“During the civil war, Trotsky wrote a book on art.”
-Harun Farocki, Dog From the Freeway
I was shaping snakes and mice in clay with my three-year-old in the year 2009 when the penny finally dropped and I realized I was handling a feces analog. The Art we were making was shit. My daughter probably knew that all along (and quite happily), but for me there had been a long gestational period, the decades during which I’d deluded myself into believing that the basic materials I was handling, in my life as an Artiste, were stardust and fairy diamonds.
My father was an Artiste; his life-sized canvases of hexagonal moons and primeval women (left breasts exposed) are almost as big a part of my childhood memories as the stink of his turpentine. He was an epic womanizer and his shoe of choice was the sandal. When I was ten we had a falling out. He had me taking Arabic classes on the weekends, but I balked as any headstrong ten-year-old would. I do not regret balking. The Arabic classes were meant to prepare me for the move he was planning to North Africa (the goal eventually shifted to another part of the continent). To that end, also, when I spent the night at his bachelor pad on weekends he’d have the heat turned up to unbearable levels to build a degree of tolerance. In my pre-pubertal mind, Sandals and Girls and Unbearable Heat were fusing into one awful urge called Art.
My father finally made the move to a faraway land (not quite North Africa) in 1980, with a whole new family, which is the only way he could have done it, and it was in the primitive villa they moved to (guarded by his Korean-War-era rifle, a rifle the government of Liberia eventually confiscated because it was bigger than anything in the nation’s armory) that he found his muse. He painted portraits of the locals and since it was the habit of the locals to return to him indignantly, weeks later, demanding the portraits “back”, he built a secret room under the villa to store what ended up being eight hundred canvases, a respectable oeuvre. There was a curfew in town, imposed by a gang of naked cannibals who called themselves something like The Butt-Naked Cannibal Boys: if they caught you outside at sundown, you were supper. Inspiration was plentiful. The paintings my father produced in exile were stripped of hexagonal moons and lyrical tits because he was no longer guessing at the contents of his imagination: he was finally living in it. He later died in Vegas.
It was in 1980 that I began receiving instruction from Tim, the mendicant monk of Art. He impressed me by drawing a perfect copy of the so-called Mona Lisa on the title page of a book in the public library and then tearing it out with fearless aplomb. This was long before Philistines became important people by learning to influence the conversational choices of even the angriest young men and women. It had been, by the time I met Tim, a couple of years since I’d dropped out of the expensive private college (known for its rich foreign students: Kofi Annan is an alum) that I had been packed off to by rich relatives who didn’t give a damn that I’d shown artistic promise. Swaths of both sides of my family had money but not the shred of the part I was born to. A Dickensian set-up.
Among the beautiful nightmare characters on campus we had an actual direct descendant of text-booked Bauhaus potentates. He was tall, dressed like an adult with money in the bank, spoke with an envy-seedingly sinister accent and (I remember it thusly but it can’t be true) wore a monocle. He wanted to do something to a girl I wanted to do something to and I felt that as a congenital Artiste from a storied dynasty of suave European fuckers he had every right. I lacked ambition.
It was expected that I would use the time at this college correcting the frivolous mistakes my father made to make us poor. But my luscious spirit balked. The clearest memory I have of quitting school is walking out of the dormitory on a leafy warm day, carrying, with a friend’s help, a large table from the dormitory’s second floor lounge. I had convinced this friend that if we looked blasé enough while doing it, we could carry the thing off-campus with no one to stop us. It was about a ten block walk to the basement flat I shared with other students who had been inspired by me to also drop out. The table was heavy but worth the effort. We lived right up the street from the favorite circuit of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s skipping-and-running and sometimes sulking boyish ghost.
We were three or four young men and three or four young women unified by a heroically naive delusion of infinite possibilities and our smelly beatnik clothing. Sometimes we’d all strip and lull on the futons listening to Joan Armatrading. I remember with a shudder of deferred lust a toy-faced girl from North Dakota handling my genitals with experimental ginger one evening in the communal bed while I feigned sleep because I wasn’t quite into her. The imaginary girl I dreamed of seeding in those days resembled the female figure on the cover of the Layla album and this girl from North Dakota looked nothing like that, with her big eyes and button nose and perkily doomed aura of Karen Carpenter.
The only chocolate-free drug I’ve ever taken was LSD (never grass, never coke, never booze or beer or heroin or ecstasy or meth or poppers or peyote or cigarettes and very little coffee) and that was the year I dabbled in it. Many excursions on the brand of acid that came on little tabs of paper we imported via connections in the drama department. The drama teacher was a jumpsuited man with a Pan-beard whose signature theory of Method acting held that to be stabbed is to have an orgasm. There were lots of plays with stabbings. I took LSD and tried eating five hot dogs and this didn’t work. My then-girlfriend, looking exactly like a big aqua-and-white butterfly, straddled me after I spit the mulched quasimeat into a fern and drew my fluorescing seed into her hallucinated body.
I wanted to paint something grand.
I cut off most contact with my family, experimented with a sequence of horrid jobs in a department store (from loading dock to in-house repair to sales) and found I preferred to be self-employed as a house-painter/hedge-trimmer/ floor-refinisher and so forth. The only truly bad memory I have from this period was my having fucked some decent burgher’s hardwood floor so badly that I fled the scene in media res (or in flagrante), only to skulk back the next day to undo the damage while burgher oversaw until I finished and left, sans word or cheque.
The funniest work memory I have is from the loading dock days: a svelte, chic, nipply buyer striding towards a pallet stacked with imported shoes under the pumped-in workdisco of The Stones’ Miss You while my fellow apes went super-horny nova. There were Puerto Rican curses of hate and approval. Styrofoam packing material flying everywhere suddenly like New Year’s. It wasn’t until my youth was definitively spent (or invested) that I started earning good money selling anything finer (I am a composer) than my back-broken labor. Even now, in the 21st century, a decade after hauling my last infernal ton of bricks, or smearing my final vaulted ceiling with eye-spattering paint on the end of a wobbly pole, I look more like a construction worker than an intellectual.
“Wow, obscure terms. English major, are we? But, I couldn’t agree with you more.Thanks”
-RedWolfSV, from a comment thread about a Kara Walker video
Tim the monk wasn’t a monk in the strictest sense because he wasn’t affiliated with Buddha or Christ, but as a penuriously unfuckable artist who lived in a garret he was Christ. He taught me that the world will always be hostile towards any Art that deserves the title and that the world’s suspicion and hostility coil neatly in the sweetest crannies of the richest implications of the word. When it was Art’s clear function to propitiate the Gods, the Artist was resented-but-tolerated. Minus the Gods the tolerations fade rapidly.
Tim would say Modigliani and the word was always gifted with the same Italianate flourish of his bony hand. From his correct pronunciation of the Great One’s name (soft “g”) I learned, in fact, to correctly pronounce the name of the trendiest restaurant in the trendiest neighborhood of the city, knowledge that required five years of gradually becoming a shallow, trendy, sex-drunk prick before I could use it.
I taught myself to paint in a windowless room in a larger flat I shared with an anarchist and his ballbusting, helmet-haired, shovel-jawed girlfriend. Her allure whistled high above my head. I painted under a red bulb at midnight and feasted on jacket potatoes spirited home in an origami tinfoil swan and found myself with four or five girlfriends. The Psychedelic Furs became very important to me.
I walked into a 24-Hour grocery one night, reeking of turpentine (flirting with oils and Oedipus), hoping to buy a frozen cheesecake with a pile of quarters and dimes and the bleary-eyed hipster at the cash register had the radio tuned to a college station that sounded like it was broadcasting from the Urals, playing an unknown group called The Clash, which I hated because it sounded too earthy. Snow fell and I ran through it with frozen cheesecake. I began dating a fellow Artiste and discovered on the fourth date that I’d hit the jackpot: she was both virgin and orphan. She fed me an Xmas turkey that red oil paint had somehow worked itself in with the stuffing of.
Tim was missing teeth when I first met him and still more were long-lost by the time we last spoke, on a street corner, me just visiting the country for a few weeks from a new home in Europe, dressed in smart Berliner black and Tim just a wraith’s dingey sneeze, a total coincidence, a little awkward, fifteen years after the day he first made me his wide-eyed pupil by penciling a perfect Mona Lisa on a page torn boldly out of a library book. Perfect and from memory. The hands of Tim’s Mona were the hands of the woman herself, a pictorial stresspoint where every element of the composition locks together.
Why do so many blush at /despise/recoil from anything questingly original in Art? I can answer that question, but I won’t. I recently received this email from an otherwise worldy man, a man in the bigtime music business, friends with superstars and a guiding hand in the formation of two recording artists so huge that anyone born after 1960 would laugh if I name-dropped them here. He wrote:
“After a lot of years of looking-and-listening, I’ve come to the conclusion that ‘everything’ is a marketing exercise! I think anyone who produces art in any dimension, and says they did it for themselves is a liar. If they did it for themselves, why are they showing it to us???”
Tim was already thirty-something when we first met, incisors gone and sporting the Van de Graaff coif of the malnourished/mad. I learned soon enough to avoid riding buses with him because his favorite sex substitute was to sit in the back and extemporize weird melodies about the various failings of the lemmings, quislings, capos and dupes he believed we were sharing the bus with. I learned soon enough not to go with Tim to the cinema or grocery store or art gallery because the songs he made up for the bourgeois assassins of promise were much worse. He’d come down to my room at midnight a few times a week with a gallon of orange juice and talk for hours.
He taught me to be militant about Art. But I compartmentalized his influence because I did not want to end up like him. I liked sex with pretty girls and I wasn’t willing to forsake that pleasure for a howling gawk at the deafening core of the heartless furnace of aesthetic Truth.
“We are each a slimy apparatus of interacting liquids.”
-John Updike, Toward the End of Time
We were all so terrified of herpes. Articles about herpes appeared in the Vogue yet girls were falling ripe from the rafters like pomegranates. They were rolling soft from behind the arras. Uppermiddleclass ingenues with Planned Parenthood diaphragms in Pee-wee Herman purses reading Anäis Nin at the laundromat. It’s not politically correct to describe the atavistic sensation of wellbeing a young man sometimes feels when feeling rich in females so I’ll leave it at that. Not that this feeling is a strictly testicular dispensation, for I’ve known young women who collected men; who amassed portfolios of men; who collected and traded men like baseball cards. I can think of a specific example: Half-Cuban M…
… was olive-skinned, cinematically striking with a sheen of fine blonde hairs glittering on the muscular cake of her ass. Her father is a Gay Cuban professor of semiotics at Miami State University. If you’ve ever seen Masculin Feminin, M was a swarthy, bowlegged version of Chantal Goya. She preferred neither walking nor standing because she felt less bowlegged athwart a bed and on this bed she plied me with wry tales of her middleaged losers. As she put it she couldn’t get off on one of these fellows until she’d made him cry*. M’s nirvana (her masterpiece) came in Rishikesh where she made a fucking Yogi cry.
But we digress.
Tim lived on the third floor of a mansion-converted-into-a-hippie-flop-house and it was after I moved out of the drop-out commune and into this very mansion that I made Tim’s acquaintance, months before my conversion in the main branch of the public library with him and his Mona Lisa. His cheap room was under the roof so his ceiling was slanted. He shared a toilet with several other tenants down the hall, one of them retarded and the other a daughter of millionaires.
Among the beautiful nightmare characters inhabiting this mansion was a Miltonian poet with a massive upper body and one polio-withered (though shapely as a young girl’s) leg who introduced me to Suzanne Verdal (about whom the famous Leonard Cohen song was written), who once tried to seduce me as thanks for a thirty-dollar loan she never repaid. She’d visit the mansion on blessed days and dance on the lawn while her fairytale children sat on a low wall eating not oranges from China but apples that came all the way from Washington state as Tim glowered down from his belfry window.
There was this one, small, abstract painting on an easel near Tim’s belfry window and I can see it now as though it were on the screen before me. It was the only actual painting of Tim’s I ever saw. A dull green impasto circle, a thick blue diagonal and a dull red vertical stripe. He worked on and discussed and re-jiggered this painting for as long as I knew him.
How could Tim speak so movingly and with such detailed knowledge of Modigliani, Soutine, Kandinsky and the others and produce one worthless painting? I’m fairly sure it was a worthless painting. Maybe it wasn’t. Maybe it will make Tim famous in the 23rd century.
Fifteen years ago, I wrote a short story about Tim (who is always “Tim” whenever I write about him, because no other name comes close) called “The Half-Block Coat”. An excerpt I have cleaned up a little because my earlier, stiffer style irritates me:
So Tim bowed at the threshold and shuffled on the blackened mat and crept in, yanking off his cap and rubbing his palms, looking around the little room to see what had changed in the six months or so since he’d been there last. Henry noted that Tim was losing his hair and wisps of it reached longingly after the cap as he pulled it off. Poor Tim. Forty going on sixty. Henry was twenty two.
Tim kept his coats on and Henry knew it was because Tim didn’t want to appear to presume that he had been invited to stay. It was amazing, Henry thought. The less a person has, the more stylized the rituals. Tim had the florid manners of an Archduke. He only relaxed when invited to and when invited to relax he ranted.
In this story, the young protagonist meets a rich, powerful, sexually unsatisfied middle-aged woman from the bigtime genuine Aht World called Aria Tanner and deliberately keeps it a secret from his antisocial attitudinal mentor Tim, for fear that Tim will fuck things up.
At the story’s climax, Tim vomits.
*[One thing I could never do was picture Tim crying; M would have met her match in toothless sack-of-bones Art Angel Tim.]
“Also because she actually went around calling herself a post-modernist. No matter where you are, you Don’t Do This.”
-David Foster Wallace, Westward The Course of Empire Takes Its Way
Oral. I had started off with very poor skills in this department until an art student (an ex; the virgin orphan, pictured above) I was cheating on Jo with at the time cheated on me in a menage-a-trois with fellow students, two hicks from Northern California, best friends since Sunday school (they kept exchanging the same sandy mustache since forever; I’d go to a party and one would have it and the other wouldn’t; a week later I’d see them walking with glum looks out of a matinee of Liquid Sky with the mustache situation reversed) who were separately and together, I was made to know, savants of the oral mysteries.
Aria gave me a high-paying job writing the artspeak mumbo jumbo for glossy corporate collection catalogues full of A.R. Penck’s stupid stickmen and Sandro Chia’s sickly telephone doodles and Julian Schnabel’s pointless crockery and Chuck Close’s titanic forays into the limitless realm of zero imagination and I quit housepainting for a whole summer and started buying new books and new clothing and feeling animally ambitious in a not very artistic way. I had moved out of the hippie mansion but I still bumped into Tim quite often (at the Artist’s Quarter Jazz cafe, for example, or Whole Foods co-op) and I had to hide any evidence of this wicked new job from Tim whenever we met.
-Where’d you get those new shoes, man?
-I stole them.
“I made enemies on the East Coast, the West Coast, and in the Middle West.”
Gods know I knew Tim was hurting for cash. I think he was mowing lawns and leaf-raking and eating on Foodstamps.
I was dating a fresh-from-Paris lesbian fashion model who was the face for a line of cosmetics for rich old women in France (she was 20; they painted her hair white for the photos). She had a psychotic break on Bastille Day.
When the summer job writing copy for the acquisitions catalog dried up I took a bold trip downtown to Aria’s office in its greenglass skyscraper that looked like a shelf system for kitsch-addicted demigods. I saw this quest as a test of my testicular puissance but the distance from the elevator to the white plush spot in front of the desk of Aria’s secretary came very close to being asymptotically infinite. I’d walk half the distance, then half the remaining distance, then half of that, and so on.
When I finally made it into Aria’s black leather and chrome office, I can’t remember what I said; from where exactly I summoned the sauce to frame the proposal that she should think of some way to continue, despite the summer job’s end, funneling that good, good money towards me. There she sat behind her bunker of a desk in her pinstriped shoulder-padded business suit. She had the pretty, cow-eyed face and the spray-stiff coin-blonde hair and a witty-mean mouth any starving Artist with a molecule of common sense would have poked stuff into. One could tell, even in their armor, that her bosoms looked nothing like my father’s lyrical left tits or even Layla’s. They were triumphalist corporate ultra-mams.
I don’t remember how soon after that it was that Aria wrote me the first big for-nothing-in-particular cheque but I remember exactly what I did with it (along with the cash she’d given me for a taxi, which I pocketed by walking eight miles home): I bought my ravishing then-girlfriend a coat. The money flowed for quite a while. Imagine what her lawyer boyfriend (a dedicated jogger) thought of it all. I realize now that he deserved to claw at his hair near the lake alone and suffer a little over how wunderbar he imagined my youthful genitals might be.
Aria wanted to fly me to New York. She wanted to introduce me to her friend Andy Warhol. She wanted to fly me to Europe. She asked me for a backrub in a taxi once. She said with this new thing called H.I.V. flying around she’d never in a million years submit to anal sex… as if I had asked her to.
I see myself in Aria’s CEOish living room in that big house near the lake. I’m leafing through a coffeetablebook heavy as a Swiss toddler and fat with Modigliani nudes (and necrotic photographs of the whorish models he fucked before, during and after painting them) while Aria takes a shower (under what pretext?) upstairs. I turn to the page featuring my favorite (Reclining Nude… but they’re all called that, aren’t they?) and suddenly I hear the second floor master bathroom door swoosh open (in a sort of now-or-never way, but perhaps I’m reading into the sound of it, retrointuitively) and the hot rush and thunder of her highpressure yuppie shower and Aria calling out that she wants me to come upstairs because she needs to ask me something.
Tim never taught me an actual painting technique. He taught me that Art is a voice in the Artist’s head. The voice may change over the years but what doesn’t change is that no one else can hear it. And that your transformation as an Artist is complete when you can’t hear anything but that voice. That’s the point that Tim had reached: I knew that. Did I want to reach that point? I wasn’t sure.
All I knew for sure was that I didn’t want to deal with Aria Tanner nude wet or just nude or just wet so that was the end of my career in painting, though not in Art.
Somewhere on the planet a Philistine is reading this piece with gratitude and wonder.