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Tuesday, April 13, 1999
By Paul Ford
An essay on the arts scene and what it meant to me in 1999. Of course, when I'm writing these summaries (mid-2000) I care not at all.
This is pretty rough around the edges, and needs edited. I warned you.
My boss is involved in the NYC arts scene. The people who run the Kitchen, the Knitting Factory, and the other 80's art scenesters know her name, and our company has done work for a lot of the city performance festivals, and so on. She envisions Rock, Paper, Scissors, Inc as an artistic branding company. The ideas we develop, she says, the logotypes we craft, are based on creative vision.
So I say to her, as often as I can, "you know, art is dead. It's business that's the new art. Cash is beauty." And you can see it actually pisses her off, it needles her. Not bad, because, sensibly, she doesn't pay much attention to my opinions on anything but grammar, but a little.
This is not what I feel, of course. I feel that money is an entirely imaginary consensual hallucination, which is why it works so well in its digital form. I think that business is an extension of our public selves, and that going to work is ritual; we do it because we went to school and learned that's what we are supposed to do, and because we need the money. This is our culture, the culture of going to a place, doing a thing, and going home, whether it's serving food or trading stocks. If you don't do it, you're supposed to feel as if you're misbehaving, but the truth is, work is an entirely arbitrary act. I believe all this good, Jeremy-Rifkin-End-of-Work cultural theory bullshit. I don't actually believe that "business is the new art." It's just business that makes me say it.
However, I do think art is usually valued in metrics of dollar signs and celebrity, because "meaning" is more difficult to measure than the height of a quark, and this makes the whole business/art problem much more complex. I know, without doubt, that Van Gogh had more talent than Monet or Cezanne, because Van Gogh's paintings sell for several million more each. Yet I've never sat and analyzed the famous French Impressionists together. If you ask me why Van Gogh is better (go ahead, ask me), I would say, "his topics are bigger, his strokes more bold, his vision more clear." Absolute nonsense--I don't know what I'm talking about. But it sounds good enough, and it explains away the million-dollar disparity, wiping the cognitive dissonance clean so that I can go watch TV.
A million dollars is a rich person's amount of money--not the kind of money that is used to feed children or buy cans of soup. It's money-as-communication, money-as-media, not money for living. Rich people have an extremely different kind of money than you and I, the kind you use to make investments, the kind of money that builds onto itself and, because it is given opportunity to grow, expands like a well-managed bacteria in a petri incubator. The bills, from George to Benjamin and beyond, may look the same, but the application, context, and value are different.
The middle-class has the shopping mall and mutual funds together, alternating between spending money for goods and services, and investing rich-people money, money for money's sake. Of course, for poor folk it's something else entire, and much more desparate and awful. Poor people are untrained acrobats working without a net in the financial circus. But for right now, we don't care much about them, since poor people and art don't usually go together, except when you're talking about artists, and mixing up art and artists is a huge mistake.
You look at a Van Gogh, and you wonder what could possibly make this image, this lump of squiggled sunflowers, worth over $16,000,000. But think then that the exchange was actually one symbol, the image of sunflowers, for 16 million others. The $16,000,000 is rich-people money, money spent with a mixed aesthetic goal, to do smart business, and to do elegant, beautiful business. You don't pick up a famous painting, or an $11,000,000 apartment, with soup-buying money. For a rich person, $16 million is worth one vase of sunflowers, not 16 million cans of cranberry sauce.
Personally, I don't get any of it, but I've never had the chance to work in rich-people money as my medium, since I simply struggle at writing little lines of text and make an okay salary writing things like "DON'T YOU WANT TO SAVE $378 ON YOUR ENERGY BILL?" I don't know if there's an aesthetic to buying a four-bedroom prewar colonial on the 18th floor over Central Park. I assume there is, an aesthetic of beautiful carpets and raw acquisition, a habit of lordly acquisition where one is painted in beside the angels in the family portrait.
Rich-people money brings on the Fast Company aesthetic, the Forbes impressionism, the business-is-our-culture-and-our-expression way of thinking, the idea that financial success is the right of the true corporate artists. Business advice books love to tell the managers that they are not managers, they are jazz improvisers. They are quarterbacks. They are four-star generals. They are heroes, celebrities, rock stars, geniuses, different, special, unique. Business advice books flatter you like a lover, but it's all tease; those consultants writing don't believe a single word of what they're saying for more than the two months it takes to spin off 90,000 words with meaningless diagrams. They know they can brainwash you, that they can say something to make you feel good and less entirely isolated in your corporate drift zone. They write the book to up their consulting fees, which allow them to get their rich-people dollars out of your dollar-rich company. They run training seminars with the group fall and rope-climbing, to help you bond as a company, bringing you together with your peers so that you will be happy, so that your happiness will generate more surplus value for your employers. You're special! Your different! Wear business casual, be different! And welcome to the hive!
Maybe great art is great business, at least after the artists are dead and their weird habits, like sodomizing children or smoking opium, are no longer as heavy in our minds. But I think it's all fetish, the desire to be one of the artists, to be free. Bill Gates buys the Codex Leicester, and he is in the company of DaVinci. A Japanese businessman buys a Van Gogh and insists he's going to be buried with it when he goes. The buyer's value goes up by approximation. All the people at Sotheby's are there to sniff out freedom, to buy it with their soft-earned rich-people dollars, to drift their fingers over the brush strokes and know that this stretched heavy canvas once sat on a hillside on an easel with a man who was free, and crazy, and sick, and sad, and that their dollar-boxed world will never open the same doors Van Gogh opened. But then, they'll keep their ears, and they'll never go hungry. Later, if it's worth enough, they'll sell the painting, or sculpture, or pair of shoes, or fragment of the true cross, and congratulate themselves on the insight they had in buying such a thing of beauty. Or maybe they'll give it or sell it cheaply to a museum, and their benevolence, which could have funded 30 soup kitchens for untold years, will be spread throughout the prefecture, and their greatness will be magnified, and a banner will be hung at the face of the museum, and people will travel from far to see this great work of art, tourism will be up, hotel rooms will be rented, and poor people will be given brooms and a few dollars an hour, so that they can clean up after this cultural elephant. It's called "trickle down economics" because it is just a trickle; it's the condensation coming off the full glass and beading down at which the rest of us get to lick.
In puzzling through these fiscal and life complexities, I am trying to go deeper into my ugly self but keep my ears, trying to open those doors through writing (since I can't just buy a Van Gogh canvas for a key, nor can I paint or even doodle effectively), and, comically, I'm failing almost entirely. Still, every now and then I figure something out about myseld, and record it in something I am writing offline, a series of stories where I am not so coy or clever, where I am free to screw up entirely, where I can write about blood and fucking, transgressions and fear. I can taste some of the craziness that ensues from this inward exploration, and I've seen people who really looked deep inside of themselves and lost their shit entirely, so I'm taking it slow.
You see, ultimately, I'd rather be poor on a hillside than cozy in bed, I'd rather die young, even if not a word of what I write matters, even if it all ends up an aesthetic failure.
Ultimately, I'd like to have a nice house and clean apartment, a good salary, a cozy bed, and a long life.
Ultimately, I'd like to run my own small business, expressing my business-art-self.
Ultimately, I'd like to write a novel and go on talk shows and demonstrate to everyone who picked on me in middle-school how superb I am.
Ultimately, I'd like to keep exploring text online, finding out dynamic ways that narrative can fold on the Web.
Ultimately, I want everyone to love me and say how great I am, and send me email about my infernal cleverness.
Ultimately, I go on too much.
Ultimately, it's all conjecture; I can't predict my life and shouldn't. Right today, I can't say goodbye to the comfort of my wallet. I want good credit, the ability to pay for an operation, the ability to take someone out to dinner without ordering only an appetizer for myself. So, I go to work--I'll be leaving the apartment 2 hours from now, at 8:30--and say to my boss that art is dead, not because it is, but because I am nervous that the raw creative blood could die inside of me, losing its iron, traded in for my more commercial vein. As an antidote, I scribble my most urgent wishes on the backs of old photocopies, sitting alone on the rumbling Ftrain.
The resolution could be compromise, the gray instead of the black and white. I would like less of a job, maybe to go freelance, and to spend time in the scribbles. It is luxury, a foolish decision if I ever make it, but it will please me. It's my business, my startup, my self-enclosed world, and all the symbols and companies in the world don't mean as much to me in comparison.
Except right now I gotta go make my weekly grand....