How to Give a Shit no 13

Dear Reader,

My final edition of “How To Give a Shit” is a meandering farewell letter. It’s been one full year of the column, and a deeply valuable experience for me personally. I write this as I prepare to leave for shows in Europe and, ultimately, for a two-month residency in France with Maja. To be honest, I am fairly distracted while I write this, and wish I had a little more time. Among other things, I am distracted by the tragedy in Manchester, where we’ll have a day-long layover on Thursday before continuing on to Copenhagen. There’s much to look forward to, but ending this column is nevertheless a little sad for me. I was allowed to write whatever I wanted about the experiences in the art world that mattered most to me. I hope I didn’t waste the privilege.​

When I started, I suppose I meant it to be funny. Blunt. Non-academic. Skeptical but wanting to be surprised, and perhaps  urgently so. I desperately wanted to feel involved with work I encountered on an average night of art openings in the LA scene. Was there a shit to give about what I encountered, and, if so, where, and how, was I to give it?

​The truth of the matter is, I don’t actually like the art world very much. Why does this sound like a confession? This is in contrast to other areas in life, such as when I’m at work in the studio or approaching a snowy canyon with a frozen river cutting through it or when I have a great conversation with a small group of sincere and intelligent friends. But the art world–the market, the politics, the cliques, the whole shebang–seems to numb my better instincts if I spend too much time dwelling there. If I’m honest, when I started writing this, I was very much aware of my anger. The experience of being around art seemed too often spoiled and tarnished by the art world it existed within. I wanted to make more of an effort to remind myself of what I’m here for–as an artist and as one who experiences it–in the deepest sense. And I suppose I hoped that something about writing it might remind others why art matters to them, if, like me, they sometimes struggled to recall. I like to believe that I connected with a few of you, and to those who told me so, it meant far more than it would be cool to admit. It kept me motivated.

In addition to the readers, I have many others to thank, perhaps most importantly, Amber Imrie-Situnayake and Nazish Chunara of Venison Magazine. When I proposed the idea, it was a considerable risk to leave me to it, and one I can readily admit I had not yet earned. I hope that what I learned in a year has changed that, that I earned it retroactively.

Rather than enumerate the many things I learned, I only want to express the most important, which is this: Though I experience frustration toward the art world, the problem of not appreciating certain work, it turns out, was not usually a problem of the art, but a problem of my own thinking. There is also an important difference between looking at art as another artist and looking at it as a writer. Word people and picture people, I think, are very different people. To try to be both is a kind of semi-organized schizophrenia.

Word people will sometimes say, “if the art inspires dialogue, it’s successful.” Having written this for a year, I can see why someone would say that. Verbal communication can be a way of understanding something, and there is beauty and value in that. Yet my inner picture person says bullshit. The best work leaves you speechless. But I don’t know; maybe they’re both right. Writing this column has caused me to take greater responsibility for my thinking in response to the work I encounter. It has caused me to slow down. To widen my range. To seek to be taken out of my comfort zone in a way that, perhaps surprisingly, I am less forced to do as an artist. Is it any coincidence that most artists prefer work that looks a little like their own? Perhaps that should trouble us.

Two other things were going on in my life during the past year that acted along with writing this column in deepening my experience with art. The first is that, for most of last year, I dealt with depression. This created a need. The second, not coincidentally, is that I got more involved with poetry, reading and writing it. This sounds very emo. It stinks of therapy. It was. It is.

I heard author Paulo Coelho in an On Being podcast interview, in a fit of laughter, ask Krista Tippett, “what is this cheesiness everyone is talking about?” with his charming old man’s Brazilian accent. Am I too old to be adopted?

In my twenties, cheesiness seemed to be a cardinal sin. And although I still try to avoid sentimentality in my work where possible, I can’t help but feel sentimental about certain things as I age, and I feel good about this sense of openness. The edges are rounding in more ways than one.

I met a musician at a party once who said, “you know why the average person likes things that are sentimental?”

Why, sir?

“Because they have families.”

As I looked around the Brooklyn house party of artsy-fartsy types, drinks in hand, 20’s through 40’s, it occurred to me that most if not everyone here did not have children and houses in the suburbs where cheesiness reigns. I might have thought we were too smart for cheesiness, but, seen another way, it might be that we were simply not ready to see ourselves as part of the traffic, rather than simply stuck in it. Perhaps I was still at the periphery of society taking notes on its supposed inner workings, careful not to be duped. I was still doing what I could to avoid implicating myself in all its troublesome dimension, not ready to admit, as MOCA curator Helen Molesworth put it, that an AT&T commercial made me cry, just like it did the “average” person.

The point, for me, in being open about where I fail to relate to aspects of the art world, even as I admit to being a part of it, is that there is an ​opportunity  for liberation from what I perceive as its general set of expectations that don’t help artists, and to continue to challenge myself not to confuse my experience with the art world with the art itself. I crave intellectual freedom, and need it to embrace the kind of uncertainty and paradox in which I think the best art relishes. I hope this column reflected that. Perhaps the best way to give a shit is to not give a fuck. Can I say that?  I guess I just did.

Let me say thank you one more time. To the readers, to Venison, to those who influenced my thinking. Maja Ruznic, the best art looker I know. Kim Kei, the other best art looker. To everyone who ended up making cameo appearances, and submitted to reading themselves described. All the artists throughout who let me interview them and mine some of their most personal experiences. The gallerists who shared it when their artists were included. Those online who shared it in their social media. And everyone who gave this experiment any kind of chance to succeed along the way. I hope I didn’t fail to let you know how appreciated you were along the way.

Thanks, everyone.​