From Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away
“You can’t just say NO. You got to do NO. You got to show it. You got to show you mean it by doing it. You got to show you’re not going to do one thing by doing another. You got to make an end of it. One way or another.”
Earlier this week I received a mass email from an artist I hadn’t heard from in many years – and whom I hadn’t seen since our one and only date about ten years ago.
I met her when I worked at an art gallery in Harlem. It was rare to get visitors outside of the opening reception; usually the only people who dropped by during the run of the show were a local drug dealer, who would spend a lot of time looking at the art and leave without ever saying a word, and the landlord, demanding to see the owner because we were invariably late paying the rent. It was a very special day when a cute girl walked in, and near-miraculous if she would come to the back office, which this one did.
She asked if I was Giovanni. “Why yes,” I said, stroking my imaginary mustache. She said she was an artist. A mutual friend had recommended she drop by. Crestfallen, I assumed she was going to pull out a sheet of slides from her purse and ask if we would consider giving her a show. Instead, she said our friend had told her that my paintings had a lot in common with her sculpture. Cute girl coming to see me and talk about my art? What else could I ask for? Sex on my desk, I guess, but I was pretty sure that wasn’t going to happen. (It didn’t.)
We pulled up each other’s websites to see what our work had in common. Despite the different media, there was definitely a family resemblance: our work was abstract, biomorphic, and had vague – and slightly grotesque – references to the human body. Our sense of composition was also fairly arbitrary and decidedly asymmetrical. She asked how I came up with my compositions.
“Have you ever read Dune?” I asked. The brief moment it took me to form those five words was more than long enough for me to fill with bitter regret.
“Er, yes. A science-fiction novel. Um.”
“What about it?”
“Well, in it there are these… giant worms that live under the desert…” I suddenly felt like crying. “And in order to get across the desert you have to learn how to walk without rhythm…” My throat dried up and I could feel my tongue thickening. “Otherwise the worms would realize you were there… and eat you.” By the time this came out of my mouth I was ready to ask her to please leave the gallery and never come back.
“Oh, you mean like Deleuze and Guattari’s theory of the rhizome?” She asked.
“You know, a rhizome is the underground stem of a plant from which shoots come out. Deleuze and Guattari used it to describe concepts that favor a nomadic system of growth and propagation without pattern.”
I was so embarrassed I sort of blacked out, but evidently one of us asked the other out for dinner.
Two days later we met at a restaurant in Chelsea she had suggested. As soon as I walked in I knew I was in trouble; the place was a designer’s dream come true – the furniture looked like original Danish Modern, or equally expensive contemporary knock-offs.
She arrived about twenty minutes late, long enough for my insecurity to have started to metastasize into annoyance. “Don’t you love this place?” She beamed. “The food is really not that great, but I just love eating here because of the ambience.” That’s when I decided we were going to split the check.
A waiter came by to take our drink order. “I don’t drink,” she said to me and the decidedly uninterested waiter. “I don’t need to,” she added.
“I’ll have a vodka martini,” I said. I need it, I thought.
I don’t remember the details of dinner, other than that it was spent with her alternating between dropping names and asking me who I knew in the art world. An hour later, after having listed every group show and residency program she had ever been in, we asked for the check. By this point on a date with an attractive girl I would ordinarily be fretting about how to extend the evening. Instead I wondered if any of my friends were around to meet up. We paid and walked out into Chelsea.
“Should we go to a bar?” She asked.
“I thought you didn’t drink.”
“I don’t, I just thought you might want another drink and I could have some water. If we could kill an hour or two we could then go to this party a curator friend of mine is throwing in SoHo. He’s got an amazing loft!”
“I’m sorry,” I said, “I really have to go home.” We hugged briefly and then I headed to the train station, taking care to walk without rhythm, just in case.
I went shopping for jeans during my lunch hour yesterday. I hadn’t visited H&M in years, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that, judging from the low prices and the quality of the fabric, their clothes are now designed to be immediately disposable. While I wasn’t particularly taken by how I looked in their $19.95 jeans, I stuck around a bit longer to listen to the music they were playing. It sounded like light 80s funk, but I suppose it’s a new genre that I’m too uncool to know about.
I shuffled off to Banana Republic, despite knowing that the last pair of jeans I bought there made me look like I was wearing adult diapers (I wasn’t!). The music at the store was a little more exciting, and it occurred to me that by going shopping more often I could catch up on borderline-cool new music without the mortification of being rejected by bouncers. The blue jeans at Banana Republic (is anyone else offended by the name of this store, by the way?) were “pre-stressed,” which I find terribly annoying – Baudrillard has been dead for five years and I had hoped we could all move on. Thankfully, as seems to be the norm, there was a Gap next door.
The jeans at the Gap were even crummier, but the khakis looked promising – at least the ones in conservative colors, the ones up front in pastels and fluorescents just confused me. I went into a dressing room, and as I removed my pants I noticed that I was standing on a Flor rug composed of four panels set in the shape of a swastika! I couldn’t fit the whole image on my crappy cell phone camera, so I stood up on the chair in the dressing room, which I realized might seem like I was trying to peek at the other people trying on clothes. As I hurriedly took the photo I heard the camera’s loud click and whirr sound. Convinced that security was going to break down the door and arrest me for indecent behavior I rushed to put my pants back on and fled the store. I don’t remember what music was playing.
In a fit of optimism, Sabine and I got memberships to MoMA last December. I had visited the museum a couple of times to see Abstract Expressionist New York, and knowing that they were planning a De Kooning retrospective, I figured the repeated visits would pay for themselves. But just like other people with their gym memberships, we ended up only going once this year. I’ve been reading about modern art recently, so when work let out early yesterday, I decided to visit the permanent collection and try to get some of my money’s worth.
I always get cranky after fighting my way through the crowds on Fifth Avenue, and my heart sank when I arrived at the museum and saw the mob waiting to get in. It was gratifying to pass them thanks to my membership card, but not so great once I was in. Why doesn’t it occur to anyone in New York to actually walk up the escalators? Invariably, people freeze as soon as they step on, taking on languid poses to block anyone wanting to pass them. No wonder the inventor killed himself.
When I finally made my way into the permanent collection – in reverse chronological order, it turns out – I was faced with another horror: the iPhone catalogers. These are the people who flit from masterpiece to masterpiece taking photos, only looking at the works through their viewfinders. Why bother going to the museum if you’re only interested in photographs of the art? Here’s a tip: Just visit the website and save yourself $25! Trust me, it’s not that hard to find a good jpeg of Warhol‘s work.
Slightly less annoying were the many people getting their photos taken next to art (though I can’t blame the teens who discovered that Daniel Buren’s stripes make good backdrops – I suspect it was part of the artist’s point). I hurried through the increasingly conceptual sections and went up to the fifth floor, which was of course even more crowded. Old ladies do love their fucking Kandinsky! Thankfully I don’t, so I was able to spend a fair amount of time looking at works by lesser-known artists relatively undisturbed. I did have to put on my headphones, though, because stationed at every wall there is a visitor reliving his Art History 101 course by repeating everything he can remember to his companion. Loudly. I wish I had prepared accordingly, because the Cole Porter songbook was not the ideal soundtrack for looking at early modernism.
My way out was even more frustrating than my way in. You can’t even walk down the escalator? Really? It takes no effort! Gravity is on your side, people! I took a deep breath and faced Fifth Avenue again. I was feeling pretty unhappy by this point. Sure, it’s great to live in a city where if the mood strikes, you can simply walk a few blocks to see some of the world’s best modern art in person, but does it have to be so damn crowded? I’ve lived here for 18 years and I still find the amount of people on the streets overwhelming.
Then I saw what looked like two families of tourists headed my way. How did I know they were tourists? All eight or nine of them were wearing matching knit hats with Elmo’s face on it. One of the moms dropped her bag of popcorn, and the rest of the group jeered at her. “How embarrassing!” She yelped. Lady, dropping the popcorn is the least of it, I thought. And that’s when it hit me: Whatever might be wrong with New York, I can’t live anywhere else. While the tourists might get on my nerves, they’re just visiting. If I left New York, I’d actually be living with them.