Being a visual artist today is a vow of poverty. Few go voluntarily into art for financial reasons. And those that just happen to meet with financial success, probably would have done even better on Wall Street.Â From experience I know that the the vision quest toward understanding conceptual art strips most of their petty materialist needs.
When I was 15 I badgered my father to buy me a Chrysler Conquest if I got straight Aâ€™s. (Itâ€™s one of my last and most embarrassing secrets.) He wouldnâ€™t have been risking much by agreeing because I was a poor high school student, but balked anyway for fear that I might make a miraculous turn-around. I didnâ€™t, and by the time I did turn it around in college I had moved beyond sports cars and into the monastery of the conceptual art world.
I often repeat a line that I borrowed from a professor: Â â€œI donâ€™t need to buy art. I own it when I know it.â€
This distinction is problematic for those outside art world, those not privy to nerdy conversations in boozy studio visits. People who hear and read about paintings selling for millions of dollars at auction have a difficult time squaring art’s abstract concepts with its concrete price tags.
My father-in-law is one of those people. He asks me regularly “how is the art business is going.â€ He means â€œhow much money do I make selling pictures,â€ but instead of opening my ledger book, I rattle off numbers from the Art Newspaper about weekend sales figures at Christies or Sotheby’s. I throw Damian Hirst and Jeff Koons in front of him like barrels in a street chase.
He likes numbers. He likes things more than concepts. Or he thinks he does. Father-in-law regularly sends us parcels filled with fun gizmos we donâ€™t have the space to store: clunky media docks with LCD screens and radios to park and enhance technologies that we donâ€™t use or have the inclination to manage. Sharper image gadgets that deionize the air, and stand-alone self-balancing coat racks that, should we use them, would injure us as we navigate to the bathroom at midnight.
This past week we received a package that contained what looked like an old-fashioned analog telephone but with an adaptor to fit into the speaker jack of a cell-phone. If worthless in its utility, the concept isn’t completely un-funny. After its idea is absorbed though, it is doomed to live life out in purgatory under the bed, not quite thing and not quite pure concept. like art, gifts have an aura that make their physical disposal unpleasant for its custodians.
The logic behind creating this novelty phone isnâ€™t dissimilar from the logic that inspires much of the work in the sculpture studios of any MFA program. The difference is, in the case of the conceptual entrepreneurs behind that phone, they have no way of monetizing their creation other than mass-producing it. So they do, and itâ€™s cheap, and my father-in-law buys it, sends it as a conceptual gesture, and finally I unsuccessfully try to curate it into my tiny apartment museum, wondering year-after-year what to do with it. Like my own personal Walter De Maria â€œEarth Roomâ€.
My wife and I recently had a baby. This baby lives in our nuclear submarine-shaped apartment. So something had to give, and it has. Our museum of impractical gifts has been forced to deaccess. Ebay, Goodwill , regifting and recycling. Out with a wine rack that â€œwhinesâ€ when you take a bottle out of it, out with the mounted fish that sings hillbilly songs, and out with the inexplicably hookless Green Bay Packers helmet-shaped head warmer that needs to be set on a shelf so as not to smash its internal hardware.
I disposed of these gifts last weekend, and as I did, my wife waxed nostalgic about the birthdays and holidays they signified. I told her, in true artistic spirit, she will always HAVE these gifts because she KNOWS them. That itâ€™s the concept not the material that is the real content. If they were useful they wouldn’t be haunting the space under our bed.
She sighed unconvinced and I continued to jettison.
I felt a little less burdened by purposeless clutter afterward. But alas our new family still remains shoehorned into a 400 square foot railroad apartment, and in spite of my vow of poverty and material austerity, I find myself daydreaming of a big house, one with lots of closet space, a dining room not doubling as a baby’s feeding room, and maybe even a back yard with a swingset.
I will never need a McMansion out in a treeless subdivision, for I am an art monk, but does musing about concept make me an apostate? Maybe one day when UPS figures out how to ship rooms from suburban homes, my father-in-law will put one in the mail for us.