause). It’s some kind of a computer thing, I’m pretty sure it’s like Sega. Have you played Sega? (pause) Well look, I need Paypal to wire some money over to the Swedish embassy. I’ve just now realized I’m short on cash and unable to pay my bar tab, so I need money moved from my Party Poker account in Mauritius to the— (pause) Hello?” Tell’s face fell, and he slowly returned the receiver to the desk attendant. “My deepest regrets, Your Grace. Evidently my bank refuses to do business with Scandinavians. On account of the War—you understand.”
And with that, Josiah Tell bowed deeply from the waist and sprinted out the door, into the night.
Sergio Holl is an arts writer based in New York City.