to pee, or not to pee
A few weeks ago, Margaret and I attended the preview of an auction at Sotheby’s. As we entered the lobby of the building, I was struck by how very attractive the employees were. Each and every employee wore sharp black rimmed glasses, a smart French cut suit, a sharp nose, and an angular jaw. As the doors of the elevator swung open, we were greeted by conversations in both Russian and England English. The Russian dialogue went something like “Nustrovyitch stztrempztrovyitch Andy Warholyovitch. The England English dialogue went something like “Quite right, rather languid, and, rather pinkish. But, indeed, the Ondy Warhol, carry on, do, please, quite right.” I was struck by the abundance of commas in the England English vernacular, the poor little comma must be the most worn down key on their keyboard. There were other New Yorkers, chatting about this and that. It was actually a nice atmosphere, as each individual seemed excited about what was to come.
As the doors opened, I was greeted by an enormous, strategically placed painting by Andy Warhol. You couldn’t miss it. If you did, somebody would have grabbed you, scolded you for not paying homage, and forced you to genuflect in front of your canvas, on your knees. There were guards on either side. The guards were rather effeminate, and in the event of an armed heist would probably be as effective as an angry Cockapoo. However, the mere presence of a guard served to remind you that you were in the presence of forty five million dollars. I wasn’t bothered by Andy’s painting, but I was really disturbed by the price tag. It seemed like such a horrific cultural contrivance to deem any painting as being worth that much.
I proceeded on to the other rooms, and was thrilled by what I saw. Two beautiful sculptures by Rodin, amazing landscapes by no name artists, a whimsical Picasso, a beautiful still life by LaTour. It was so wonderful, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing: innumerable works of art that are normally inaccessible for the general public, here in front of my eyes. Were the Metropolitan Museum of Art to acquire some of these pieces, they would stand out in their collection.
Margaret and I walked and walked, spending as much time as we wished, gladly gazing at all the works. In one of the final rooms, there was a beautiful pencil drawing that grabbed me from thirty feet away. It was a soft, kind portrait of an old man. The eyes of the portrait glowed with a quiet contentment. I got closer, and read that the drawing was of Monet, done by his friend Renoir. To be honest, I usually dislike Renoir’s work, but this drawing was wonderful.
As we came to the final room, I realized that the foot traffic had been strategically directed in one huge loop, which brought you around again to… no other than… his holiness… drum roll please… Dandy Norwal. I mean Handy Wormhal. Agh, I drank too much caffeine… ahem… Andy Warhol. And there he was, and there were the crowds around him. Forty five million dollars. I reflected on the fact that the other pieces were just pennies in comparison. The Rodin bronze was going for $400,000, the Renoir drawing for $30,000. But, 45 million dollars for the Warhol. And then, the thought struck me… what would happen if I walked up to the canvas, and… peed on it. Yup. You read it. What if I just stood there, and peed on it. What would the guards do? Mind you, the whole deed would be quite difficult to pull off, but with determination and a bit of courage, it could be done. What would happen if you peed on a forty five million dollar painting? Would it be worth forty four million dollars then? Or, would it be worth 200 million then? Come on, while we are at it, perhaps it could be the first painting worth a billion dollars. In all honesty, this thought truly ran through my head. If you are offended by my writing these things, well then, maybe you should be offended that Jesus overturned the money changer’s tables in the temple. There, in the middle of Manhattan, in the most elite auction house in the world, I would strike one blow for all of the sane world. “Man Pees on 45 Million Dollar Painting” would be written on the cover of the New York Times. “Urine Trouble” would be the always witty New York Post, with a picture of me, in handcuffs, being escorted to the police car. Hong Kong would be chattering away, Moscow would be furious, Paris would be indignant, Valparaiso would be laughing really hard. I would probably be deemed insane, by some judge, and be escorted off to some distant penitentiary far away.
And as quickly as the thought came, it left. The thought only lasted about nine seconds, but oh, what a rush while it lasted.
Since that auction, I had such a steady stream of irritated thoughts. I’ve been bothered by just how contrived the art world is, by how political it is, by how money driven it is. Everything I came across seemed to reinforce my disappointment with the elaborate machine of the mainstream art market.
Kurt Vonnegut, in the final scene of his book Bluebeard, taught me a very important lesson in my art career. He wrestles with the theme of value, and art, and in the final scene of the book, the main character… you have to read it to find out.
I took care of my son Evan today, while Liam went to nursery school, and my wife Margaret took care of some administrative work for my art business. As I went walking on the quiet little Main Street in my town, holding my little boy Evan in my arms, the grey sky suddenly gushed with rain. I ducked under the awning of a small shop, and the owner came out and lent me his umbrella. “Return it whenever it’s convenient, don’t worry.” I raced home in the pouring rain, my son laughing and playing with the underside of the umbrella. By the time we reached the door, he had fallen asleep in my arms. I lay him down in the bed, beneath the window. I grabbed my sketchbook of Amatruda paper, and began to sharpen my pencils. Evan was so warm and content that he didn’t even stir in his sleep. As his head tilted, gravity pulled his mouth to the side, and his lips parted in such a funny way. The rain lashed the windows, and I drew.
Painting is about delighting, life is about delighting. Art delights in the full spectrum of living, of dead branches silhouetted against a bleak sky, of slugs leaving their trails across leaves, of a perfectly engineered spitball sticking to the neck of the kid across the room, of a well said insult, of a beautiful woman’s neck, in the back, just above the shoulders. I want to spend my life delighting in these things, not embittered by the dizzying labyrinth of human institutions. Though I have to say, it would have been funny if I had peed on that painting.