Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Giveaway

(In process. An essay in my continuing series. Your thoughts are welcome... Oh, and Gary: thanks!)

My friend Gary Lloyd, the artist, stopped by yesterday. I have known him since the early 1970s, when I walked into a gallery to see his show and was appalled by what I saw. This was before I’d had much exposure to what contemporary American artists were doing; I had learned about Picasso, Braque and the Cubists in school. I knew a little about the Expressionists and the Surrealists, and I loved the intricate, poetic work of Paul Klee. But that was about as far as I had progressed in my acquaintance with art history. Gary, at that time, was working with a variety of media, and his gallery installation included such things as axes struck into the gallery wall, strange, unidentifiable objects jerry-rigged out of cardboard, glass and duct tape and smeared with thick coats of petroleum jelly, jars of oozing stuff that seemed to be still growing… I was confronted, brutally, with that familiar old philistine reaction: THIS IS ART?

I have always had one way to deal with things that poke unwelcome fingers into previously unexplored places in my mind and leave me nonplussed: I write about them. I was still primarily a poet at that time of my life, so I went home from Gary’s exhibition and wrote a twenty-five page poem. It helped me to… no, ”understand” would not be the right word; it helped me come to terms with what I’d seen, which left, along with the emotional turmoil of outright, furious rejection, a hundred different ideas and images racing through my mind. I had to radically rethink my world.

That was Gary’s first gift. I returned it in the form of the poem I had written, and was delighted when he responded to it with enthusiasm—and with a challenge: Let’s make a book together.

We did. The book was called “Bob Went Home”—its title taken from words I’d found scrawled in childish lettering in one of the pieces in the show: “When I was a small boy, Bob went home.” It was a piece of text that was at once extraordinarily mysterious to me—who was Bob? Was he responsible for all this dreadful mess? Was this his broken pencil and his ink-stained book? Why did he go home? Where did he live? Were his mother and father waiting for him? Had he done something wrong?—and at the same time strangely familiar and comforting, as though I myself were Bob, or had been, as a small boy. My poem, in a sense, was all about the Bob I had once been: clumsy and uncomfortable with my own body, forever making unintentional messes, lonely and unsure of who I was.

“Bob Went Home” had an axe handle for a spine. It had a corrugated steel cover, severely dented by the heel of a wielded axe. Its pages were made out of roofing paper and cotton pads, thick cardboard slices slimed with Vaseline and stapled together under grease-proof paper and covered with wire mesh. The printed text—my poem—was legible only if the “reader” engaged in constant contact, constant manipulation of the physical object. It was an ungainly mammoth of a book, and Gary and I spent a good few weeks assembling multiple copies, a few of which reached the hands of collectors and the display case of at least one museum.

It has been a good long while since Gary and I have been in contact, but we had lunch together a couple of months ago and vowed not to lose touch. And then, the other day, he came over with a gift, an art work he had made back in 1978, “Chomsky’s Boat.” The piece is a construction assembled out of four large, musty tomes—directories of world writers—lined up on a rough stand made of skinned tree branches and hollowed out in the manner of a dugout canoe. If it’s “about” anything, it’s about modern communication systems and primitive ritual; about the weight and heft of things, and their fragility; about paper and books and wood; about the lasting and the ephemeral, the physicality of the material world and the intangible, evanescent quality of the intellect and the human spirit.

It is a wonderful gift. And it gave me an entry point for this essay I have been planning to write for some time now, a kind of coda to the book I have in mind. Because, in this commercial world I have been thinking and writing about, the giveaway is the ultimate gesture of the artist, the spirit of generosity that, I believe, is at the heart of the creative impulse.

It’s not easy. The notion of professionalism—and, indeed, commercial success!—is a seductive one. Most creative people I know would like nothing better than to earn a decent living doing what it is they love to do. We have been tempted, too, by the seductive promise that if we only “follow our bliss”, reward will surely follow. Sadly, experience will teach us otherwise—not all, perhaps, but the vast majority of us: the rewards are anything but financial.

For a writer like myself, the outcome of this predicament is no worse than the hurt feelings and disappointment that go along with the familiar rejection slip. There is at worst a hardcopy to be filed away; and most of us, these days, are content to file our stuff away on hard- or external drives, or in cyberspace, where they cause no pain or inconvenience. For the artist who accumulates years’ worth of canvases or sculptural work, the problem can get to be a serious practical one of maintenance and storage.

Art works, too, are much more tempting objets to assign value to. Lined up there, on the racks, they remind their maker of the long hours that went into their making, the cost of materials involved, the price commanded by an (obviously far inferior!) work by a friend or neighbor. Their very thinginess seems to suggest that they must be “worth something.” But what? The unpalatable truth is that the heartless law of the market applies even to art works: they are actually worth nothing but what a ready and willing buyer will pay for them.

The giveaway provides a surprisingly satisfying answer to this particular agony. I know, because virtually everything I have written in recent years has been a giveaway. What I have written, I have posted on my blog for anyone to read, for free, at any time. In the past—and sometimes even still—I have been paid by magazines for articles; I have been paid for catalogue introductions by galleries and museums; I have even sold a few books off the shelves of Barnes & Noble. And it’s nice to get the paycheck. It’s very nice. It’s a kind of validation that satisfies the ego even as it swells the pocketbook, even if only by a little. But I was never able to count on it, let alone make a living.

The reward for the giveaway is very different, but in some ways more satisfying still. A part of it is the freedom it allows. For me, it means I can write what I damn please, without submitting to the whims and biases of an editor. And the experience of giving comes with the pleasant feel of having committed an act of generosity, no strings attached, no expectation of return. The return, if it does come—in the form of response from a reader, praise, or even gratitude—is the proverbial icing on the cake.

But then it’s easy to give something away that has no shape or substance, and can be reproduced an infinite number of times without sacrifice to its integrity. It’s much harder, understandably, to give away a painting or—as in Gary’s case—a sculptural work that is unique, and dear to the heart in the way an object can be. One artist of some note demurred when I spoke about the giveaway: it was, he thought, a disservice to the artist’s standing in the art world, one that threatened to diminish the work itself by undercutting its value. I wondered, though, in response, what kind of value a work might have, when left in the studio racks or in storage for years on end. I have been the fortunate recipient of a number of gifts over the years, and value them no less for the fact that they were given. Perhaps more so, given the added value of mutual affection and recognition.

A final, scatological thought, if I may be permitted. A good part of the successful creative process consists in maintaining a flow of thought, image, medium… A backlog of output/product/waste can easily stop up that flow. The giveaway is one way to flush out the system, creating physical and mental space for the next effort. Give it a try, it might just work for you.

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